Firefighter Education Group

Experience Based Education for Firefighters Thirsty for Knowledge

Harmonic Change: How to Combat
“We Hate Change in the Fire Service!  Can We Please Change the Way We Do Things?”


By: Michael J. Lopina

Wait. What? You hate change but you say we need to change the way we do things? But you don’t want to change. But you demand to eliminate the same old same old and make changes immediately! So, we change. And then you complain about the changes. It’s mind numbing. And so, it goes in firehouses across the country; probably the world. It’s nothing new. It was there when I entered the fire service 30 years ago and it was there 45 years ago when my dad entered the fire service and it was there 100 years ago when my great-great uncle entered the fire service. The more things change, the more they remain the same. 150 years of tradition unimpeded by progress! Pick a cliché.

The problem of change in the fire service is a common complaint. Either we do too much or not enough. Very rarely do I hear of change that is widely acceptable; especially when it comes to broad policy and operational changes. Why is this? It is the fault of all of us: both management and labor. We demand change and then management changes; usually abruptly. Or, management tries to be progressive (or regressive) and changes simply for the sake of change, whether to make a perceived improvement or punish the members. Either way, it is sudden and operationally lifechanging and it disrupts our otherwise steady routine. We, like all other humans, are creatures of habit. We like our routine. We like our way of doing things, sometimes too much, which leads to complacency, which then leads to trouble with a catastrophic incident. And when we get into trouble, there are abrupt, reactive changes which are overwhelming. When this sort of change happens, we are most likely to resist. Why? Because we also hate to admit fault or weakness and we get very defensive and resistive when we are told we need to change our ways due to doing something wrong. It happens every time an event occurs. We circle the wagons and say that the outsiders just don’t understand our way of doing things, etc, etc. This sort of change leads to internal problems such as lack of confidence in leadership, mistrust among labor and management, mistrust between members of labor, complete upheaval of operations which leads to more confusion and mistrust, and the aforementioned circling of the wagons which promotes mistrust of members outside the affected department. None of this is good for our profession.

Harmonic Change

We can make changes in the fire service and we can make them so that most everyone will be satisfied and embrace the changes. If you do things well, some people might not even notice change occurring! What is this sorcery I speak of? It all has to do with music. Good music sounds good because of harmonic rhythm. Harmonic rhythm is the rate at which the chords change and the duration in which chords progress. Some chords progress slowly over a few bars while others change in a half or even quarter beat. By definition, some chords are slow, some fast, some are long, some short, some repeat and some don’t. The end result is some kick ass music! If you don’t compose the music correctly and just throw a bunch of notes on paper, you probably won’t get that sound you want. Translation for us: You will have a rightfully annoyingly noisy bunch of firefighters to deal with. Changing for the sake of change without a valid reason or guidance and abrupt changes are toxic and will always be met with resistance.

We see the results of this now more than ever. Because the fire service has always resisted change and has a problem with evolution of operations and tactics, the flood of information at our fingertips as a result of science and technology has resulted in whiplashingly abrupt, revolutionary changes (non-harmonic) rather than gradually coordinated, evolutionary changes (harmonic). The best examples are the distorted perversion of the UL and NIST results to fit into the inexperienced or dinosaur playbook. The department that never evolved or paid attention to the changes on the fire ground over the last 30 years suddenly realizes, “Wow! Things have really changed here!” and they make abrupt changes based on half, or even zero truths, extrapolated from the studies (IE- All fires must be knocked down from the outside before entering or we should never ventilate). Or, there’s the department that remains steadfast in their ways and refuses to evolve which leads to the younger inexperienced members taking matters into their own hands and instituting changes based on those same half or zero truths. Ultimately, we are left with a disjointed, non-harmonic, bad sheet of music that nobody wants.

