Positive Repercussions for Firefighter Safety

By Tom LaBelle 

Repercussions and reactions, when used well, can be very effective in conveying a message of safety within a fire department. I discussed the idea of the "red hot stove rule" last month and the impact of immediate and consistent repercussions for actions. One of the member comments in response to the article asked what I believe to be a great question: 'Can there be positive repercussions?'

We are probably all raised on the idea that all repercussions are negative. That if we take certain negative actions, then we will face the consequences of those actions. Those consequences are assumed to be negative. Consistency in repercussions was a big issue covered in the red hot stove rule, but again the tendency in the fire service is for negative repercussions.

At the end of the day, repercussions for our actions can be — and often are — negative. But it doesn't have to be like this. I sometimes think that because it's always easy to write an SOP or rule governing the negative reactions to a person's action that we want to discourage, that's what we as officers tend to focus on. "The kids are misbehaving — punish the kids!"

But we also have lots of opportunities to provide positive reactions or repercussions to positive activity — but as a group, we don't tend to do so.

I'm not sure if it's just a "firefighter thing," but it seems to me that we're never meant to give the impression that we're looking for a pat on the back. The reality is that people do need, and often crave, positive reinforcement. Leaders in the fire service do need to find ways to encourage people and give positive feedback for positive actions.

Missing out
Overall we are missing out on a great deal of opportunity if we solely rely on negative reinforcement of safety policies. Certainly a great deal of learning happens from negative outcomes. I often say that we learn a lot from bruises, preferably someone else's.

Sharing negative repercussions can be very helpful in our learning process. The idea of sharing those negative outcomes has been exhibited in things such as FirefighterCloseCalls, NIOSH reports and Web sites such as FirefighterNearMiss.com.

But as helpful as negative repercussions can be, what we should always realize is that if we don’t provide positive feedback for safe behavior and activities then there is little or no incentive for our people to act in the way we desire.

They may not be "unsafe" but we shouldn't be surprised if the initiative is not there on their part either. We also need to keep in mind that there really isn't such a thing as no feedback. A lack of feedback can best be described as neutral – but the reality is that neutral feedback is still itself feedback.

If we ask our members to perform in a certain way, then they should be able to expect some reactions to their actions. If we see them doing something poorly and do nothing (neutral feedback), they think we don't care. If we see them doing something well and continue to show no reaction (again, neutral feedback), then they will once again assume we don't care.

In both cases, why would our members put any additional effort into safety if they think we don't care? And if we don't show we care, why wouldn't they bother to be unsafe again?

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