The Safety Leadership

June 18, 2009
Chances are good most of the emergency workers who have been hurt or killed on the job were competent and confident and never thought it would happen to them.

Emergency services providers, firefighters, EMS and police, are in dangerous vocations. That's a given. There is simply no way to completely eradicate the unpredictable nature of the work you do. To some extent everyone in this business knows that. Some are zealous about trying to ensure there are no casualties while others are zealous about ensuring the job remains one where providers are willing (and able) to take the risk necessary to save lives and property.

Part of the heroic public perception of being an emergency services provider is founded in the profound respect your citizens have for your willingness to give everything, including your life, to save the life of a complete stranger or to save their possessions. That respect has been forged over many decades of selfless acts of courage by peers making the ultimate sacrifice. It's well deserved...well earned.

However, there is a balance to be struck when it comes to the safety of emergency providers. In general, I think that as a person gains experience they become smarter and more confident at what they do. That's a good thing. Smart and confident people tend to be successful people. But an overabundance of those two qualities can lead to over confidence and complacency.

As you develop your competency to the expert level some very exciting things happen with regard to your ability to perform your job. First, things become easier. You don't have to concentrate so hard on doing the task because your training and practice have developed habits. Those habits become the behaviors you trust and rely on when you are under stress and pressure to perform. Good habits pay dividends and you are able to perform without much conscious thought about it. You see this all the time in well-trained athletes who, under pressure, perform flawless routines that were developed as a result of intense, repetitive practice.

A problem can arise when providers becomes overly confident and complacent about their skills and abilities. As you perform routine tasks flawlessly over time you build confidence. While confidence is good, an overly confident person can become complacent. Whether it's a typical room-and-contents fire or a routine medical response for chest pains call at the mall, the nature of the services you provide should always have you on-guard against typical and routine.

One of the challenges for department safety officers, training officers, and chief officers is being willing, and able, to take a stance on issues of worker safety that may not be popular with front line workers. However, this stance does not have to be rooted in conflict and discord. The people on the front line are doing the job every day and that repetitive practice makes them good at what they do. It's the job of the safety, training and chief officers to help the front line workers keep perspective about their level of confidence and how easy it is to let complacency sneak into their minds and into their operations.

Chances are good most of the emergency workers who have been hurt or killed on the job were competent and confident and never thought it would happen to them. Confidence can create blind spots in your vision and thinking. Confidence can cause you to take certain things for granted because you've seen it so many times before. A successful, proactive safety-oriented leader will challenge you to look at things in non-typical and non-routine ways.

One way to do this is for the safety leader to discuss routine and typical calls in the context of the things that could have went wrong...if only one or two details had changed. For example, emergency responders are usually action-oriented and aggressive toward solving problems. At a house fire, the typical plan of action may be to conduct an aggressive interior fire attack. The safety leader can challenge crews by hosting a discussion about what factors should be considered in a go or no-go decision. In other words, at some point in time there has to be a point of no-entry, or a point of withdrawal. Asking these challenging questions, in advance of the real incident, forces the discussion in an environment that is not high-stress or time-compressed like the real emergency scene will be. Gaining consensus about the factors that will be considered when making these decisions, in advance of an actual emergency, should reduce anger and confusion on the part of crews and supervisors.

Fortunately, in today's high tech, instant-access, on-line environment you have at your disposal an arsenal of videos and case studies to help facilitate the challenge. Watch the videos together and ask the crew to point what they see happening. Ask them if they think the crew in the video sees the same thing? Watch how the incident is progressing (for better or worse). What are they seeing that's helping them make that determination? If the incident is getting worse, ask At what point should the crews be pulled out of the building? Or, How much more time should they be allowed inside under the conditions you are observing? Or, What are the crews inside accomplishing under these conditions? Or, Do you think the crews inside know what the conditions are looking like on the outside?

When you review the case study, read it out loud and ask the crew to chime in when they hear something that may be a cue or clue that something was headed in a bad direction. As you prepare for this challenge, review the case study in advance and make some notes in the margin of the talking points you want to be sure to cover. Similar to the video exercise above, ask the challenging questions that get the crews discussing what was going on at the incident scene that were tell-tale of an impending doom. Challenge your crew by asking if they think the personnel at the incident saw it coming? If not, why not? If so, why didn't they take some different action to avoid the catastrophe? If the event conditions changed rapidly (i.e., little time to react) issue a challenge to discuss the cues and clues that may have indicated there was a problem brewing. Discuss why those cues and clues were not captures or processed into meaning.

All of these questions create the challenge and the challenge is the catalyst for discussion, learning, and mutual understanding of expectations. You are all on the same team, serving the same customer, with the same objective: to accomplish your tasks in a safe manner, taking risks that are appropriate to the conditions you are facing. Asking the challenging questions in advance of an incident will help build mutual respect and keep the confidence levels and complacency in-check.

RICHARD B. GASAWAY PhD, a Contributing Editor, joined the fire service in 1979 and has served six emergency services departments in West Virginia, Ohio, and Minnesota. He holds bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees in finance, economics, business administration and leadership. Chief Gasaway has written over 80 books, book chapters and journal articles on the topic of leadership and emergency operations. He has also presented on these topics at more than 500 regional, national, and international conferences. He the host of the Leader's Toolbox Podcast on [email protected]. To read Richard's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. You can reach Rich on the web at:

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!