Friday, November 30, 2012

The Bureaucratic Personality - Book Smart and Fireground Stupid

We all understand the fireground can be a very dynamic working environment. If you've been around long enough to know, new fire service veterans will often say "that no two fires are the same" or there is no such thing as the "routine fire" today. This can be especially true if you are charged to work for a fire department that has an "all hazards" mission statement.
All hazards mitigation in fire suppression, technical rescue, hazardous material response, terrorism and/or pre-hospital advanced life support can make the job challenging. The fire service of today has become a very dynamic place for firefighters to operate and survive in. The citizens for which we are charged to protect often hope we have all the answers for their declared emergency. That being said I find it hard to believe with today's demand for a battle ready firefighter, that we still see candidates being hired for a position that are primarily book smart. The problem with the one dimensional, book smart firefighter is he or she will eventually become eligible to test for a promotional examination. I bet you can see where this article is heading, these testing candidates are usually top of the leaderboard when the exam results are posted. Eventually our next generation of firefighters and future officers are now working under a command officer who is more concerned with following correct procedures (the rules) than they are with getting the job done correctly. Columbia University Professor; Robert K.
Merton, introduced back in 1968 the term called "Bureaucratic Personality". When reading Merton's work, he wrote that these workers are usually capable of handling routine situations effectively but are frequently incapable of handling a unique problem or an emergency. Thorstein Veblen used the term "trained incapacity" to characterize situations in which workers have become so highly specialized, or have been given such fragmented jobs to do that they are unable to come up with creative answers to the problems encountered. We have already established that the fire service is a very dynamic place to work, so much so that we often encounter unique or specialized emergencies in a magnitude of different disciplines. A common problem faced with the bureaucratic supervisor is the resistance to seek advice or suggestions from fellow firefighters / fire officers. Without tapping into the knowledge base of the more educated or experienced peer in a specific arena, the operation will often fall back on what is safe for the bureaucratic supervisor's career. Resistance to change often leads to what many outsiders see as fireground incompetence. It is a vicious cycle with this type of behavior and can lead into bureaucratic enlargement. This occurs when officials or administrators of an organization decide to push for larger budgets and justify their growth with taking on more tasks, functions or disciplines for the workforce.
Taking into consideration the strong push in the past for an increase in fire prevention, compounded by the focus on training personnel on "additional disciplines" we now provide as an all hazards fire department... the simple task of putting out a fire can become the high risk / low frequency event for some. When a department is faced with a challenging emergency and comes up short, don't be too quick to point the blame. Organizational behavior has a far bigger role in finding the root cause rather than targeting the end user. The environment for which firefighters and officers are subjected to can breed many internal and external problems. Once these traits have been instilled in an organization, it can drive a strong resistance towards change. This resistance can be based from Maslow's consideration for security. But eventually the bureaucratic leader will reach a performance level that is beyond their knowledge base, fireground experience, and/or capabilities. Hence the common referral as "Book Smart and Fireground Stupid."
Remember brother and sisters.... "Prepare as though your life depends on it!" Because when the tones drop and it is time to gear up and go to work, your investment into the preparation for battle is all you have to bring you home. Have a Safe and Happy Holiday Season. Billy


  1. To quote a very good friend of mine, Captain Dave LeBlanc of the Harwich (MA) Fire Department...

    Bing-freaking- o!

    Leo Stapleton wrote in one of his books (I can't remember off the top of my head if it was 30 Years On The LIne or Commish) that one only has to be smart a few times in their career.

    It doesn't help that most FD's and personnel committees look for the "piece of paper" vs. real world experience when it comes to weighing the qualifications of candidates for promotion.

  2. Excellent article Billy ... I support the vernacular "Bing-Freakin-O" of my NE brothers to describe your accuracy on this article.

  3. Thanks guys... I have had some great feedback from a diverse group of fellow brothers! Stay safe my friends. BG