Harmonic changes are changes that members will accept whether subtle (long and slow classical music) or immediate (fast and short heavy metal). The success lies in the ability to move from concept (idea) to paper (SOG) to performance (operation). First, what is the concept or need? Is this a change we can institute gradually (classical), sooner than later (classic rock) or right now (heavy metal)? We need to have the right chords for the music. The process of why we are instituting a change must also be thoroughly explained with examples of necessity cited. Firefighters, especially the younger generation, crave the “whys” of what we do. Explain the why properly and for what reason and you will receive better “buy in”. And we should allow input to an extent; especially with the gradual change. By allowing for this input and involvement from the membership with the gradual changes, we will achieve more “buy in” when it is necessary to institute immediate change, as the members will already have your trust and a better understanding of why an immediate change is needed. Moving from concept to paper is the next challenge. The Standard Operating Guideline is how we write out the music. This is where we write the sheet music and make it flow in a way everyone can appreciate and accept it. Of course, as with anything, how we think it looks on paper and how it sounds once completed are two completely different things. This is why it becomes necessary to sound it out and take a sampling before it is released to the masses. It may need some tweaking. And, once it is released, it must be revised and re-released (updated) as time goes on; remastered. And sometimes that copy eventually needs to be destroyed and replaced with a new piece. You can’t leave an SOG in place detailing how to feed the horses when you haven’t had the horses for over 100 years.

Topping the Charts of Change

The goal is to make change cohesive and to flow harmonically. You want all aspects of the fire service to evolve and remain relevant to the times and to also see into the future. When the organization remains progressive and harmonic, change will occur naturally and allow for prediction of future needs, thus staying ahead of the need for sudden change whether it is acceptable or not. Evolution of operations and culture within the fire service allows for greater flexibility and excellence within an organization. But revolution is abrupt and can be clashing which leads to confusion, animosity and mistrust. Harmony is found in evolution and rhythm.

It Runs In The Family

It all started for me in 1973 just before I turned 3 years old. Humphrey Chevrolet at the corner of Keeney St and Chicago Av in Evanston, IL was on fire and I had a front row seat in my living room watching fire and smoke billow from a bowstring truss roof car dealership. My dad was a freelance photographer for the company that printed the local paper and he took off to take pictures while stayed inside the comfort of my living room to watch. He apparently wanted to be on the other side of the camera because he tested for Evanston and joined their department in January of 1974 before being injured and having to retire in 1980. While there, he did it all. He was assigned to the squad which responded to every fire in the city and would occasionally be detailed to one of the truck companies to be the tillerman. When the department became one of the first in the area to start a paramedic program, he was one of the original paramedics. Unfortunately, the paramedic duty is what caused him to go off the job. But in his 6 years, he responded to some of the biggest fires in the city’s history. When he wasn’t working, he found time to respond with me to our own make believe runs!

Only 9 years old when he laid up, I didn’t fully understand how much he missed it until I was older. Even 39 years after leaving, he is able to remember fires he went to as if they were yesterday. Other than the PPE and lack of SCBA’s back then, not much has changed tactically since then. We still respond today and do the same things they did back then: drop lines, make entry, search and ventilate as needed. Just as door control and proper and timely, coordinated ventilation is needed today, the same held true back then and he talks of fires where it was done both properly and improperly. Nine years after his career ended, mine began as a volunteer in Bellwood, IL in 1989. I moved around to different departments and fire districts in the Chicago suburbs until being hired full time in October of 1994 at the Wood Dale (IL) Fire Protection District. While on Wood Dale, I was fortunate enough to be given an opportunity to serve as an instructor and the assistant training officer. During my time at Wood Dale, my first son, Patrick, was born in 1996. In 2000, I was again fortunate to advance my career when I was hired by the Lockport Township (IL) FPD where I currently serve as a Captain on an engine company and commander of the Airport Rescue Fire Fighter (ARFF) Division.

While I never pushed my son’s to follow me into the fire service, I was always hopeful that they would but I also supported them for whatever profession or occupation they chose. Patrick for longest time wanted to be a Veterinarian which was fine by me! Sometime in 2013, he had an abrupt change in mind and became eager to follow me after all! After completing EMT-B school and while in paramedic school, he attended the regional fire academy and attained his Basic Operation Firefighter certification. Currently, Patrick works as a part-time firefighter/paramedic at a neighboring fire district. Unfortunately, his and my current station and shift assignments don’t allow us to respond to fires together but that’s OK. As I write this, he has recently tested for Lockport so there is hope for me that I may someday have the chance to work by his side before I retire in a few years. He is also on staff at the State Fire Acdemy as a Basic Instructor (Stoker) so maybe we will do some classes there together in the meantime! While he has started his journey to follow in Dad’s and Grandpa’s footsteps, the middle son is a year and half out from completing his commitment as a United States Marine. His goal on getting out is to follow us into the fire service which will be awesome! The third and final boy, however, has decided to take advantage of my open mind and pursue a career in Law Enforcement following in the footsteps of his maternal grandfather. Oh, well. 2 out of 3 ain’t bad!