Book excerpt: 'In Honor of The Charleston 9: A Study of Change Following Tragedy'

A new book by firefighter Dr. David Griffin reveals how lessons learned from the deadly 2007 Sofa Super Store Fire led to changes among emergency services that other departments can benefit from


Editor's note: A new book by Dr. David Griffin, a firefighter on the first engine to the deadly 2007 Sofa Super Store Fire where nine firefighters were killed, explores the changes in emergency services in South Carolina following the tragedy. His three years of scientific research reveal how behavioral changes among employees and new organizational processes led to new implementations with the power to save lives. We're pleased to publish an excerpt from Chapter 1.

The book has been featured at #36 on the top 100 Research Best Sellers List on Amazon.com. All next year, Griffin will be traveling the U.S. on a “Find Your Mission” Tour, where he’ll present a variety of educational courses that correspond with the book, along with book signings. You can also email drdavidgriffin@gmail.com for a signed copy, and visit drdavidgriffin.com for more information. A portion of the proceeds benefit the The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

Chapter 1: Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this qualitative case study was to indicate how an organization like The City of Charleston Fire Department (CFD) in Charleston, South Carolina learned from an organizational crisis at the individual, team, and organizational levels following June 18, 2007. Previous studies found evidence that can help organizations recover and grow from the grave consequences of an organizational crisis with organizational learning.

At this stage in the research, organizational crisis is generally defined as a condition that is considered extraordinary, damaging, and disruptive to an organization’s state of operations (Snyder et al., 2006). Although they are high impact events that have a low probability of occurring, they impose threats on the accountability and reliability of an organization (Tieyang et al., 2008). According to Lahteenmaki et al. (2001), the ability of an organization to learn is a prerequisite for organizational survival and creates a competitive advantage. Organizational learning is defined as a collective learning process where group-based and individual “learning experiences concerning the improvement of organizational performance and/or goals are transferred into organizational routines, processes and structures, which impact the future learning activities of the organizations members” (Schilling & Kluge, 2009, p. 338). Therefore, if organizations do not continuously change internally and adapt to changes met in their operational environment, survival and success will become difficult (Lahteenmaki et al., 2001). If organizational crises are mismanaged or ignored, the sustainability and competitiveness of an organization will be reduced greatly, with both the organization and its stakeholders experiencing the impacts.

The study was conducted through the perceptions of those involved using the lens of organizational learning. With the triangulation of data gathered from incorporating Watkins and Marsick’s (1997) Dimensions of the Learning Organization Questionnaire (DLOQ), interviews, and artifact analysis, the researcher identified how the CFD learned from the June 18, 2007 incident at the individual, team, and organizational levels. Knafl and Breitmayer (1989) indicated that the collection and comparison of triangulated data enhances the quality of the data with idea convergence and the confirmation of the researcher’s findings. Additionally, Baxter and Jack (2008) stated that triangulation is a primary strategy that is used in case study research to allow the phenomena to be “viewed and explored from multiple perspectives” (p. 556). From these multiple viewpoints, the CFD, as well as other organizations, can identify how organizational learning helps organizations incorporate a specific set of strategies and/or approaches that impact more effective and efficient decision-making in the occurrence of future crises that they may encounter.

Watkins and Marsick’s (1997) DLOQ focused on seven dimensions including continuous learning, inquiry and dialogue, team learning, embedded systems, empowerment, system connection, and strategic leadership. It consisted of the individual level, the team level, and the organizational level. The individual level was measured in questions 1-13, where the focus was upon the dimensions of continuous learning, and inquiry and dialogue. The team level was measured in questions 14-19, where the dimensions of team learning and embedded systems were stressed. Finally, the organizational level was measured from questions 20-55, where empowerment, system connection, and strategic leadership were specified (Watkins & Marsick, 1997).

The following statement from the section in the DLOQ measures the individual level: “In my organization, people openly discuss mistakes in order to learn from them” (Marsick & Watkins, 2003, p. 143). Included in the instructions to the participants, the phrase “Do you believe since June 18, 2007…” was added as a preface to each question. Therefore, the question read as follows: Do you believe since June 18, 2007, “In my organization, people openly discuss mistakes in order to learn from them?” (Marsick & Watkins, 2003, p. 143). Possible ratings for the above question, as well as the other measurement questions, were 1-6, where 1 was almost never and 6 was almost always. Scores 2, 3, 4, and 5 indicated increasing ratings from almost never (1) to almost always (6). The researcher was granted permission to utilize the DLOQ in this study via electronic mail from Dr. Karen Watkins and Dr. Victoria Marsick.

