After finishing the newspaper during a recent flight, I found myself browsing through the free airline magazines in the seat. After deciding that I probably didn't need the nose hair trimmers or mahogany toe jam cleaner set in the Sky Mall catalog, I moved on to the airline's magazine, strategically placed next to the barf bag.
The opening article was from the CEO of the airline, and he made three interesting points that I've seldom seen addressed so clearly in the fire service, even though they are extremely relevant to us.
Now, unless you live under a rock or intentionally boycott every news service, you are probably aware that some airlines were recently taken to task by the FAA and had to ground aircraft for safety concerns.
Hundreds of planes were pulled from service daily, causing thousands of travelers being left stranded in airports across the country. Most had a bewildered attitude; annoyed at the travel delay but glad that safety issues were being taken seriously.
To address the issue, the CEO made three points in his article:
Safety of his customers and employees are and need be the first concern.
The fault is his.
Safety is a matter of trust.
Safety, responsibility, trust: these are three goals that the fire service often discusses, but some have a problem meeting them.
The fire service is inherently about safety and prevention through solid code enforcement, public education and safety programs to assist in making citizens safe, before anyone calls 911. But the safety of citizens goes beyond that. It also requires that we do all within our powers to keep our employees/firefighters as safe as possible to ensure that our customers get what they need. Many consider the growing safety culture within the fire service to be self-centered, but it is anything but centric thinking.
Unfortunately it is often the employees, rather than the employer, who calls for greater safety. However, if more employers (mayors, commissioners, chief officers) understood that providing a safe work environment allowed for a higher quality of service and therefore happier customers, they'd jump on the bandwagon. If your firefighters don't feel safe, they cannot reach out to the same extent to help others. Their ability to help greatly increases when they feel safe, and just as importantly when they know their supervisors — and their supervisor's supervisor — have made their safety a priority.
Responsibility is a word that many in the fire service use but don't apply to themselves. Imagine if everyone took responsibility for their own actions and mistakes and stood up and discussed them to help others not travel down the same path. Programs such as the Firefighter Near Miss Reporting Program are perfect examples of responsible actions. Owning up to our mistakes, airing them and committing to helping ourselves and others not make those same mistakes is true responsibility. I tell our crews during drill that if we get to the fireground and they can’t accomplish a task assigned to our company, that is my fault and my failure as an officer. If they don’t feel safe, the same applies.
These professional and organizational missions of safety and responsibility help us create a culture and atmosphere of trust. We teach firefighters to be familiar with things such as PPE, tools and equipment, building construction and fire behavior. As they become familiar with these tools and concepts through training, they actually learn to trust themselves and their "gut" feelings. As firefighters work with us, they become familiar with us, how we work and what our basic concepts are. By exemplifying safety and responsibility, we allow the people we respond with to develop a trust of us.
All of these things combined — safety, responsibility and trust — help create a very strong team that can reach its fullest potential. In the fire service, this means we can provide even greater service for the citizens we serve.
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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