Change can happen with a vision and leadership

CarolinaFireJournal - By David Bullins
By David Bullins
10/22/2013 -

Nineteenth century French poet Auguste Barthelemy once said, “The absurd man is he who never changes.” Almost 200 years later, UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, “Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.” However, the fire service also has a slogan, “Two hundred years of tradition unimpeded by progress.” If we are not at least willing to an open dialogue on needed change, someone else will make those decisions for us, such as our city and county managers or elected officials. We have an opportunity to guide the change needed in our communities.


The fire service of 2012 may need to take the advice of Barthelemy and Wooden. One way to do that is to evaluate the programs offered by the department. Oklahoma State University offers a class within the Fire and Emergency Management Administration Graduate Program entitled, “Public Program Evaluation.” Dr. Will Focht, program director, suggests managers spend as little as two percent of their time evaluating their programs but should spend as much as 20 percent critically diagnosing program performance.

Organizational change occurs in the business world every day. Large corporations have been forced to implement change in an attempt to adapt to the needs of their customers. John Kotter (Professor of Leadership at the Harvard Business School) wrote an article, “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail.” He proposes change efforts have come in many forms and can be called many things. He offers terms such as: “total quality management, reengineering, right sizing, restructuring cultural change and turnaround” in his article. These terms are no longer confined to the business world but are now a part of the public safety environment as well.

Justify the Need for Change

Dr. Focht uses Kotter’s “Eight Critical Steps to Change” in his public program evaluation class. The first step is to justify the need for change and establish a sense of urgency. Businesses can use a loss of profits as justification; but the fire service must compare themselves to other agencies or benchmark themselves with a multitude of local, state or national standards.

Form a Powerful Coalition

Change will be extremely difficult without the organizational head on board and a commitment to excellence will be required of the chief officers — or as many as possible — within the organization. Kotter states, “This group never includes all of the company’s most senior executives because some people just won’t buy in.” The fire chief may ask, “Do we have managers or leaders filling these key decision making positions in our organization?” The core group within the coalition must be willing to function as a team, and not expect the fire chief to be the only driving force in the change.

Create a Vision

What are your organizational goals for the future; both short and long term? Have you developed a written strategy to get there? A nice, new three-ring binder with a fresh set of policies will not drive change. The leaders within the organization must accept the challenge and then set the direction. Keep the vision simple and to the point. You should be able to express the department’s vision in an elevator ride to the top of the nearest high rise building.

Communicate the Vision

Use several forms to get the information out to the troops. Presentations by the chief are fine; but the same message delivered by multiple officers will increase your efforts exponentially. Do they have the passion for the 21st century fire service? Communication is the key to implementing change within the department. Use existing meetings to talk about the vision, add articles in department newsletters; but most importantly “walk the talk.” The leadership of the organization must model the behaviors desired within the change. Failure is imminent if the leadership is not living the vision.

Empower Others to Achieve These Organizational Goals

The old ways of doing business are comfortable. Real and perceived barriers will stifle some of the new behaviors. Allow others to make mistakes along the way. The job may not be done exactly the way the leadership wants; but allowing the firefighters to step out and make their way has tremendous benefits in the life of the organization.

Plan For and Create Short Term Wins

Celebrate small successes during the process. People need, and expect to see improvements in the short term. If you wait until total success, you may never realize the change the department desires.

Consolidate Improvements and Embrace This Culture of Change

Eliminate programs that are not working. Hire or promote individuals that fit the new vision of the organization. Kotter states, “One bad succession decision at the top of an organization can undermine a decade of hard work.”

Institutionalize the New Approaches in Operating the Department

This step will most likely happen later rather than sooner. Studies indicate that significant change occurs slowly, peaks around year five, and continues at a slower rate afterwards. Realize it will take time to establish these new social norms. Change is coming; we either control it, or it will control us.


Kotter, J.P. (1995). Leading change. “Why transformation effects fail”. Harvard Business Review, March-April 1995, 59-67

David Bullins began his career with the Summerfield Fire Department. He then worked for 24 years with the Greensboro Fire Department and then five years as the Fire Chief with the City of Statesville. He now serves as the Fire and Emergency Management Department Chair at Guilford Technical Community College. Chief Bullins holds a Chief Fire Officer Designation (CFO) and is a graduate of the NFA Executive Fire Officer Program. He also graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a bachelor degree in Fire and Safety Engineering Technology and is currently enrolled at Oklahoma State University pursuing a graduate degree in Fire and Emergency Management Administration.
Comments & Ratings

Daily Fire / EMS News

A collection of Fire / EMS -related news from around the web!

Get Aggregated RSS

View the full Fire - Rescue - EMS News section
for more articles

About the Carolina Fire Rescue EMS Journal

Welcome to the Carolina Fire Rescue EMS Journal! We want to provide you with timely online information and breaking news that best equips you to meet today’s emergency challenges. Among our firefighting articles, you will find the latest in firefighter technology, firefighter training, leadership development and the newest products and services presented in an “Act Now” user friendly format.  We want to be your best online source for the fire and rescue information, resources and reviews you need.
Regional Impact, National in Scope
  • Delivered free of charge to ALL fire departments, ambulance bays, rescue squads and hazmat teams in North and South Carolina
  • Quarterly circulation includes: fire academies, industry related technical schools and colleges and all major apparatus manufacturers
  • Regional & National trade show distribution
  • Largest circulated regional industry trade publication subscription base