199% Correct Is Not A Passing Score In The Fire Service

Does the fire service do anything that requires a 200% proficiency level? By that I mean 100% correct 100% of the time. As a firefighter should I hold myself to that standard, should others hold me to that standard, should the fire department be held to that standard? The answer is yes but it is not easy - it takes courage.

If you read my last column you know that the use of seatbelts is at the top of my list for a 200% proficiency standard. My goal is to hold myself and others to that standard. Recently, my professed standards were put to the test four times. I only passed two tests but I am getting better.

Test number 1: After my article "To be or not to be a tattletale" was published I mustered up the courage to send it to Chief Allen Woo of the Washington Township Fire Department in Dublin, Ohio. This was our email exchange.

-----Original Message-----
From: Clark, Burt
Sent: Thursday, October 02, 2003 3:35 PM
To: Woo, Chief Al
Subject:

Chief Woo: I do not know if you have seen this article yet or if you can figure out who I had the experience with but it may explain my quiet demeanor on the ride to the airport. I share this with you for all the right reason and I am still reluctant. I hope it does not negatively affect our professional association. Sincerely, Burt Clark

Burt,
I knew that there had to be something wrong that day. Though we know each other in only a professional way, I've been around you enough to know that something was wrong (don't play poker). I understand your reluctance, but you should never feel bad about doing the "right thing". You may lose meals or friends by carrying through on what you proposed, but would definitely lose them as a result of an accident. In a way, I'm relieved that this was the case as I was worried that I'd done something to offend you personally.

Your comments are what Larry Ritcey described as a "cold slap in the face", a return to reality. I am still proud of the department's accomplishments, the vehicles and even that crew; however, there is still work to be done and ultimately it is my responsibility to get us there. Here is my promise to you. We will address the issues raised in the article and will do so in a professional, lasting way. We are even including this article as a testing exercise in an upcoming Battalion Chief's exam and will include it as part of continued safety training. The article and experience will serve as a catalyst to get us to where we need to be.

Thanks, professionally and personally, and you are free to eat with us anytime. Thanks again, Al Woo

Chief Woo's positive feedback encouraged me that I was on the right track so I gave myself a passing grade.

Test Number 2:

Carolyn Smith-Clark (my wife) and I were going over to my daughter's house on Thursday evening for a Bible study class. Carolyn has been in the fire serve for 30 years and is an instructor for the National Fire Academy and the Maryland Fire Rescue Institute. She has taught fire service leadership in all 50 states several times to thousands of students. Her BS is in Management Science and her MA is in Human Services. Finally, she knows my strengths and weakness better then anyone. The reason for explaining her background is to illustrate her qualifications, expertise, and professional judgment. Now back to the story. We pulled out of the driveway when I noticed Carolyn did not have her seatbelt on. Burt: "Honey put your seatbelt on." Carolyn: "My hands are killing me and I can't get it." (She has bad arthritis) Burt: "I will put it on for you." Carolyn: "Don't you dare stop this car just go, GO I SAID!" I continue driving.

My mind begins to race my pulse increase. I should pull over and put the seatbelt on her. If I do I will never hear the end of it. What price will I pay? She never forgets. The five-minute ride seems to take forever I drive very defensively. We arrive; I unbuckle my seatbelt.

Carolyn: "I don't want to hear any more about your belief in seatbelts. All that stuff you write about holding people accountable is bullshit. You're a hypocrite. You should have put my seat belt on me! Why didn't you put my seat belt on me?" Burt: (stunned and in a state of shock) "I'm afraid of you." Was the only answerer I could come up with at the moment. Carolyn knows bullshit and hypocrisy when she sees it. Talk about cold slap in the face. I know at a very deep level how Chief Woo must have felt when I sent him the article. I failed my own test with the person I love the most.

Test number 3:

Five days later I am picked up at the airport by Assistant Chief Steve Kimple, Division of Fire, City of Whitehall, Ohio. The following day I am teaching a class on Fire Service Organizational Effectiveness to a group of chief officers who are graduates of the Ohio Fire Executive program. Chief Kimple takes me to his fire station for lunch. The station gets a call for an auto crash. The engine officer asks if I want to ride along. "You bet" is my reply.

