Improving Fire Department Culture May Not Be Easy, But It Can Be Done

Improving Fire Department Culture May Not Be Easy, But It Can Be Done

When the Memphis Fire Department hired Gary Ludwig as its new deputy fire chief in April of 2005, morale was at an all-time low. Ludwig was brought in with clear goals: Improving fire department culture and rebuilding the EMS portion of the department.

Eight years later, those goals have been met, he believes.

Ludwig spoke Tuesday morning at Fire-Rescue Med about the challenges he encountered after taking over the organization with more than 1,900 employees.

“When I first got to Memphis I thought it would be a couple years,” Ludwig said. “… It has been a fantastic opportunity to affect change and I haven’t looked back.”

To meet his clear-cut mission, Ludwig enacted a comprehensive plan that detailed everything the department needed to modify. At the heart of the mission was putting EMS on the same level as fire suppression with everyone inside the department.

“The reality is we are EMS agencies that sometimes go on fire calls,” Ludwig said.

You have to embrace the EMS mission or else it will fail. And it all starts at the very top. It can’t be EMS vs. suppression. We are all on the same team. So it was a cultural change of working together instead of us vs. them.

Ludwig went over numerous steps implemented that influenced the new vibe inside the department. One of the most impactful was the decision to put paramedics on equal footing as firefighters. That meant equal pay, equal titles and equal ranks. “There was no reason paramedics should be held to a lower standard than firefighters,” Ludwig said.

“This is a fire department, isn’t it?” he said.

Ludwig also installed a new policy, called the “12/12,” that mandated paramedics spend 12 hours each 24-hour shift in an ambulance and the second 12 hours on the engine. He also forbid what he considered rampant bad-mouthing and mistreatment of paramedics, hired a new medical director, reestablished his departments EMS training program, instituted marketing initiatives to spread the departments successes, and put together a recruiting effort to fill needed positions with new blood.

He even went so far as to change the color of ambulances to red so they would be the same color as the fire engines.

Every step taken was aimed at improving the working conditions for everyone in the department. But to do it, he needed to send a message that EMS was not second-class.

“Changing the culture took time,” Ludwig said. “It was a gradual improvement. It didn’t happen overnight.”

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