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Values bring meaning to safety efforts

It’s critical for us as leaders to clearly communicate to all in the department why safety must be our most valued priority

By Tom LaBelle

I’ve written before about some of Dr. Stephen Covey’s writings. If you haven’t read any of his work, I (and a lot of people much smarter than me) suggest you do. Dr. Covey has a plainspoken and straightforward way of identifying problems, and he’s good at establishing a clear path toward improvement. And if there’s one thing for certain when it comes to matters of safety in the fire service, it’s that there’s room for improvement.

One item that Dr. Covey has discussed is that people often mistake managing for leading. I think this is often true in what we do in the fire service. We attempt to manage and direct when it comes to safety issues, and often only see limited success for the effort. Too often this is due not to a lack of management, however, but a lack of convincing, genuine emphasis placed on safety by department leaders.

There’s an old story about a group of loggers clearing a path through the woods for a new road. They are working their hardest and making great progress. Suddenly the leader of the project shows up, surveys the area, notices something amiss and says, “We’re in the wrong woods!”

The managers reply, “Shut up, we’re making great time!”

As firefighters, there are a million important things to do each day, and it’s easy to let time-consuming duties seem more significant because of the sheer time we devote to them. This is why it’s critical for us as leaders to clearly communicate to all in the department which are our true priorities, the ones that are most valuable and must receive the most attention, care and detail. And safety has to be our most valued priority.

As individuals interested in safety, we must remember that value signifies importance and importance motivates action. If we want to see action from department members, we must convey that we value safety in a way that exceeds simply saying it or passively planning it into the day’s activities — it must be a value that we exude in action, word and deed.

Too often we recognize the need for safety, but we let it slide because it isn’t established as an organizational value, beyond occasionally paying it lip service. If you went to most officers and asked, “What’s our greatest challenge?” you’d get some variation of safety in their replies. But if that same leader doesn’t truly value it enough to take the steps to motivate his organization around the concept, then it will remain a toothless gripe.

Coach John Wooden, who just recently passed away, is quoted as saying, “Never mistake activity for achievement.” If we’re just going through the motions on safety because it’s the current politically correct thing to do, then we’re only achieving the former.

Don’t get me wrong — something is better than nothing, and even a stated interest in safety helps to some degree. But true change won’t, can’t and never has come to any group until its values change.

We’ve all seen things that were listed as “important” within our departments, but weren’t valued by the leadership or organization as a whole. Most of us can find at least one SOP/SOG that is seldom followed or enforced.

True, well-established values are in every organization and are easy to find. Values elicit strong reactions from the members — positive when followed, negative when not. But too often that same intensity of reaction doesn’t apply to safety issues.

True leaders help an organization find, define and refine values. This isn’t an easy process. It takes time and a lot of energy to be consistent in both action and words, but with time values change. And typically, it takes strong leadership to change them.

So if we wish to be serious about safety, we need to be serious about our values, and be honest with ourselves. Since most departments are part of a larger municipality, establishing values is often a difficult and complicated process. But while there are many stakeholders that sit outside the fire department, it is our lives on the line, and therefore our responsibility to be aggressive in making sure our values best reflect our priorities. And safety, as always, sits as priority number one.

Learn how to make your department a safer place in Tom LaBelle’s FireRescue1 column, ‘The Butcher’s Bill.’ LaBelle provides tips, advice and opinions that balance accomplishing strategic objectives with making sure every firefighter goes home.