I Have the Right to Change My Mind: Don't I?

Dr. Harry Carter discusses why firefighters and fire officers can re-evaluate their decisions based on what they are presented with.


How many times have you found yourself in a situation where the facts tell you that something you have decided to do is wrong? You used the proper decision-making skills, you gathered the necessary facts, and did what you were taught to do. And, despite all of the time and effort were expended...


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How many times have you found yourself in a situation where the facts tell you that something you have decided to do is wrong? You used the proper decision-making skills, you gathered the necessary facts, and did what you were taught to do. And, despite all of the time and effort were expended, the problem you were attacking did not respond to your approach. In short, it was still a problem.

What's a boy to do? This is a simple example my friends.  However, there is a far more difficult problem lurking out there, ready to bite us all on the butt.

Let us suppose that you are suddenly faced with a challenge to one of your core operational values. This value is something which you were taught to do way back when you were a far younger and more trusting soul. It is a task which you have faithfully performed for more years than any of us would care to remember. And now it is obsolete. How will you handle that? Trust me when I tell you that this problem is more prevalent than I ever imagined.

The truth of the matter is that a review of the facts of the case have proven that your way of thinking is wrong. There are few things uglier or worse than a set of facts which do not support your position. I know that I have seen a number of perfectly good witch hunts which were ruined by the introduction of fresh hard facts into a given situation. As a matter of fact, you are probably lucky that no one has been injured over the life of your time on the department by the doing of the thing which is now being challenged.

Worse than that, suppose that this change impacts your entire department, and it conflicts with the organizational philosophy which has been in place for many decades. How will you begin to make the changes? My friends, this is part of a truly major problem facing our fire service today. We are glorifying behaviors which we should be working to extinguish. You know, the litany of heroic myths which surround our field of endeavor.

Like many of you, my work over the past seven years since the Life Safety Summit in Tampa has been spent working to implement the 16 Life Safety Initiatives created at that event. Much of my work has been in a number of areas:

  1. Leadership improvement and enhancement
  2. Firefighter/fire officer interaction issues
  3. Firefighter safety and injury prevention
  4. National research agenda
  5. Fireground risk assessment

A lot of what we do involves dangerous things. When someone dies we tend to give them a heroes sendoff, which is probably what we should do. However, once the ceremonies are over, we need to devote ourselves to learning the hard lessons of what caused the person (or persons) to die. In far too many cases we are merely telling the world that we have a dangerous job and that death and injury are just part of the cost of doing business. My friends that sort of behavior is not what we should be doing. I have buried too many buddies to believe that load of manure.

Let me suggest, at this point, that you must first come to a simple, but profound realization. It is OK to change your mind. People have fought in wars to defend our right to make up our minds as we see fit. And when we want to, we can change our minds. The only constraint on this privilege is that no one else should be hurt by our decisions.

Here is where the problem begins to emerge. There are many people who feel that changing their mind is a sign of weakness. This probably comes from the Old West view of the individual as a resolute, strong silent type. And if you gained your perception of the good old days from the movies, think about it...was John Wayne ever made to change his mind, or look weak? Perhaps there were instances of this, but I am hard-put to remember any.

This is truly one of those areas where we will have to change our paradigm. So, as John F. Kennedy said during his inaugural speech, "… let the word go forth … that the torch has been passed." He was referring to the change from the 19th Century people who had led us up to this point, to his generation which had been born in the early part of the 20th Century.

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