Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Is Our Culture Critically Endangered?

Battle of Gettysburg cannon
Cemetery Ridge/Pickett's Charge area
I recently watched Barry Mosses' TEDx talk: Preserving endangered languages. I found the talk enlightening on multiple levels, including diversity and inclusion. With regard to leadership, however, I began thinking about the wildland fire service and the whether or not the culture change that occurred following the South Canyon tragedy is endangered.

Watch Barry's talk about preserving his culture, and then read why I am a bit concerned.

In July 1994, fourteen firefighters lost their lives in the line of duty on Storm King Mountain. Following their deaths, federal wildland fire agencies commissioned the Wildland Firefighter Safety Awareness Study (often referred to as the TriData study). This study resulted in hundreds of recommendations, two of which were the creation of Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center and the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program (WFLDP).

The NWCG Leadership Committee was formed to develop and administer the WFLDP. I am humbled and honored to be the longest standing member of the committee which began in February 2002. As I reflect up back on the years and all the group and its followers have accomplished, I do not do so with rose-colored glasses.

The WFLDP has made a difference. Studies have shown a change in culture. I know we changed the venacular (our language). I hear words like command presence, duty, respect, integrity, bias for action, mission-driven culture, etc. But something feels different. One individual who knows our business very well, who shall remain nameless, questioned whether or not Leading in the Wildland Fire Service was our high water mark (maximum level or value).

For those of you familiar with the Gettysburg Staff Ride, or the battle itself, the area on Cemetary Ridge marks the farthest point the Confederate soldiers reached during Pickett's Charge. Having attended the Gettysbury Staff Ride twice, I want to make sure we don't suffer the same fate as the Confederate Army and end up losing the battle.

View of Cemetery Ridge, site of Pickett's Charge
View of Cemetery Ridge area, site of Pickett's Charge
Our culture is not dead...yet. This is a battle cry to action. Those young leaders who championed the program in the beginning are nearing retirement or have retired. Some, like Shawnna Legarza and Chris Wilcox, have become fire directors. The operators that once sat around the room—like the elders in the circle—have taken over roles as agency representatives on the NWCG Leadership Committee. Unfortunately, the chairs they emptied aren't near as full as they once were. Tight budgets and a stretched workforce has taken a toll on the synergy that once existed.

Leadership dies when innovation stagnates. The WFLDP was not developed for the older generation. It wasn't a once-and-done solution for one fire. We are not here to assimilate each person into one way of thinking. We are here to address present needs and serve those today. Who knows that better than those at the "tip of the spear"—the line firefighter.

I challenge you to find a way to be a part of the Leadership 2.0 movement. Be someone who takes what was done nearly 20 years ago and moves it into the furture. Make the program your own by stepping up to become involved!

Contact your agency representative today to find out more.

Wildland Fire Leadership Challenge - Digging a Little Deeper

Pam McDonald is a writer/editor for BLM Wildland Fire Training and Workforce Development and member of the NWCG Leadership Subcommittee. The expressions are those of the author. 

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