Changing the Culture of the FDNY

By Shannon Pieper

For Firefighter Nation

When FDNY Commissioner Sal Cassano first met Ron Siarnicki of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), the FDNY was reeling from the tragedy of September 11. So many officers had been killed that day, it was the equivalent of 4,400 years of experience disappearing. “Some people didn’t think the department could come back,” Cassano says. “But Ron did.”

That was the beginning of a long relationship between the FDNY and the NFFF, one that Commissioner Cassano—speaking Monday evening at the Firefighter Life Safety Summit in Tampa—credited with changing the culture of the fire department and, ultimately, saving lives. He shared the department’s progress in part because “now we’re ready to pay it forward, to help everyone else,” but also because he believes that if cultural change can be enacted in the largest fire department in the country, it can happen anywhere.

Convincing the Masses
Not surprisingly, when as chief Cassano began working with the NFFF to stress the importance of safety, he faced some pushback from FDNY members. “One of the things we had a problem with was [the attitude], ‘Is safety going to trump everything?’” he says. “And the answer was yes—but we’re still firefighters. We still have people to save. You can still be brave, dedicated, but we just want you to do it a little safer.” Cassano believes that this approach, echoed by leaders across the department at every opportunity, was key to gaining buy-in with the members.

Another key: ensuring that the safety effort was carried out sincerely, with one goal—making members safer. “When people understand that their safety, their wellbeing, the wellbeing of their families, is important at the top levels of the department, you start to get buy-in,” he says. “Every speech I give, every speech the chief gives, the most important thing we stress is safety.”

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