Unless you live under a rock, you must be aware that 2009 Fire/EMS Safety, Health and Survival Week ran June 14-20. This year's theme was, "Protect Yourself: Your Safety Health and Survival Are Your Responsibility." Protecting ourselves is not something we have always been overly proficient at, but it's a skill that is developing with time.
The idea of responsibility in the fire service isn't something new by any stretch of the imagination. It is, or should be, expected of recruits, firefighters and officers. We do and must assume that people will know what actions to take and then be responsible to take those actions. Our SOPs, training and actions are all predicated on the idea that people will be responsible and do the "right thing."
However, as I began preparing to write this article, I realized that being responsible to protect oneself is not an easy task for everyone. The decision might be intentional, or sometimes done with little or no thought whatsoever. When we look at the 16 Life Safety Initiatives established at the Firefighter Life Safety Summit in 2004, quite a few deal with empowering individuals to be responsible or helping firefighters recognize what they are already responsible for. In particular the first, second and fourth initiatives dealing with life safety seem particularly pertinent this week:
1) Define and advocate the need for a cultural change within the fire service relating to safety, incorporating leadership, management, supervision, accountability and personal responsibility
2) Enhance the personal and organizational accountability for health and safety throughout the fire service.
4) Empower all firefighters to stop unsafe practices.
The recognition that there is something to learn from each death or close call has become clear. I'll often say during drills that most of us learn from bruises, either our own or someone else's, and if we get to choose I'd rather learn from someone else's. At the same time, it has become very easy nowadays to become the MMIC — Monday morning incident commander.
We look at video and photos, read reports, and think to ourselves how did they make those mistakes — it's obvious what’s going to happen. Before we know it, we’ve made the victim the villain. Throughout history that very act has not only created malevolent actions, it has seldom if ever lead to real progress.
I don’t mean to sound like an old curmudgeon but it often seems like my generation and those younger care more about the rules, then about being responsible for themselves and their actions. Instilling a feeling of self-responsibility in any department is a fundamental responsibility of leaders, official and unofficial. I was once told by a national fire service figure that he could tell a lot by what he called the "candy wrapper test." When called in to evaluate a fire department, he’d drop a candy wrapper on the floor and tell the chief to watch who picked it up, and who walked by it.
My fire department just brought aboard a few new recruits. As we begin our recruit training we will try to show them how we value responsibility. As recruits however it must be difficult to think that you have any real power. I remember when I started in my fire department I intentionally kept my mouth shut for the first year, soaking in what I could and assuming (often rightfully so) that I didn’t know enough to form an opinion.
How then do we welcome someone to a field that is inherently dangerous, often why they joined to begin with, and tell them they have the power, in fact the responsibility to mitigate that danger for themselves?
The answer is of course leadership and actions. Leading by example and making tough choices. Drills and SOPs allow us to impart knowledge to our members, but we must allow our members to share their knowledge as well. And ultimately we must ensure that we value and encourage responsibility not just to the organization, but to ourselves as well.
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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