It’s Lonely at the Top: How One Fire Chief Changed a Culture that was Steeped in Tradition
By Chief Ron Siarnicki | Fire Protection Engineering
The saying "it’s lonely at the top” was probably first uttered by a
fire chief trying to make changes in a department steeped in tradition.
At times, I had that feeling as the chief of the Prince George’s County
Fire/EMS Department (PGFD), a big and busy combination department that
borders the Nation’s Capital. I found that one of my biggest challenges
was changing the way we trained and assigned paramedics.
was something that we had to approach differently in order to continue
to provide effective ALS coverage over a large county. My plan for
getting this done broke with tradition and impacted labor agreements.
Not everyone agreed with the direction and there was resistance. But
after careful analysis we implanted the plan that is still the model
used by PGFD more than 15 years later.
came up through PGFD, as did its current chief, Marc Bashoor. Like many
of your departments, it’s a proud organization with a long reputation
as an aggressive fire department. Changing the way fire suppression is
done has the potential for meeting a lot more resistance than creating
paramedic engine companies with cross-trained firefighters. Chief
Bashoor is dealing with that right now.
you’re going to have a chance in being successful in changing the
culture of an organization, the change can’t be occurring only for the
sake of change. You will not get a buy-in from the troops if all it’s
really about is a fire chief or other leader staking out their territory
for ego gratification. It has to make sense and be driven by a true
In Chief Bashoor’s case, two
things came together that made it extremely clear change was needed – a
fire that nearly killed two young firefighters and science that
questioned long standing suppression tactics.
was just three months after Marc Bashoor was appointed chief that two
volunteer firefighters assigned to a truck company found themselves
ahead of a hose line on the main floor of a small house with a wind
driven fire below them in the basement. In a matter of seconds, the
front door slammed behind the firefighters. They were trapped in a cell
of super-heated gases and flame. One firefighter jumped out the front
window, the other had to be pulled through the front door.
initial investigation into the fire that left one of the firefighters
with life changing burns uncovered significant operational concerns that
covered command and control, crew integrity, safety, and training.
Rather than give the report a cursory review and return to business as
usual, Chief Bashoor convened a Safety Investigation Team (SIT). He
invited fire chief level support from several outside jurisdictions as
well as representatives from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco,
Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and National Institute of Standards and
Technology (NIST). The chief instructed the group to provide
recommendations, solutions, and costs associated with any problems they
At the same time, Chief
Bashoor had his staff review reports from previous incidents. This
exercise revealed that very few recommendations from these reports had
ever been implemented. There was a belief in the department that it
would be business as usual and this report would suffer the same fate.
But Chief Bashoor knew the time had come to listen and act on both the
science and the findings in all these reports. He just had to find
sensible and meaningful ways to implement these concepts into fireground
That process is underway. Chief Bashoor recently provided an update on how it is progressing:
flow path science incorporation was a paradigm shift for this dinosaur
of a department. Amidst significant resistance from old and
new—including yours truly at first—PGFD undertook the arduous task of
researching and implementing transitional attack and flow-path science
into their general orders and procedures. The NIST modeling capacity
made many believers of the flow-path argument. It really became an
opportunity to teach old-dogs-new-tricks. Young and old, our 840 career
and 1,500 plus volunteer members undertook internal and external
training to posture the Department into a position to fully adopt the
transitional attack as a way of doing business, when it is the quickest
safest way to put water on a fire. There were casualties along the way,
most in folks who left because they didn’t want to be part of "this
sissy” operation. It was critical that our command team learn the
science and carry the message at every opportunity. The final
implementation of transitional attack and the understanding of the flow
path science is incorporated in program guidance and general orders that
are in their final formatting—over three years after the fire.
out the fire quickly while making life safety the priority is the goal
in aggressive firefighting. PGFD is showing that to be aggressive
doesn’t mean there’s only one way to do things. We can change for the
better and still be aggressive firefighters. It just takes a combination
of good science, common sense, dedicated firefighters, and committed
Chief Bashoor has worked
hard to prove that aggressive firefighting and fireground safety are
not mutually exclusive terms. He has been a valued partner in the
National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s ongoing efforts to reduce
firefighter injuries and line-of-duty deaths.
The National Fallen
Firefighters Foundation’s mission is to honor and remember America’s
fallen fire heroes, to provide resources to assist their survivors in
rebuilding their lives, and work within the fire service community to
reduce firefighter deaths and injuries.
Chief Ron Siarnicki is the Executive Director with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation
The Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) is a professional society for fire protection engineering established in 1950 and incorporated as an independent organization in 1971. It is the professional society representing those practicing the field of fire protection engineering. The Society has over 5,000 members and 100+ chapters, including many student chapters worldwide.