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FRI 2018 Quick Take: Providing results with fire chief leadership and risk management

People, policy, training, supervision and discipline help to minimize risks and keep firefighters safe


Deputy Fire Chief Billy Goldfeder and risk management guru Gordon Graham offered leadership strategies for fire chiefs to effectively mitigate the risks of lawsuits, injuries, deaths, embarrassments, internal investigations and even criminal filings.

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Fire service leaders are consistently being asked to do more with less. And, in the wake of increasing public scrutiny, even small mistakes could drain your community’s already diminishing resources. Combining strong leadership with the principles of risk management can stretch your budget dollar and provide protection against situations that can prove costly in terms of money and reputation.

In this session at Fire-Rescue International, “Doing More With Less: How Leadership and Risk Management Provide Tenfold Results,” risk management guru Gordon Graham (Lexipol) and Deputy Fire Chief Billy Goldfeder, Loveland-Symmes Fire Department, offered leadership strategies for fire chiefs to effectively mitigate the risks of lawsuits, injuries, deaths, embarrassments, internal investigations and even criminal filings.

Top Quotes from Graham and Goldfeder

You know you’re in for something special when the conference room is packed for the last session on a Friday afternoon, and, though the presenter gives up the CE code at the beginning of the lecture, not a single person leaves the room. If you ever get a chance to see this dynamic duo in person, take it. Here are just a few of the memorable quotes from Graham and Goldfeder.

“If you don’t think you’re biased, not only are you biased, you’re stupid. If you salt your food before you eat it, you have a bias. If you prefer Ford over Chevy – and you should – you have a bias.” — Gordon Graham

“In any occupation, any profession, any tragedy, if you can identify what caused the tragedy, than you can implement control measures.” — Gordon Graham

“Look at your sphere of influence every day and ask yourself, do we have problems lying in wait?” — Gordon Graham

“There are some firefighter deaths that were not avoidable. Most are.” — Chief Billy Goldfeder

“The greatest way to honor a firefighter who has died is to learn how that firefighter died and not do that again.” — Chief Billy Goldfeder

“You may have a line of duty death – God forbid – what you want is the peace to be able to tell that family, ‘we did everything we could.’” — Chief Billy Goldfeder

Top takeaways on risk management in the fire service

Take a look at any major tragedy in the fire service today and there’s frequently a link to budget cuts. And yet, despite this, chiefs are being asked to do much more with way less. Cultivating leaders who know and understand the principles of risk management can help mitigate the effects of budget cuts.

Here are the top takeaways from Graham and Goldfeder’s presentation.

1. Look beyond proximate cause to identify risk factors

Any accident or tragedy in the fire service has a proximate cause: the event that immediately preceded it. Graham used the example of the Titanic to illustrate, noting it’s universal worldwide. If you ask people what caused the Titanic to sink, they will immediately answer, “iceberg.” Graham argues the iceberg is just the proximate cause enabled by underlying issues to kick-start the incident. “If you are building your control measures on proximate cause alone, you are dooming yourself to future tragedies,” he opined.

He advised attendees to look for the underlying root, the problems lying in wait – usually a deficit in one of these five key areas:

  1. Quality people.
  2. Quality policy.
  3. Good training.
  4. Supervision.
  5. Organizational discipline.

2. Ensure the quality of your personnel with a focus on recruiting, regular checks

One step you can take instantly is to start qualifying the quality of your people, Graham said. He asked attendees, “Is your pool a puddle these days?” To increase the quality of firefighters in your department, everybody in your organization needs to be recruiting. To ensure a broad, deep applicant pool, have everyone in your department make a goal to find qualified candidates. He also recommends deep background checks on potential candidates. “What’s the difference between having a criminal record and not? Getting caught,” he quipped.

And the quality checks shouldn’t stop there. Don’t be afraid to cut someone from the department that isn’t cutting it. “If your people aren’t good, get the hook,” Graham said. “Don’t ever extend probation. They will not get better over time. This is not fine wine from Sonoma; this is boxed wine from Yonkers.”

He also recommends annual checks, tied to performance reviews, of background and driver’s license for all personnel, looking for incidents that have occurred recently, like a license suspension. “I’m telling you, one percent of your people driving your rigs are not licensed,” he said.

While you’re at it, in that annual evaluations, ask your firefighters if they’ve updated their beneficiaries – another oversight Graham said is all too common in the fire service.

3. Implement an accountability system and enforce policy

The rules of accountability are not new, Goldfeder pointed out. They did not start yesterday. And yet, there are still incidents where commanding officers cannot account for their firefighters’ whereabouts and actions. “If you have one assignment as a commanding officer, it’s to take care of your people, and know what they’re doing and where they are at all times,” he said.

Implement some kind of accountability system and visual at the fire scene. “Let’s make sure we’re all teaching the same stuff, have the same certifications and are working with the same level of discipline on the fireground,” Goldfeder said. When companies don’t have an assignment, they should be staging somewhere. “They shouldn’t be freelancing. The fireground can’t be a place where firefighters do what they want to do.”

“You cannot rely on luck,” Graham added. “You have to rely on policies, procedures and a structured way of doing things.” In too many fire departments, discipline is a function of consequence, rather than a function of responsibility, he noted. “The primary mission of a supervisor in any workplace is enforcement of organizational policy. Management makes rules and keeps rules up to date. Supervisors enforce rules.”

Additional Resources on firefighter risk management

Kerri Hatt is editor-in-chief, EMS1, responsible for defining original editorial content, tracking industry trends, managing expert contributors and leading execution of special coverage efforts. Prior to joining Lexipol, she served as an editor for medical allied health B2B publications and communities. Kerri has a bachelor’s degree in English from Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. She is based out of Charleston, SC. Share your personal and agency successes, strategies and stories with Kerri at