Apparatus accidents, mistakes and bad decisions
Investigate incidents that damage fire equipment or apparatus before disciplining those involved
In recent years, a number of fire departments have started taking a hard line on workplace accidents. Some departments impose discipline from formal reprimands to unpaid time off when apparatus drivers incur damages to vehicles under their control.
Is it appropriate to impose these kinds of sanctions on a driver when an accident occurs? Some fire department leaders clearly believe it is – if damage is done, then someone must be held accountable. Others disagree, citing the unpredictable working environment of the fire service and the fact that minor vehicle mishaps have always been part of the job.
One of the problems with coming to a consensus on this issue is the fact that the term “accident” is often used for anything that may occur which involves damage to the vehicle.
The word accident implies that something just happens that is largely outside of anyone’s control. “Accidents happen,” people say, although others argue that every accident is ultimately preventable. Which of these approaches is true?
In a class I teach called “Accidents, Mistakes and Bad Decisions,” one of the slides shows an enormous boulder that has rolled down a mountainside and crashed into a house. Was this incident preventable? One might argue that the builder was negligent in constructing the house on a slope where a rock might come loose. On the other hand, the house had been there for several hundred years before the rock smashed into it.
Responsibility versus accountability
In the fire service, sometimes accidents just happen. I remember one time when my crew was out all night responding to calls due to hurricane-force winds. As we considered how to evacuate a three-story building where parts of the roof were coming loose, the wind suddenly shifted and tore off a large section of roof that came flying right toward us and our rig. The three of us managed to escape injury, but all of the ground ladders on the side of the engine were damaged.
It would have been crazy to hold the engineer responsible for the outcome that night. He did everything he was supposed to do, but the combination of a hazardous condition and bad luck resulted in costly damage.
Most damages to vehicles are preventable, and when those damages result from repeated mistakes or conscious bad decisions, then there must be some accountability. Where that accountability should lie is a different question.
For example, consider a situation where a driver cuts a corner too tightly and clips a parked car. Who should be accountable for that event?
Obviously, drivers are responsible for their actions. But what if that driver was poorly trained and ordered to drive the rig before feeling completely confident in doing so? In that case, shouldn’t those responsible for training and assigning that person to the role also have some accountability for the outcome?
Having a poorly trained driver make a mistake that leads to damage is a very different situation than one in which the driver is consciously driving too fast for the terrain, who is distracted or who is even showing off when the damage occurred.
Apparatus damage accountability
To have a policy where every incident that results in damages to fire apparatus leads to identical disciplinary action seems misguided.
When people make conscious bad decisions or are reckless in their actions, then discipline is warranted.
But if someone has made a mistake with the best intentions and efforts, imposing the same discipline might be counterproductive. Fire service leaders should want people to own up to their honest mistakes and learn from them. If mistakes only result in harsh discipline, members are more likely to try to hide their mistakes rather than admitting them and offering them as an opportunity for everyone to learn to do better.
When negative outcomes occur – damage to apparatus or equipment, injury to a firefighter – it is in everyone’s best interests to take the time to investigate and understand, rather than just react.
People are responsible for their actions. But sometimes a number of people contribute to an incident that may be blamed on just one. Sometimes the system itself is flawed and needs to be changed, something that cannot happen if every negative outcome is treated as a personal failure. And sometimes, accidents do just happen.