The Role of Leadership and Seat Belts

After the line-of-duty-death of Captain John Keane, his department signed the seat belt pledge to honor him and make sure he didn't die in vain.Firefighter deaths and injuries because of not using seat belts continue to be a tragedy in the fire service; however, there is hope because many leaders are trying to fix the problem. The story of four leaders from the State of North Carolina, the Waterbury, CT, Fire Department, the Chief of the New York City Fire Department and a West Point Cadet, will be presented in this article. These four examples may help guide the rest of us because that is what leaders do - they show us the way.

The State of North Carolina has 200 fire departments that have achieved 100 percent seat belt pledge participation. This accomplishment is due to the fact that the North Carolina fire service leadership made a commitment to change their seat belt culture. The state firefighters and fire chiefs associations made the seat belt pledge campaign one of their top priorities. Across the state, from large career departments to small volunteer departments, from firefighters to fire chiefs, all get the same message: take the pledge and buckle up. North Carolina is ranked number one in fire departments with 100 percent seat belt pledge participation they are showing the way for the other 49 states and the District of Columbia.

After the line-of-duty-death of Captain John Keane in an apparatus crash in 2007, the Waterbury Fire Department wanted to make a change. Wearing seat belts became a number one priority for all firefighters. As a department they did not want Capt. Keane to have died in vain. The entire fire department took the National Fire Service Seat Belt Pledge to honor John, commit to each other that everyone will wear their seat belt every time and to send a message to the nation's fire service about the importance of seat belts so other fire departments can avoid such a tragic loss.

When all fire chiefs make seat belt use a priority and hold everyone accountable our seat belt line of duty deaths will stop. FDNY Chief of Department Salvatore Cassano has put his leadership on the line when it comes to seat belts. The FDNY safety culture video was premiered at Firehouse Expo 2009 and part of that cultural change is getting firefighters to buckle up. During a Radio@Firehouse podcast Chief Cassano signed the National Fire Service Seat Belt Pledge and plans to send it throughout the department. Chief Cassano is showing all metro fire chiefs the way to get firefighters to buckle up.

The final story will be told by a West Point Cadet. The U.S. Military Academy is all about making leaders for the Army and our nation. The fire service's dysfunctional seat belt culture is very powerful; it is so powerful that it let Cadet Lewis Han disobey a direct order. West Point Cadets do not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do so the Cadet was required to tell this story. Cadet Han learned a valuable lesson from his experience riding on a fire truck. What he learned is a reflection on us. It is up to every fire service company officer to learn from this story.

Seat Belts and Leadership
West Point Cadet Lewis Han (D4 2010)

"Research has shown that lap/shoulder belts, when used properly; reduce the risk of fatal injury to the front-seat passenger car occupants by 45 percent and the risk of moderate-to-critical injury by 50 percent. For light truck occupants, safety belts reduce the risk of fatal injury by 60 percent and moderate-to-critical injury by 65 percent."

I recently had the opportunity to ride-along with a fire department engine company. It was part of an internship in which I was taking a look at the need for management skills and core competencies (written and oral communications, interpersonal skills, group and team skills, and organizational skills) in fire officers as well as any other management position. I was able to ride-along with a particular fire engine company for a full 24-hour shift. Some of the things I learned, especially the unexpected lessons, seem to hold the greatest significance.

Being a West Point Cadet with a focus in management, I have always been interested and intrigued by the topic matter of behavioral sciences. I witnessed the camaraderie which forms and builds between the firefighters. Not only were all the firefighters of this engine company absolutely competent and experts in their field, they also worked as a cohesive unit. My respect for the fire department and its firefighters has grown immensely through my experience as a ride-along. The lieutenant especially, impressed me because of the leadership qualities he possessed. He had developed a keen sense of interpersonal and team skills. From what I observed, the firefighters of that particular engine company really did respect him, as did I.

What does any of this have to do with seat belts? Well, while the experience at the firehouse will leave me with great memories for the rest of my life, there is also something that should be addressed. I have learned that firefighters in general do not wear seat belts. Many states actually do not require firefighters to wear seat belts while responding to an emergency. The reasoning behind this argument is the fact that firefighters must be quick and mobile while responding to an emergency. Therefore, the fire department has built up a culture in which they believe seat belts "hinder" them from completing their duties in a timely fashion.

I was instructed that I was to wear my seatbelt as a ride-along even if the firefighters themselves don't. It would have been tragic if a visitor would have gotten injured or killed while riding with the fire engine company. Now, when I think back to the calls I remember there were times that I did not buckle my seat belt. This action was usually accompanied by frantic movement inside the truck with firefighters jumping into their fire suits and gearing up for a fire call. Because there is limited space and a cluster of equipment in the back seat, I did my best to help move things out of the way and "think skinny." The fact that I did not buckle my seat belt every single time I got on the engine is absolutely 100 percent my personal failure and I take full responsibility for my actions. I was instructed to do something, and I failed to keep up my end of the bargain.

However, while pondering over the event, I realized there heavier consequences than just a personal failure. Unfortunately, however much I want for the buck to stop at myself; it doesn't. Any student of leadership will tell you that a leader is responsible for all that their organization or unit's successes and failures. Consequently, for the time that I was under the lieutenant's responsibility, if a ride-along would have been injured the responsibility would have fallen completely on him. Whether anyone thinks it is fair does not matter. The responsibility to lead and be accountable for myself as well as the other firefighters would have been on his shoulders. It is simply something that comes with being in a position of leadership.

Through this experience I have learned a couple valuable lessons. The first is that as a follower, you must realize that you will not always be able to "take responsibility" for your own actions. Whenever you fail to do something you let down those around you, and you put your leader in a bad position because he is responsible for you. It does not matter if you kick and scream saying that the leader should not be blamed for your actions; it will happen regardless. The second lesson is that as a leader, you truly do have the responsibility for everything that succeeds and fails in an organization. Because of your position, you have the ability to influence others. The men and women assigned to you should be accountable to you but you are also accountable to them. In this case, it is the issue of putting on a seat belt. But the fact still remains for all things, if the leader performs an action and instructs the others to do so it will happen.

Once again, I do take all personal responsibility for the failure to wear the seat belt, but I know that it is not that simple. And that is what I will take away from this experience forever; the second-order effects of actions and the implications that they hold for those around you. I have learned key lessons and I hope to keep them in mind whenever I hold a position of leadership. Fortunately, this article does not end in a negative fashion. Because leaders are in a position of influence, there is hope. There is hope that the leaders of the fire service will take care of the most valuable asset they possess. It is not the expensive machinery or costly operations. But instead, the most valuable asset is in the men and women that show up everyday and give their service to the general public. If each individual fire officer ensures that their immediate subordinates are buckled up, the entire organization will be buckled up. I just hope that the firefighters, who work so hard to keep us safe, will keep themselves safe as well.

Thank you for your time.

Cadet Han is to be commended for taking the time to share his experience with us. I hope the fire service hears his leadership message loud and clear.

If FDNY Fire Chief Cassano can take the pledge and work to get the largest fire department in the country to buckle up the rest of use have no excuse not to do the same.

For the Waterbury Fire Department to suffer the loss of Captain Keane and turn his memory into a 100 percent seat belt pledge certificate brings new meaning to the phrase "We will never forget to buckle up."

We all need to thank the North Carolina fire service for showing us what can be accomplished when we want to change our seat belt culture. Let's see if North Carolina remains number one.

Leadership and seat belt stories are all around us. You have your own personal seat belt story. Is your story a seat belt leadership example from which we can all learn? When it comes to seat belts use in the fire service, do you show the way?

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