This is, my friends, a story about a dangerous person. Their danger lies in their inability to accept change in any aspect of life, but most particularly where that change has to do with anything involving safety. So let me now take you back to the days of yesteryear for a stunning look at an incredibly flawed safety fraud.
There was a young man from the land of Nod, who thought that the need for safety was incredibly odd. He had emigrated from the land of Fightus Fireous to the Land of Nod during the reign of Alan the Great. He left the land of his birth because he could not cope with the changes created by the eminently famous Alan the Great of Phoenix.
He left for the Land of Nod because he heard that in that great land, people were always winking and nodding at the concepts known as safety. The problem was that his ideas about firefighting harkened from an earlier generation. For you see, he did not seem to think like you and like me when it came to safety.
His views came from the generation when fire was fought by stacking the bodies of firefighters upon the conflagration. This was repeated until the fire was literally smothered by the stifling weight of the firefighters. The people in the land of Fightus Fireous were very casual about life and death. So you lost a few people now and again. Was that not how fire was always fought? Was not firefighting yet another form of human sacrifice?
Were we not supposed to sally forth into the mouth of the dragon, so that we might be injured and die? Was this not the way that we in the world of firefighting were supposed to prove our worth to the world at large? This man from the Land of Nod could be heard moving throughout the length and breadth of the kingdom shouting his well-known catch-phrase: "...Safety is for Sissies."
After a time he began to take his fraudulent follies on the road throughout the kingdom to many large-scale fire training (?) venues. His message was about as bad a brand of poison as any could be to the world of safety when it came in contact with young and pliable minds. These were the folks who knew not from whence the fraud came, nor did they think to question his frivolous follies.
He could be heard scoffing at all of the efforts to keep firefighters safe. Many among the younger generation thought his message to have merit. He began to gain disciples among the masses. He would receive a loud, standing ovation when he would shout his "...Safety is for Sissies" message to the assembled masses of future dumb-asses.
People began to use his ill-advised illustrations as the impetus for driving like wild people. Red lights and stop signs had no value in their world. We are on a mission, these fools would say as they drove ever faster and ever less prudently. The concept of faster is better ruled their lives. Tough guys drove fast and always got to run the chicken civilians off of the road.
People would use his excuses for not wearing breathing apparatus when they entered burning buildings. Tough guys ate smoke he preached. Only sissies wore self-contained breathing apparatus. Tough guys coughed up their guts and spat phlegm all around. It was not a pretty sight to behold my friends.
Another of the sayings put forward by this Fraud from the Land of Nod went something like this: "Seatbelts are for sissies." His disciples could be heard chanting this wherever they went. You cannot tell me what to do. People began to challenge the accepted wisdom of seatbelts, safety, and such.
This fraudulent snake oil salesman was a pox upon the land of fire service safety. When would his influence diminish? When would people come back to their senses? When would this flatulent fraud finally exhaust his bag of excretive winds? His impact was growing and people were hard pressed to counter his stupid soliloquy.
I would like to say to you that the preceding story was a simply nightmare from which I now have awakened in order to share my thoughts with you. Sadly it is not. Believe it or not, there are people out there now shouting their tough guy message from the rooftops of their fire stations. Where do people like this come from? From under what rock have they crawled? What are they: stupid?
Let me now share the true purpose of my visit with you today. It is one which I believe to be extremely important to the future of your individual fire departments. There is a whole lot of talk about safety running around loose within the American Fire Service. However, there are not a lot of people out there actually walking the walk of the truly safety-conscious fire officer.
Billy Goldfeder and I have been laboring in the vineyards of safety for a long time now. As veterans of the National Fallen Firefighter's Foundation's Life Safety Summit and Mini-Summit series we are saddened by the proliferation of latter-day Dumb-Asses who preach the tough-guy sermon of "safe firefighting makes you a sissy." What in creation is rolling around in the minds of these brain-dead dopes?
Sadly, when it comes to the concept of safety there seems to be a whole lot of winking and nodding going on in our land when it comes to actually performing our duties in a safe manner. Sometimes after I review a death or serious injury report, which happened because someone was doing something stupid, I just want to reach out and grab the offending fire officers by the scruff of their necks. Perhaps, I think, it might actually be possible to shake a bit of sense into their pea brains. But most times I worry that it just won't be worth my time and efforts.
My message to you today is really quite simple. If you are going to stand up and assume the mantle of leadership in your fire department there is one critical task which you cannot ignore. I am here to tell you that you must be willing to make the tough decisions regarding safety policies and practices and shepherd their implementation into your fire department. You cannot hide from your responsibility to your troops.