A purposive sample of these participants were also interviewed, with the researcher asking five open-ended questions that were created by an expert panel of command level officers, each with over 30 years’ of fire experience. The interviewees consisted of five randomly selected participants from the sample. They were asked the following open-ended questions:

1. How does the CFD discuss mistakes to allow its members and the fire service to learn from them?

2. How does the CFD utilize committees to support the direction of the department?

3. How does the CFD ensure that all employees are aware of lessons learned from previous emergency and training incidents?

4. How have you learned and improved as a firefighter since June 18, 2007?

5. How has the CFD’s leadership changed since June 18, 2007?

The third source of research utilized in the triangulation was the use of artifacts that highlight the CFD since June 18, 2007. These artifacts consisted of newspaper articles, the CFD’s Strategic Plan, CFD standard operating procedures, CFD memos, CFD policies, and fire service articles focusing on the CFD’s improvements following June 18, 2007. This data source indicated specific areas where the CFD made significant operational, training, and leadership changes.

The specific sample of the population were 27 firefighters that officially responded to the June 18, 2007 incident and were still employed with the CFD at the time of this study. Before June 18, 2007, the CFD was comprised of 246 members, with only 140 of these 246 members remaining with the CFD currently in 2013. Therefore, out of the 318 current employees, 140 are from the time period before June 18, 2007. However, all of the 318 employees were affected by this crisis as the department continued to progress through the change process following the incident. The remaining members were all male, ranging in ranks from firefighter to the chief officer level. Ages ranged from 25 to 60 years of age, while experience in the fire service ranged from 1 to 40 years. This is the only information given regarding the characteristics of the remaining members of the CFD that responded to June 18, 2007, as the researcher does not want to give too much information that will allow for the identification of the study’s participants.

The expected outcome of the study was to deliver sound scientific research on an event that has not been rigorously researched. Articles were written and independent studies were completed regarding the practices, equipment, and personnel of the department; however, a scientific study focusing on the responding firefighter’s experiences of the event was not completed. Furthermore, a scientific study completed by someone that actually responded to the event, was a part of the CFD’s organizational culture prior to June 18, 2007, and also a part of the change process following June 18th, was not completed either.  

These experiences and beliefs from the responding firefighters are important to document how an organization like the CFD learned from an organizational crisis following June 18, 2007 at the individual, team, and organizational levels. This new research enables firefighters to learn from the crisis and become more successful when faced with the possible occurrence of future crises. We must learn from our mistakes, and we do that by learning from the individuals that were actually involved in a serious incident.

References

Baxter, P., & Jack, S. (2008). Qualitative case study methodology: Study design and implementation for novice researchers. The Qualitative Report, 13(4), 544-559. Retrieved from http://www.nova.edu/ssss/QR/QR13-4/baxter.pdf.

Knafl, K., & Breitmayer, B. J. (1989). Triangulation in qualitative research: Issues of conceptual clarity and purpose. In J. M. Morse (Ed.), Qualitative nursing research: A contemporary dialogue (pp. 193-203). Rockville, MD: Aspen.

Lähteenmäki, S., Toivonen, J., & Mattila, M. (2001). Critical aspects of organizational learning research and proposals for its measurement. British Journal of Management, 12(2), 113-129. doi:10.1111/1467-8551.00189.

Marsick, V., & Watkins, K. (2003). Demonstrating the value of an organization’s learning culture: The dimensions of the learning organization questionnaire. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 5(2), 132-151. doi:10.1177/1523422303005002002.

Schilling, J., & Kluge, A. (2009). Barriers to organizational learning: An integration of theory and research. International Journal of Management Reviews, 11(3), 337-360. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2370.2008.00242.x.

Snyder, P., Hall, M., Robertson, J., Jasinski, T., & Miller, J. (2006). Ethical rationality: A strategic approach to organizational crisis. Journal of Business Ethics, 63(4), 371-383. doi:10.1007/s10551-005-3328-9.

Tieyang, Y., Sengul, M., & Lester, R. H. (2008). Misery loves company: The spread of negative impacts resulting from an organizational crisis. Academy of Management Review, 33(2), 452-472. doi:10.5465/AMR.2008.31193499.

Watkins, K., & Marsick, V. (1997). Dimensions of the Learning Organization Questionnaire. Retrieved from http://www.partnersforlearning.com/instructions.html.

Watkins, K., & Marsick, V. (1997). Dimensions of the Learning Organization

Questionnaire. Warwick, RI: Partners for the Learning Organization.

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