The Red Hot Stove Rule
By Tom LaBelle
I was lucky enough to spend last week in the Southern Adirondack Park with my son's Cub Scout pack. As a den leader, I've enjoyed watching them grow up and I've actually learned a lot from them. They often astound me with acts that don't seem intuitive for adults, but clearly are for these young men.
One of my requirements was to assign one of the troop to be safety patrol leader, not unlike a safety officer at the emergency scene. When we first got to camp and started handing out and explain assignments, I assumed that this assignment would receive only slightly less enthusiasm then the latrine duty. I was wrong. The boys took turns accepting this responsibility eagerly and did their level best to accomplish its goals.
I tried to explain the safety patrol leader's role. At first, I told them it was a lot like a "hall monitor" at school — which got me quite a few sideways glances. I went on to explain to them that the safety patrol leader needed to keep an eye out for unsafe activity or situations and call it to the attention of the individuals involved and the leaders. I also told them that sometimes they might be doing the unsafe act, and that they should simply do their best to recognize it, stop it and move on. Sound familiar?
Even after the explanation, the boys seemed encouraged, enthused and willing to participate in this safety role. The desire was both intuitive and sustained throughout the week. They didn't scold each other or lord the position over another scout. They simply cared about each other's safety, and the importance of the role.
Were they perfect? No, but they had fun and realized that safety was part of the way they could sustain their activity. Where does this enthusiasm come from, and where does it go to as we age?
I'm not sure where the peer pressure begins to make safety uncool, but clearly it happens. I'm sure there were some points where the boys were unsure if their actions were right, or if speaking up was warranted. But one very clear part of helping to sustain the level of safety was adult support. As long as the adults, especially the leaders, made it clear that we wanted and needed safety to be a priority, it allowed the boys to maintain their efforts.
There's a joke that I've heard attributed to Chief Edward Croker, FDNY, from the turn of the last century. A young boy is standing at the firehouse, looking at the shiny engines and the Chief asks him, "Boy, what do you want to be when you grow up?" The boy responds, "Chief, when I grow up I want to be a fireman," to which the Chief says, "Sorry son, you can't do both."
I'm not sure whether many of us in the fire service ever grow up all that much. For me, many of the firefighters in firehouses today are not all that different in their wants and desires than the kids in my den: They want to achieve something, feel proud of their activities and not get hurt.
One of the primary things we did last week as leaders with those scouts is to follow the "Red Hot Stove Rule." If you've never heard of it, it's a pretty easy concept, but one that is not always followed: if you walked into a room, saw a wood-burning stove that was red hot and touched it, you'd get burned. Pretty simple — but not always followed.
Here's how it works:
1) Everyone knows the rules: the stove is red hot, you see it's red hot, and you know what's going to happen if you touch it. Safety rules should be like this. Everyone needs to know the rule but if you don't tell people about it, don't get mad at them if they get burned.
2) Infractions of the rules are dealt with immediately. There's no guesswork if you touch the stove — you'll get burned. If people understand that there are repercussions for their actions on a timely basis, it helps them remember to take the right actions.
3) There are negative enforcements of the rules (which in the case of the red hot stove rule, you get burned). If the repercussions are negative, then the rule really isn't being enforced. This will make people believe you really don't care about the rule.
4) Everyone gets treated the same. If you touch it, you get burned. It doesn't matter who you are or if you're the son of the leader: rules are rules and they're meant for everyone.
By providing consistent rules that the boys understood and knew would be enforced quickly and easily, it took the pressure of them and actually allowed them to fulfill their roles and have fun.
The same application can be used at the firehouse. If our members know that all rules are followed and enforced, then they know that they can easily support the rules as well. All it takes is some leaders.