Have You Been “Departmentally Institutionalized”?


Oh man. Not feelin' it today for some reason. I definitely need a cup of regulah to get me going. Grab yerself some too and have a seat here with me.

Teaching gives someone a unique opportunity that not everyone else in a given field has. It gives a person the chance to look around and see how other people do things. It gives them a chance to meet new people and have discussions in which information is shared, tips and tricks are discussed and new ideas are formulated. Obviously you don't have to be an instructor in your given field for this opportunity to present itself. In fact, in the private sector it is most commonly called networking, I believe. Getting together with others that have similar job descriptions and chatting them up. Sometimes the purpose is to get feelers out for a better position. Sometimes it's to see what the competition is cooking up and sometimes it's just to see how other people do things. The difference between the fire service and private industry is that if we don't ever want to network or expand our horizons we really never have to whereas in business you almost certainly will have to endure some outside training sessions or conferences at some time. What I mean as it relates to us in the fire service is that once you get hired by a department you get sent to an academy. If your department is not large enough to run their own you may get sent to a neighboring department for theirs or to a regional training academy. Once you succesfully complete the academy and return to your company, and assuming you have all mandatory certifications for your department, you never have to attend any outside training again in your career unless you really want to. There are plenty of firefighters I know who have been content to stay a basic-level firefighter and have done only the classes and drills required of them while they are on shift. They never attend outside classes, read the trade journals, read fire service blogs or web sites or attend conferences where, outside from the actual training, you can meet firefighters from other places and chew the fat with them. This leads to what one jake I know describes as "Departmental Institutionalization."

So what is "Departmental Institutionalization"? Well, basically, it means a person has been born into an organization and never left. They receive all their training from one spot which in turn leads to the development of difficult to break organizational mores and deeply held personal beliefs as to the right and wrong way of doing tings. This can often be a detriment not only to the individual but to their company and organization as well. Some would say that being trained in "the way of the department" for which you work is essential and a good thing. And I would agree to a point. I certainly want the candidates coming onto my job to know how to pull and re-pack our hoseloads, what the job is of each seat on the apparatus is, our running procedures etc. But not for their whole careers. I don't want our training division to be the sole source of information for the candidates or anyone else in our department. What if there's a better hose load? What if there is new technology out there? What if there is new research that can help us perform our job better, but no one knows about it because everyone is content to sit back on their laurels and just go to drill every shift and never take the time to invest in themselves and their career away from work? That's one aspect of "Departmental Institutionalization". The other can be even more damaging than just rolling up inside your department's cocoon and never coming out. Unfortunately it's one that we may have much less ability in influencing.

The other side of "Departmental Institutionlization" comes from on-high. Sometimes organizations breed a level of rigidity into themselves that members are afraid to stretch for fear of discipline, humiliation or a combination of both. Sometimes a department becomes so narrowly focused on itself that it never looks around to see if anyone else has any good ideas. New ideas or methods are not encouraged, and when someone does brave the waters and tries to prsent something new the organization sets up road-blocks like submitting proposals in triplicate, or meetings that continuously get rescheduled or the worst form of blow-off there is; your proposal that you spent hours on, made into triplicate, had notorized, applied for a patent and even found the guy in charge of that particular area of your organozation's operation and handed it right to him, wound up with coffee stains and jelly donut on it in a stack that never got looked through. Think it doesn't happen? I found a proposal I had written a year later in a box withother paperwork I was asked to shred. I had never heard anything on the proposal after I had submitted it despite numerous inquiries as to where it stood. Really makes someone want to put forth the effort again, huh?

Maybe the most damaging form of "Departmental Insitutionalization" comes from the ever looming threat of discipline. This almost always results in individuals scared to perform outside of what has been narrowly defined for fear of paper in their file. This then leads to organizational paralysis and stagnation because everyone just keeps performing in the way that has always been expected and what has been proven to be "safe". This can range from the way reports are completed and submitted all the way to operations on an emergency scene. This job is too dynamic and ever-changing to attempt to define techniques and methods as the only "approved" way of doing things.

I was teaching a class on RIC operations once. It was a class for operating personnel and not for candidates or those members in the academy. As such I wasn't planning on having to do much in the way of actually presenting "new" material and really having to begin from the ground up. I figured most students would have a good foundation in the techniques that were going to be covered. Throughout the two-day course I saw one member from a department I didn't know much about continually struggle. Not so much that he couldn't do what was asked of him but that he just seemed a couple steps behind everyone else. Just before lunch on the second day I went to talk to him during a break. I kind of gently told him I noticed he was having trouble keeping up with everyone else and asked him if he was ok or if there was a problem. The answer he gave me was not what I was expecting. As it turns out this person's department had exactly one approved method for moving a downed firefighter through the interior of a building, up a hole in a floor or down a ladder from a window or other opening. One. For each of those scenarios. No matter what the conditions, complications or difficulties. One. Approved. Method. Because of this many of the techniques we had been using during the class were brand new to him. He had never seen them, heard of them or been shown them so he had no foundation on which to build like the other members of the class. He was learning it all for the first time. Oh, and because that was the way it was in his department, he paid for this class himself because the department would not. Paralysis and stagnation in an extremely fast-paced and dynamic job. Pretty much polar opposites right? Like two magnets you try and push together? Just doesn't work.

So where does that leave us? Well, if you're a product of your department's inbreeding program, start looking around. It's not hard. You must already be doing it to some extent if you're reading this post. Pick up a trade magazine and read through it. Start looking at other websites, there's 20 or so just to the right of this post that are great places to start. Maybe, just maybe, go to a class somewhere other than your department and while you're there talk to and listen to the other firefighters that are there. Then, if you find something that may be of use to your organization, bring it back to your company. Start there. Maybe it'll catch on and before long it's a department standard. But don't be satisfied there. Come back to it a little while later and see if you can improve upon it.

If you feel like our straight-jacketed friend up there in the picture when you're at work, well, I'm not going to lie to you, you have to make a choice. Are you going to try and do something about it or are you content to be a robot? It can be a dangerous and slippery slope trying to get new ideas and methods looked at. May even run the risk of setting your career back a little bit. But it's up to you to decide how important it is to try and get things to change.

This video is short, only about three minutes or so, but if you're in this situation it is well worth the look. Jason Hoevelmann over at A Firefigher's Own Worst Enemy had it up on his site and I thought it was great. Take a look.

Derek Sivers: How to start a movement.


So there you have it. Maybe you're not the guy that needs to be the one to start the revolution. Maybe you just need to be the second nutty shirtless guy dancing like an idiot. Think about it.

Now getjerbutts of 'da Tailboard and go start dancin'!


1 Comment

  • I am a new think-tank of an organization that is very strong but has not accomplished it's 40+ year old mission. I was searching the net on how to put my mesage in a capsule. The term Organizational Paralysis is just the right term I need. Thank you for sharing your wisdom. You are immortal.

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