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The Butcher's Bill
by Tom LaBelle
Sponsored by Globe

Firefighter mistakes: When should leaders step in?

In the fire service, we often allow others to accept 'full-responsibility'

By Tom LaBelle

I recently had the opportunity to spend a week in the woods with my son's Boy Scout Troop. As is usual for me, I see the corollary between the efforts of these young men and those of the young men and women within my fire department and our fire service. As is usual, I learned.

Beyond the joy of being outdoors and participating in things like hiking and swimming, the young men have an opportunity to fill various roles within their organization.

There were effectively three types of behavior we saw: correct, incorrect and unsafe. Unsafe acts received immediate action by adults (sort of the Safety Officers of the camp ground). But incorrect action was turned over to the older scouts for them to try their hand at leading.

There were several times that I was "redirecting" scouts who were heading down an unsafe path, or had already plunged headlong in that direction. If I had to get involved, I took the time to tell them why, or better yet, have them tell me why they were doing the "wrong" thing.

Their choice
As we discussed each item, they would tell me why what they were doing was unsafe. At the end I would tell them that they while they had averted a possible tragedy, they had in fact still lost something. They'd lost time listening to a lecture, when they could be having fun, and it was their choice and not mine.

Most often their unsafe acts were not malicious; nor did they see the consequences to those they might hurt, including themselves. They did not see the fear we leaders had of having to tell their parents that somehow they'd been hurt under our supposedly watchful eye. They maybe failed to realize that they, and not we, are responsible for their actions.

In the fire service, we often allow others to accept "full-responsibility." We often are willing to point to those who should have done the "right thing." But all responsibility belongs with ourselves; after all it's all we really control.

We must remind our people that they have the right to be safe, and we as leaders have a right for them take appropriate actions.

Being "that guy" who takes people, young and old, aside is a real drag. But if you've chosen to be a leader, then you've chosen to also be "that guy".

If they're not going to get hurt, let your people fail. They'll learn well. Let official and unofficial leaders fill in and clean up their own teams' acts. If you are clear in your words and actions, they’ll know what to expect. And when it’s unsafe, step in, even when it’s not popular.

Pushing buttons
There was one young man in the week who, well, let us just say he knows my buttons, and knows how to push them.

During one evening I saw him, for what seemed like the millionth time, walking across the campsite without shoes. I told him to get shoes on, but then told him to stop.

I brought over a chair and he and I talked for a moment. I asked him, "Why do you have to wear shoes?"

He replied, "So that my feet don't get hurt."

I told him that it wasn't really the reason. The real reason was because if he is hurt, the troop must pick up the slack, we would have to pack him out, and take care of his camp chores.

We would have to figuratively and literally carry him. I asked him, which of your troop do you dislike so much that you're willing to drag them down? I don't know whether he got it … but he wore his shoes the rest of the week.

About the author

Sponsored by Globe

Tom LaBelle serves as an assistant chief with the Wynantskill (N.Y.) Fire Department where he is responsible for training. He has been employed by the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs since 1995. Prior to joining NYSAFC, Asst. Chief LaBelle served as the legislative director for the New York State Assembly's Sub Committee on Fire Protection Services. He provides support for career and volunteer departments from the nations largest to smallest. He currently sits as a voting member on the NFPA 1720 committee. He is a certified fire instructor and fire officer. Chief LaBelle can be reached via email at Tom.Labelle@FireRescue1.com.



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