Ignorance, Apathy and Safety

By Dave Murphy

"It is impossible for a man to be cheated by anyone but himself," Ralph Waldo Emerson,  1803-1882.

At a recent fire department meeting, the fire chief was addressing his concern regarding the blatant disregard of departmental policies and numerous ongoing safety-related infractions by many of its members.

The list was quite long and each item cumulated in what the chief described as ignorance and/or apathy. He concluded that eventually someone was going to be injured as a result of the prevailing attitudes.

Two bewildered looking firefighters were sitting near the back of the room.  One whispered to the other, "What the hell is he talking about?" The other one defiantly replied, "I don't know and I don't care!"

The American Heritage Dictionary defines ignorance, apathy and safety as follows:

Ignorance – The condition of being uneducated, unaware or uninformed.

Apathy — Lack of interest or concern, especially in matters of general interest or appeal; indifference.

Safety — The condition of being safe; freedom from danger, risk or injury.

Ignorance, apathy and a poor safety record all have a synergistic correlation.

Think about the terms,  "I don't know … I don't care," or "One of us is gonna get killed if they don't do something about …" I am willing to bet that you don't have to wait very long to hear that in your fire station.

But in many of our minds, the bad things always happen to someone else or we have the attitude of "What can little ol' me do about this?" This pretty much describes the attitude of many firefighters today.

Many of us continue to live by the "ostrich theory." Our head is in the sand and our butt is in the air just waiting for someone to come along and kick it. 

Fire department members are often ignorant about important issues, and by their actions — or lack thereof — they surely don't care.  The negative forces usually perceive change such as the implementation of safety changes as causing problems and long for the good ol' days when nothing ever changed. 

This widespread phenomenon is not entirely their fault; fire administrators are typically not portrayed as great communicators. If the membership is not included in the decision-making process and given critical information that will ultimately affect them, what do you expect them to say?

Drastic changes
The fire service has changed drastically in the past 20 years and it will continue to do so. But as a result of this inevitable change, many departmental SOGs/SOPs are out of date, so any attempt to update procedures or guidelines should include input from the entire membership.

In every department, there are a chosen few that are always in the know. They are not always officers; they may be friends with the chief, a politician or board member. Rumors and innuendo permeate throughout the department and as a result, kill the buy-in necessary before most new concepts have a chance to succeed.

Discontent breeds more discontent; the cycle never ends. While the NIMS system is necessary to achieve a safe and efficient outcome at an incident, the traditional chain of command sequence regarding non-emergency communications is outdated and detrimental to the general efficiency and proactive safety efforts sorely needed in the modern fire service. 

Every good incident commander knows the adage "control the situation or the situation will control you." The same management philosophy should apply to the overall fire service management practices.

What steps can a department take to overcome this common problem?  All things, good and bad, start at the top. It is ultimately the chief's responsibility to open and maintain the lines of communication and to establish criteria that all shifts must confirm to. Safety is the business of everybody!

An "open invitation" inner department e-mail system is an excellent place to begin the quest for better communication. Well conceived suggestions and concerns can freely flow upward, bearing the name of the sender, which should extend into an invitation to discuss the issue further. The chief may be wise to post the following sign on his/her door: This office has an open door policy (but you may not like the answer).

The chief must open and maintain a direct line of communication to those that are expected to get the job done when called upon. Only then will widespread ignorance and apathy be overcome, allowing the entire department to safely and efficiently move forward.

Dave Murphy retired as assistant chief of the Richmond, Ky., Fire Department and is currently an assistant professor in the fire safety engineering technology program located at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. Dave is the eastern director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association and also serves as the health and safety officer for the Harrisburg, N.C., Fire Department.


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