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It’s Lonely at the Top: How One Fire Chief Changed a Culture that was Steeped in Tradition
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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.

This 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.

I 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.

If 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 need.

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.

It 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.

An 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 found.

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 operations.

That process is underway. Chief Bashoor recently provided an update on how it is progressing:

The 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.

Putting 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 leadership.

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

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