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Model behaviour: Managing change in the fire hall

Pick up any fire-service publication and you find that our profession is affected by global, technological and economic forces. There is no such thing as a first-class department, in the absolute sense, because a department that is highly effective in one area may be inefficient in another.

April 28, 2008
By Les Karpluk

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Lewin’s Change Model and Positive Organizational Scholarship can help fire chiefs with the process of change.

Pick up any fire-service publication and you find that our profession is affected by global, technological and economic forces. There is no such thing as a first-class department, in the absolute sense, because a department that is highly effective in one area may be inefficient in another. For this very reason the fire service must continue to change and evolve in order to serve our communities and staff in an effective and efficient manner. Managing change is easier said than done, and many departments have progressed through a change process without clearly identifying the who, what, how and why, of the change process.

The responsibility for change in the department rests with the fire chief and the management team. For our purposes, the term “change” will refer to planned change. Change for the sake of change will only frustrate and demoralize staff, which then creates barriers to effective change management for the future.

Fire chiefs should not expect staff to initiate change in the department, rather, they should expect staff to report for duty and do their best during the change process. Numerous models exist on planned change and an examination of Lewin’s Change Model and Positive Organizational Scholarship can assist the fire chief in the change process.

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Lewin’s Change Model
In the 1950s, physicist and social scientist Kurt Lewin created Lewin’s Change Model. This model is based on a three-step process for successful change known as unfreeze-change-refreeze. 

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Unfreeze: This is the stage during which the organization is prepared to accept that change is necessary. This is where the beliefs, values and attitudes of members need to be identified and will include the recognition of existing behaviours of members versus those behaviours desired by the organization. In this stage the fire chief must closely examine the mission, vision and values of the department and set the stage for change.

Change: The stage during which staff need to understand why change is occurring and the role they will have in the change process. The fire chief must take a leadership role in this stage, as staff need to have an active role in identifying the new behaviours, attitudes and values of the department. This is the time to review the department’s existing mission, vision and values and, if necessary, take the department through a communicative process to create new mission, vision and value statements.

Refreeze: The third stage of Lewin’s model identifies the supporting mechanisms put into place to reinforce the new behaviours, attitudes and values. At this stage staff are embracing the change process and are also incorporating the change into the daily operations.

A simple breakdown of Lewin’s change model can be applied to a fire department implementing a mandatory seatbelt policy.

Unfreeze: The chief and the occupational health and safety committee (OHSC) recognize that the department’s current culture does not reinforce the wearing of seatbelts. Because the chief and the OHSC recognize the value of wearing seatbelts, a communication strategy is implemented to educate staff in the department regarding the use of seatbelts.

Change: The chief and representatives from the OHSC meet with staff to inform them of the value of wearing seatbelts and solicit feedback. Staff may support the concept and understand the necessity of wearing seatbelts, and, through the change process, may request a six-month probationary period to ease into the new behaviour.

Refreeze: A department SOP/G is created “to buckle up” before the apparatus leaves the station. For the first six months, the officer demonstrates leadership by reminding personnel on the truck to buckle up. After the six-month period members are held accountable for not buckling up.

Positive Organizational Scholarship
Our departments are living organisms and personnel provide the good, the bad and the ugly. If our personnel have a mental image of the department being dysfunctional and an unhealthy work environment, they will find the behaviours and attitudes to prove themselves right. Conversely, if personnel look for those things in the department that are healthy and creative, they will find these behaviours and act accordingly. Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS) promotes member involvement in creating a shared vision, which, in turn, creates a powerful image of what the department can be. The vision becomes the guiding light for the department, where decisions are based upon the shared vision.

Cameron and Caza (2005), while writing for the Michigan Ross School of Business, identified POS as, “the investigation of what goes right in organizations (rather than what goes wrong), what is life-giving (rather than life-depleting), what is experienced as good (rather than bad), what is inspiring (rather than depressing) and what elevates individuals and systems (rather than diminishes them).

To create change in the department while implementing the POS model, the chief can adhere to five basic phases.

Inquire: This is the information-seeking phase during which the subject of change is determined and personnel are engaged in the information- gathering procedures. The focus of change must be vital to the department and personnel so it takes on positive attributes.


Best practices: Personnel look at the best practices in the department and expand upon them. New ideas may be discovered, gathered and recorded during this phase.
Envisioning the future: By analyzing the subjects of change and best practices, the department is ready to envision the preferred future. This is where the department
identifies new service levels for its community.

Plan: The phase during which the design and delivery of ways to create the future
is finalized. The plan is implemented, carefully monitored, evaluated, and revised regularly.

Commitment: By being active participants in the process, members of the department will be committed to the envisioned future. If new levels of training have been identified to achieve the envisioned future, it is the responsibility of the chief to take the necessary steps to provide this training. On the other hand, personnel in the department must be committed to take the training to achieve desired competencies.

Fire departments do not change because new systems or processes have been put into place. Change occurs because personnel have a say in the change process, understand the envisioned future and are allowed transition time. Lewin’s Change Model and Positive Organizational Scholarship are two tools to identify the who, what, when and why of the change process. The change process requires significant effort from all members of the department. Yes, change is good and our communities deserve nothing less from the men and women in the fire service.

Les Karpluk, CFO, BAppBUS: ES is Fire Chief of Prince Albert Fire and Emergency Services. He is a graduate of the Certificate in Fire Service Leadership and Fire Service Administration programs at Dalhousie University and graduate of the Bachelor of Applied Business: Emergency Services from Lakeland College. Contact him at l.karpluk@sasktel.net .


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