As I leave the kitchen I look back at Chief Kimple with a big smile on my face; he gets a big grin on his face. Steve had been in one of my lectures on seatbelts and my professed challenge to hold firefighters responsible. Steve hoped the crew does not let him down. Firefighter 1, 2, 3, 4 (see end note) and I respond. I am the only one wearing a seatbelt. I am being put to the test again. I fail. I blame the noise, siren, air horn - the crew all have headsets on so they could not hear me if I tried to talk to them. These guys did not read the tattletale article so it is not fair to hold them accountable. Unfortunately these are all just excuses, the truth - no courage.

We get to the scene and I watch the operations which is executed perfectly from scene safety and extrication, to patient care. The whole time I can her Carolyn's voice in my head. "Clark you're chicken shit - do the right thing - don't let me down - don't let your self down - don't let the fire service down."

Test number 4:

We get back in the engine. We all put our headsets on; I am the only one using the seatbelt. We drive off. This is do or die time for me. Put up or shut up. I say, " Do you guys have a policy that requires seatbelt to be used?" The replies are "Yes" "No" "It's not enforced." I say "Driver are you responsible for personnel to use their seatbelts when the vehicle moves?" The Driver replies, "Yes I am." He pulls over and stops. The Driver said: "He's right - everybody put your seat belt on." Everyone complies. I explain that the number two cause for LODD is vehicle crashes with a contributing factor of no seatbelt usage. I explain that there are no good reasons for not wearing seatbelts. I ask them to promise to use their seatbelts from now on, some say OK. I passed this test.

When we get back to the station I give the guys a copy of the tattletale article. I explain to Chief Kimple that I didn't have the courage to make the crew put their seatbelt on going on the call but I was successful on the return. Steve said, " Was that the first time you rode out since the article was published?" "Yes" I say. Steve: "Was that the first time you made a crew use their seatbelts?" I say, "Yes." Steve's reply shows great wisdom, "The next time you do it will be easer for you." The more we practice doing the right thing - the easer doing the right thing becomes.

The next day in class Al, Steve, and I present the four test examples as a case study on organizational effectiveness. Steve adds a page by telling us that one of the members of the engine crew came to him later in the day and apologized for the incorrect behavior. The chiefs in the class admitted that they do not have a 200% proficiency level on seatbelt usage. They all agree we can and must do better. But the most discouraging agreement among them was that they did not think that 100% compliance 100% of the time with seatbelt usage is achievable.

If the fire service cannot get the little things right how can we ever expect to get the big things right. This is at the core of organizational effectiveness. Can any fire department be effective if they do not comply with the seatbelt rule, or alcohol rule, or ICS rule, or sexual harassment rule? As a life and death vocation, each of us does not get to pick and choose what rules we follow and which ones we ignore because there are dire consequences. When you read the NIOSH LODD reports, in every case the victim and or others were not following there own SOP's and or fire service doctrine.

On November 10, 2003 the Firehouse.com Fire Pole question was "When responding to alarms in your departmental fire apparatus do you wear a seatbelt?" The total votes were 11,287 only 55.7% replied yes, 32.4% no, 6.3% depends on incident, 4.8% depends on driver, and 0.8% other N/A. We must be able to better than that.

200% proficiency must be our goal because 55.7% correct cannot be an acceptable passing score for anything we do. What is your seatbelt passing score? What is your department's seatbelt passing score? Be careful how you answer - your life or the life of someone you love may depend on it.

End Note: The names of the crew are not included because it would be unfair to make examples of them when their behavior represents the norm, all be it incorrect, of the fire service. In addition, they had not read the "tattletale" article. I cannot hold people accountable if they do not know the standard. So, my promise is to let crews that invite me to ride along with them know upfront that I expect them to use their seatbelts.

Biographies

  • Allen Woo: Appointed Chief of the Washington Township Fire Department, May 2002. Has served as a Chief Officer for over 10 years and holds an A.A.S. in Fire Science and B.S. in Technical Education from the University of Akron. He is a Graduate of both the National Fire Academy's and Ohio Fire Chiefs Executive Fire Officer Programs.

  • Carolyn Smith-Clark: BS University of Maryland University College, MA Hood College, Fire Instructor III, Fire Educator III, and past elected City Council Member. She is the Mother of 6, Grandmother of 11, and a very wise woman.

  • Steve Kimple: 18 years of service the last 5 as Assistant Chief in charge of operations, City of Whitehall Division of Fire. He is a Graduate of and Adjunct Instructor for the Ohio Fire Executive Officer Program.

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