Trending Topics

Competence vs. compliance: Know the difference for firefighter training and discipline

To be competent in the profession is a skill; compliance will always be a choice


Organizations need to have mechanisms and leadership with the capacity to recognize when occurrences of non-compliance or deviation occur, and use judgment, discernment and organizational values to determine an appropriate course of action.

The trials and tribulations of the fire services require firefighters, at every rank, to use critical-thinking skills and move forward with decisive action. However, whether in the training environment, on the fireground or at the firehouse, issuesin broad terms – will arise. These issues will vary in scope, magnitude and consequence, but will ultimately come down to a simple matter of competence versus compliance.

This is the problem and solution for this discussion: A simple system can be used to prevent, address, correct and promote behaviors.

There is a critical distinction that needs to be highlighted here: Qualified does not mean competent. When we discuss competence, we should parse words. In fact, the distinction is so critical that OSHA has defined both:

  • Competent: A competent person “is capable of identifying existing and predictable hazards in the surroundings or working conditions which are unsanitary, hazardous, or dangerous to employees, and who has authorization to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate them.” [29 CFR 1926.32(f)]
  • Qualified: A qualified person is someone who “by the possession of a recognized degree, certificate, or professional standing, or who by extensive knowledge, training, and experience, has successfully demonstrated his ability to solve or resolve problems relating to the subject matter, the work, or the project.” [29 CFR 1926.32(m)]

This seems clear enough; however, definitions that seem straightforward in writing can become vague and problematic in real-life application.

Qualified vs. competent in action

You may be a certified, qualified person. However, if you are not competent, you have disqualified yourself. Example: You may be a certified, qualified paramedic. This certification connotes competence, but let’s face it, if you do not remember how to deliver transcutaneous pacing for bradyasystolic cardiac arrests, you are incompetent as a paramedic.

This rationale can be applied to any position, from firefighter to fire chief. Passing a certification test to become qualified and demonstrate competency once will not suffice. Therein lies the rub. Competence requires practiced, deliberate effort. Competence is the product of personal and organizational pride and self-mastery. You must live up to your qualifications by maintaining your competencies.

The question of compliance

Being compliant means adhering to standards, regulations and laws. It’s important to understand that compliance is a choice. Once an individual is deemed competent at the skill, behavior or expectation, it is their decision to remain compliant.

Note: Compliance with desired behaviors needs to be tempered with practical knowledge, application and skill, and not obsequious robotic behaviors. Compliance to organizational and societal rules and laws needs to be justifiable and practicable.

Organizations need to have mechanisms and leadership with the capacity to recognize when occurrences of non-compliance or deviation occur, and use judgment, discernment and organizational values to determine an appropriate course of action.

After all, non-compliance, in some circumstances, can be unavoidable, whereas incompetence should be rooted out and rectified. We are a profession based on mission-driven decision-making. It would be a lazy, and potentially deadly, decision to always choose compliance over discernable outcomes. As such, organizations should trust and support leaders’ intent. If non-compliance was a conscious decision, there very may well be an appropriate reason for the action.

Addressing incompetence and non-compliance

Supervisors, officers and command staff, when you recognize an issue, it is crucial for your next action to determine the root cause. Almost all disciplinary actions can be recognized as a matter of lack of competence or lack of compliance.

If an employee or subordinate is incompetent, it is your organizational responsibility to ensure they become competent. Devote whatever time and creative (legal and ethical) methods are necessary to create competent employees. Consistently apply what consistently works. This is your burden and responsibility.

Once an employee is made competent, it is the prerogative of the employee to choose to be compliant or not. Case and cause for discipline should only be administered when a competent employee chooses to not comply with organizational mission, vision, values, rules and expectations.

If they are not competent, you must provide clear, concise expectations to work toward competency. For example, as a basic competency, your organization may require firefighters to maintain their turnouts in a prescribed manner that is supported by NFPA 1581. After ensuring the firefighter understands the expectations and requirements, and seeing the knowledge turn to action, they have been made competent. If at a later date you discover that they have chosen to deviate from the expectations, they have chosen non-compliance. This reflection and analysis can be a great tool in determining who needs discipline and who needs training.

Developing competence and choosing compliance

Competence and compliance are a composite of knowledge, skill, talent, training and limitations. Delivering tangible answers to how, what, where and why we do what we do as a profession is essential to our organization and communities. Knowing the organizational and ethical limitations is critical to identifying the boundaries and allowing organizational leadership to hold the line.

For self-reflection, when you encounter an issue, ask yourself, “Am I qualified and competent, and am I compliant?” If not, where was the breakdown? Is it a training, education or competency issue? Or, for one reason or another, did you choose to be non-compliant?

Competence is developed over time. Organizations and individuals develop their competencies through training, responding to incidents, continuing education, and qualification or promotional processes. In the early phases of our careers, we need direct supervision and immediate feedback. This should taper off over time, as we develop our competencies.

Ensuring our membership complies is another matter. Rules and regulations must be viewed as compulsory and supported by organizational mission, vision, and values. Otherwise, they are just words on paper. Compliance with organizational requirements establishes a universal minimum standard that must be observed and adhered to.

Continuous training and experiences will build competence. It is imperative that we, as professionals, stay up to date on industry trends and knowledge. The compound effect of competence and compliance produces tangible dividends for both the leadership and membership of the organization.

As supervisors and leaders, the membership is looking to you to develop their competencies and hold them accountable for their compliance. To be competent and qualified in the profession is a skill; compliance will always be a choice.

Kristopher T. Blume is the fire chief of the Meridian (Idaho) Fire Department. He previously served as a battalion chief with the Tucson (Arizona) Fire Department. With over two decades of fire service experience, Blume is an author, lecturer and independent consultant. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) program and is an instructor at the National Fire Academy. Blume is an alumnus of the University of Arizona and holds several undergraduate and graduate degrees.