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The ‘c-word’ and firefighter safety

How to empower firefighters to stop unsafe practices

By Billy Hayes

“I knew they shouldn’t have been in there. I guess I should have spoken up.” I recall this statement being made by a surviving firefighter when I was participating in a firefighter line-of-duty death review. I struggled with it and asked myself, “Why didn’t you speak up? How could you not?” The reality of it is that I knew the answer already and it was simple. The “c- word,” the one that I hate the most: Culture!

Our illustrious long tradition of doing what we’re told and not asking questions has led to more trouble than we can account for. You can imagine the above statement has been made countless times over the years when one of our brother or sister firefighters were injured or lost in the line of duty.

But if we care so much about each other, then why do we let this continuously happen and what does culture have to do with it? We never hesitate in asking why we have to do station duties and other less attractive activities — but often fail to ask the serious questions when we know something is going wrong on the emergency scene.

In one scene in the movie “Gettysburg,” based on the novel “The Killer Angels,” Union Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain has an interesting discussion with his younger brother, Thomas. He focuses on the obedience and recognition of rank, of not calling him Joshua and favoritism among the ranks. When Thomas says that General Meade’s son was an aide, Colonel Chamberlain responds by saying there that is nothing as close to God on earth as a general on the battlefield.

In my observations, doesn’t that kind of apply to a chief or incident commander on the fireground? We trust they have the best decision-making skills and experience of anyone on scene. However, I haven’t met any chief or IC yet that has more than one set of eyes or more than one brain.

Questioning authority
This column focuses on Life Safety Initiative #4: All firefighters must be empowered to stop unsafe practices. If firefighters follow this Initiative, I know some folks will take it personally. “They are questioning my authority,” they may say.

Absolutely not! Look at it this way: they are questioning the conditions and actions that they are seeing that the incident commander may not be. I guess the best way I can describe this Initiative is comparing it to football. The coach sends in the play, but if a player sees something different in the offensive or defensive schemes of their opponent, they may call an audible to make sure they can adjust accordingly or at least discuss it on the sideline before the next series of plays.

In the fire service, don’t we call this risk management? The difference in football is that the players and coordinators are empowered to adjust the plan for success of the team. And I know not every time the play may work, but the players are at least allowed the freedom to engage in the decision-making process.

However, the fire service has a much different hierarchy that discourages firefighters to question company officers or even company officers to question the incident commander.

When I used this analogy once in a presentation I was giving, one participant said, “Yeah, but football is a game, and firefighting is a matter of life and death.” My response was simple. “Doesn’t that make it all the more important to use every aspect of data and knowledge?”

A good leader empowers his or her crew to observe and utilize data for a successful outcome — you need to get over the fear that your leadership or authority will be questioned.

Our SOPs and/or SOGs, as well as the incident commander, drive our operations. However, understanding that not every incident may be the same, and to adjust accordingly within the provisions of our plans, is acceptable. Coming to terms with the fact that a good leader fosters and cultures an environment where decision-making is shared is critical.

Modifying actions
Where could this Initiative come into play? First, for example, heavy smoke conditions on side C of the structure, which isn’t so obvious on the A side where the incident commander may be located, prompts you to consider modifying the course of action you’ve been directed to follow.

That observation and/or any modification must be communicated to the IC or the entire operation could be compromised. If you’re hesitant in making that decision, perhaps communicate your findings with the Safety Officer for their evaluation. This is an example of Initiative #4.

Of course, it can also be applied to something as simple as telling the driver of the fire apparatus not to pull out of the station if everyone is not buckled up. True leaders will recognize that this is for safety and not out of insubordination.

To the other extreme, this doesn’t mean that firefighters should question every single decision that the company officer or incident commander is making. And I know where this has the potential to go astray. There must be a balance and understanding that when an individual on the fireground sees an unsafe practice, they step up and say something.

During presentations, I often ask this question: How many safety officers are there on an emergency scene? Until I hear, “everyone,” I keep asking the question. Essentially that is exactly what this is. Training and empowering your personnel to be observant and vocal when needed. The key to the success of Initiative #4 is having communication and trust between you and your crew.

So now that I have taken us on a whirlwind tour, I’ll give you a final thought in terms of Gettysburg. It has been well-documented that Confederate General James Longstreet questioned General Robert E. Lee about the decision to stay and fight at Gettysburg. General Longstreet had a relationship with General Lee where he could do that.

However, Lee’s pride and previous success distorted his decision-making, which cost the Confederate Army. Incident commanders have every responsibility to listen to their company officers and deviate from what their inclinations may be if a better outcome is desired.

How many times have we felt there was a better way to have done things on the fireground but were afraid to step up out of fear of repercussion. Or, how many times has someone spoken up to you, only to brush if off because “you” are in charge and changing your decision may be a sign of weakness?

Communicate, trust, empower, and check your ego at the door so Everyone Goes Home!

Billy D. Hayes retired as fire chief for the City of Onalaska, Wisconsin, in 2020. He previously served as the fire marshal for the University of South Alabama, vice president of university relations for Columbia Southern University, the director of community affairs for the District of Columbia Fire and EMS Department, and as the fire chief and emergency management coordinator for the City of Riverdale, Georgia. He is a graduate of Georgia Military College and Columbia Southern University, the NFA’s Executive Fire Officer Program, and has a certificate in local government management from the University of Georgia. Hayes is a past president of the Metro Atlanta Fire Chiefs Association and past chairman of the board for the Georgia Firefighters Burn Foundation. He authored the Public Fire and Life Safety Education chapter of “The Fire Chief’s Handbook” (7th Edition). Hayes is a member of the Fire Chief/FireRescue1 Editorial Advisory Board. Connect with Hayes on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.