Go Navy!

The fire service can learn from the Navy's experience in culture and accountability.


By all means, I do wish for all fire chiefs to have the same level of maximum support from their political leadership when they have to navigate through all the turbulent waters and the thick and thins that they must go through, especially during the current tough economic environments. But then there must be some sort of responsibility and accountability mechanism, and the buck must stop with someone. And just like anything in life, there is a limit, and sometimes you just need to cut the bait and let go.

The Navy did not make any hesitations to do just that with their $70 million fire mentioned above. What do you think the consequences would have been if they had nine deaths as a result of their fire? Court marshal, and long sentences? Maybe not, but then it sure would have been more severe than taking their command away, as they did.

What does Navy accomplish by taking such strict stance? They show to all their commanders that strict adherence to their regulations is their responsibility and they will be held accountable. Even though as I mentioned before, in a U.S. warship they are plenty of more immediate pressing military issues for the commander to be concerned with and fire prevention might be a lower priority. Yet, bottom line is they are held accountable and could lose their command even for the lowest of their priorities.

Why? Because they are the commanders at the helm, and are responsible for the safety of ship and the crew. How do you keep them accountable? By constantly drilling the message of safety home and clearly outlining the consequences of failure, in a sense establishing the safety culture in the first place; and then, by adhering to the provisions established in the formal disciplinary procedures for any fractures or violation.

Fact of the matter is that we in the fire service have systematically ignored our fire prevention responsibilities for decades. After all, that was exactly what the 1973 America Burning Report pointed out 35 years ago, wasn't it? After all these decades, we still haven't gone through with the paradigm shift recommended and focus more on the proactive means of addressing the fire problem in our country. And we haven't taken the necessary steps to evolve our organizational culture to put an end to the complacency and acceptance of failure. Navy on the other hand has taken measured steps forward and we in the civilian side can learn from them.

Yes, undoubtedly the fire chiefs have a lot on their plates and on a daily basis are trying to juggle with the variety of very many serious issues. But, it is hard to fathom that they are more burdened with other priorities and responsibilities than a commander of a U.S. aircraft carrier. After all, this is directly fire related, and ultimately enforcement of the fire prevention regulations is the responsibility of the fire chief. The Naval commander who is mainly responsible to protect the American interests in the high seas in the hostile zones around the globe gets his command taking away; yet the fire chief whose responsibilities are directly fire related in his own jurisdiction stay on board till retirement. Go figure!

What is the difference? Responsibility and accountability. Yes, quite clearly the national centralized command in the Navy, all the way down form the Secretary of Navy, definitely helps their organization to demand strict adherence to the well-established regulations, performance of their responsibilities, and enforcing accountability.

With us in the civilian fire service, although viewed as a paramilitary type of organization, since we share a similar process of chain of command; we definitely lack accountability at the very top. While in the Navy the "buck stops" with the Secretary of Navy, and he is even accountable to the President; there is not much accountability for our top fire service leaders.

After all with more than 32,000 fire departments around the county, we all have our own little local kingdoms, and the local jurisdictions are the masters of their own domain. No wonder all the great recommendations of the President Truman's 1947 Fire Prevention Conference, or the 1973 America Burning Report have not been implemented yet. Not that we don't have the knowledge or the game plan, but because we don't have the responsibility and accountability mechanism in place to implement the national programs at the local levels. We could learn valuable lessons from the Navy.