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Assessing What They LACK: Accountability is Critical

Editor's Note: The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s Courage to be Safe program identified four area where fire officers needed to improve their awareness, training and skills: leadership, accountability, culture and knowledge (LACK). This five-part series helps officers focus on each area for a more comprehensive understanding of the program.

Effective firefighting demands professional and personal accountability every day, both on and off the job. It requires everyone within the fire service to take responsibility for their words, actions and behaviors so that the job is accomplished and the risks of injuries and fatalities are minimized.

Through our actions and behaviors we demonstrate what we really believe and that sets the standards for the rest of the department. We establish goals, the expectations and the tone. It is incumbent upon the department leaders to be the catalyst for safety.

Accepting personal and professional accountability requires frequent introspection and evaluation of some fundamental questions: Am I heart-healthy? Do I always buckle-up? Do I regularly review policies and procedures on my own and with my co-workers? Do I actively participate in department trainings? Do I talk and listen to my co-workers following incidents so we can learn from each other about what was, and was not, successful? These are essential questions and the answers can have a crucial impact.

The two leading causes of firefighter fatalities are cardiovascular events – or heart attacks – and vehicular crashes. Furthermore, training accidents account for the third greatest percentage of line-of-duty deaths. These are incidents that are within our means to control and can be mitigated by accepting the fact that each of us – from the top down and the bottom up – has to take personal, active responsibility. There is no room in the fire service for complacency.

Diet, physical activity and smoking are three lifestyle factors that we can proactively control and change. These are simple public health messages that everyone has heard. All three cause unnecessary stress on the heart and lungs, make breathing difficult and slowing our movements. Consequently, being out of shape and smoking make us a burden to co-workers and the community we serve. If we can’t respond quickly, carry our gear and climb stairs, our co-workers have to step in for us. This diminishes the department’s ability to do its job and jeopardizes the safety of our communities, including family, friends and neighbors.

Properly using our gear – from helmets and masks to self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and seatbelts – is also imperative. Everything that is issued from the day we join the fire service is designed to protect us. Not getting a good seal on the mask or not using the chin strap on the helmet properly sets the stage for tragedy. This is especially true for seatbelts. The general public knows that seatbelts save lives and we see this first-hand, every day. Refusing to wear a seatbelt is nothing less than negligence.

Remember that all equipment must be maintained and inspected regularly to ensure it is in working order for the crew as well as the co-workers who come in after we leave. We must be diligent about checking our equipment for signs of deterioration and encourage others to do the same.

As a responsible leader and effective member of the fire service, we should feel obliged to impart our knowledge and experience with co-workers, and expect the same of them. Talk and listen to each other after an incident so that what was done well, and what needs to be improved, are identified. Use these opportunities to train and drill together, and insist that everyone participate. This interaction makes the unit stronger, reaffirms that everyone knows what they are expected to do in a moment’s notice and enhances the department’s productivity.

We must also hold others accountable for their actions and behaviors. Make sure everyone uses equipment properly, buckles-up and follows standard operating procedures (SOPs). And if they aren’t, point it out and make certain it is corrected immediately. We have the potential to save the life of someone in our department if we take one minute to be sure everyone is safe.

Accepting personal accountability for our actions and words within the department is not only a matter of personal respect, but also respect for co-workers and the people we serve. This is not a revolutionary suggestion; it’s simply embracing the lessons we’ve learned since early childhood. Accept personal responsibility. It’s applicable in all facets of life.

Holding ourselves accountable sets the highest example for others around us. This leadership will make the fire service safer and stronger, and establish expectations for a culture of safety now and in the future.

DOUGLAS L. BARRY is was 33-year veteran of the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) where he recently retired as the fire chief. He has commanded some of LAFD's busiest fire stations in the South Los Angeles, Port of Los Angeles, Los Angeles International Airport, and the Wilshire Corridor. Chief Barry has overseen management of department discipline, worker's compensation, wellness and risk management programs and several other key roles leadership and oversight. As assistant fire marshal, he managed the day-to-day operations of the prevention bureau. He has attended L.A. Harbor College and California State University, Long Beach.

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