Safety is a word which seems to be on the lips of many, many folks these days. Let me urge you to consider the source of those people who stand up and invoice the gods of safety to you and your troops. Are these people really committed to the concept of safety or are they just mouthing the words to make themselves seem part of the current world.
As I wrote in a Firehouse.com commentary not too long ago, one of the important elements in this life is a dusty, old concept known as trust. It was widely used during my youth, but seems to have fallen on hard times as we begin our march deeper into the 21st Century. When you hear the word safety, can you trust the source of the information? Is it someone who practices what they preach, or is it someone merely reading from a prepared script?
I hear a great deal being said these days about the need for safety. Sometimes I see the right people using the word safety. I am pleased and listen closely to see how I can use their suggestions in my world. At other times I hear people use the word safety as just another word in the English language.
It is at times like this that I have to call into question the advice offered to me in an old church hymn which tells us to, "...trust and obey, for there is no other way." Wow, what a great set up for a big fall in the secular world. Each time I read or hear of a new promise I attempt to use one of the following review concepts:
- Review with a critical eye
- Review with a jaundiced eye
- Review using a grain of salt
The critical eye allows me to review the information at hand to assess its accuracy and validity. This review allows me to see if what is being proposed is tied to an existing reality. Listening to oral presentations is a bit more difficult, as none of the aforementioned reality safeguards is available.
Therein lies the root cause of the danger which is presented to us by great orators. They say things that sound really great. For all intents and purposes they seem right on the surface. Unfortunately, many are simply specious in nature (this means they sound good but are just so much BS). Does this sort of example seem familiar to you, my fellow Americans?
It is at times like this when I find it necessary to rely on the second and third bullet points offered above. I let my past experiences with similar-sounding arguments guide me in my quest to understand what is being said to me. Let tell you a very important point, one which you should use to guide you in your daily quest to be safe.
I only believe a fraction of what I hear until I can check it out. Even then I must tell you that I take many things I hear with a grain of salt because of the people making the statements, and the circumstances wherein the comments are being made. Research is a critically important part of the work involved in being an effective fire department officer and supervisor of people.
Let me now suggest that safety should be at the heart of every aspect of the daily operations within your fire department. You must work with your people to create and environment of safety. You need to involve your troops in the development process for your standard operating guidelines. These documents must embrace safety as the heart and soul of their demands on your people.
Let me also suggest that as a leader you must model these behaviors for your people. I have come to really disapprove of the "do-as-I-say-not...as-I-do" sort of fire officer. These are the people who scream at everyone to follow policy and use their seatbelts. These are the same people who consistently fail to wear their own seatbelts.
You must become and coach and mentor for your people. Being a mentor means leading by example. You make the rules a part of your psyche and live them out for your people. Heck, I have been such a pain in the butt about seatbelts that I have come to be known in my volunteer fire department as the "Seatbelt Nazi." I am working to keep that title. I believe that this means people know if they are on my vehicle they had best put their belts on.
Let me assure you that I have angered a lot of people, but that is just how it is. I have buried a number of friends through the years and wondered each time what we as a fire department could have done to prevent those deaths. If you are a leader and you believe in safety, you will have to make the hard decisions, and live the example yourself. The decisions will be hard, but the results will be well worth the effort.
Let me close this commentary by asking you to discuss a few things with the members of your fire department. I want you to create a dialogue which puts the concept of safety into play within your organization. Do not limit yourself to my list of questions. Add as many more as you can. Then go for it.
- What is your fire department policy on wearing seatbelts?
- Are you enforcing your policy or are you just giving it lip service?
- What is the second most dangerous place where your fire department is called upon to operate? Answer: On the highways and byways of your response district.
- Do you have highway safety vests and are your people wearing them?
- Review your policy on emergency apparatus driving.
Do not let yourselves become the victim of the Flatulent Fraud from the Land of Nod. Stand up for safety. Be a leader and model the behaviors you wish to see in your troops. Like I have always said, leaders lead from the front. Make safety a priority for your troops and do not let up on them. Let me leave you with a very old piece of wisdom. It is better to be safe than to be sorry. Go for it.
HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is a municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ. Dr. Carter retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department and is a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. He recently published Leadership: A View from the Trenches and Living My Dream: Dr. Harry Carter's 2006 FIRE Act Road Trip, which was also the subject of a Firehouse.com blog To read Harry's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. You can reach Harry by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.