Paradigm Shifting: Getting Outside Your Comfort Zone

By Fire Chief (Ret.) Richard B. Gasaway

Paradigm: A set of assumptions, concepts, and/or practices that constitute a way of viewing reality for the community that shares them. Paradigms often develop over a long period oftime and become entrenched in the minds of individuals. Then, occasionally, along comes a new idea, a fresh approach, an “out-of-the-box” concept that defies the existing assumptions and beliefs.

Paradigms set boundaries and limitations on creativity. Instead of thinking enthusiastically about all that can be achieved when the grip on previously held beliefs is released, many find themselves nuzzled in the comfortable warmth of long-held practices that should never change. A paradigm shift means there’s a new game, new rules and new boundaries.

A Paradigm Shift on the Horizon

One of earliest signs that a paradigm shift may be coming is when some “crazy” person starts saying strange things and messing with all the rules. This crazy person challenges our existing rules and suggests there may be a better way of doing things. New rules are offered.

Those faithful to the existing paradigm (i.e. comfortable in their way of doing things) resist the ideas and reject the new paradigm. They attack the outsider for asking such ridiculous questions and they say things like: “That’s impossible!” or “We don’t do things that way around here” or “We tried that before and it didn’t work” or “We have policies/rules that don’t allow us to do that” or “How dare you suggest we’re doing anything wrong.”

How a Paradigm Changes

Here is the 12-step process that outlines how a paradigm changes.

  1. Some members of the community are becoming dissatisfied with the existing state of affairs.
  2. Some members see the existing paradigm is becoming less effective.
  3. Members of the community begin to see the situation unfolding and they begin to lose trust in the old rules.
  4. Turbulence grows as trust in the old rules erodes.
  5. A paradigm shifter steps up and offers a new solution.
  6. Turbulence continues to increase and the conflict with the existing paradigm becomes even more evident.
  7. Members of the community start to become upset with the old rules that are not working so well any more and demand solutions.
  8. A new paradigm is offered that solves some of the problems the old paradigm could not.
  9. Some in the community accept the new paradigm as an act of faith.
  10. As more adopt the new paradigm, momentum builds.
  11. Turbulence subsides as the new paradigm solves the problems.
  12. The community accepts the new paradigm.

The fire service has seen many paradigm changes that have made the work safer and more efficient. Large diameter supply lines, bunker pants, self-contained breathing apparatus and thermal imaging cameras come to mind as just a few.

The Future

The fire service is in the midst of some new paradigm shifts.

For those paying close attention to these changes, it’s easy to see they are working their way through the twelve-step process. For example:

Structural Fire Attack

Like it or not, science is revealing some new information about how structure fires should be attacked. This one is particularly interesting because the paradigm shifters (the researchers) offered the solutions (step five) before the first four steps had an opportunity to develop. Now the community is in an uproar about the “new science” of firefighting. Some have already embraced the changes and are doing fire attack differently. Others have taken a hardcore stance of resistance and are launching attacks on the paradigm shifters and the paradigm embracers. This is one shift effort worth paying close attention to.

Pre-hospital Preventive Care

This paradigm shift is an interesting animal because the fire service is a secondary player in this shift. Changes in health care are going to push for more services to be provided in-home by qualified medically trained professions. And the community paramedic concept will become part of the answer. This will change the mission statement in many fire agencies in the years to come.

There are many more paradigm shifts in our midst and more on the horizon.

This story appears in the July/August edition of The Volunteer Firefighter magazine, just one of many benefits of FASNY membership.