There are certain trends that continue in the field of public safety in general and the fire service in particular. Many of those traditions are positive, some are not. Fortunately, for every one of those not so great trends, there is something greater and better that can normally overcome it. For every arrogant officer, there is a servant leader—for every unmotivated “probie” that won’t lift a finger, there is a new hire that loves to learn and help—this is how we have survived, despite our lowest common denominators.
But of the negative traits, one of the most common laments in the firehouse and the dispatch center is that the fire service is far too reactive. Often, persons of all ranks wonder why “we have to have something bad happen before anything can change.”
Whether the efforts to improve firefighter safety after a firefighter fatalities or the change in dispatcher certification requirements after a tragic situation in Florida—the idea or the effort or the attempt to change almost always occurs only in the smoking debris of what once was presumed to an effective and stable organization—where problems are suddenly brought into the sunlight by a crisis or failure of incredible portions—totally unforeseen by most, but likely entirely anticipated by a few.
The damage to the morale of the employees is severe, the damage to the reputation of the agency is scalding and the outcomes for a city, state, or county government can be financially devastating. Not to mention the faith of the community in its public services can be shattered. Our brothers and sisters in the private sector also know of this phenomenon—we hold no unique place in the annals of inept problem anticipation and/or recognition. This week, it was published that the issues with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, whose batteries have a nasty habit of catching fire, were documented in 2006. A concerned employee wrote emails describing the problem—and was ignored and marginalized. Read about it here: http://www.nextgov.com/emerging-tech/2013/01/2006-battery-fire-destroyed-boeing-787-suppliers-facility/60809/ .
But why does this happen? Why, if everyone sees it, or if even one or two people see it, do we not fix obvious problems inside agencies that we claim to love—working with people we care about, doing a job we are passionate for?
I think the answer lies somewhere in that caring, and in a lack of training for people to be effective managers and leaders. But even more than that, it lies in a very simple concept: Inertia. From high school physics class hopefully you recall this Law—a body at rest tends to stay at rest—a body in motion tends to stay in motion. You may also know that law from your experiences trying to hit the gym. Don’t go for a couple of days—and watch your exercise routine go very quickly the way of the eight-track tape; Beta VCRs; and the Romney Presidential Campaign. What we do, we tend to keep doing—unless something forces a change.
Think about most public safety agencies and those that lead them. They are perfectly happy with things as they are. How often have you heard a variation of “one hundred years of tradition, unimpeded by progress” used to describe the fire service? We have all said it. But what does it really mean?
It means that those inside most agencies, no matter how much they may complain about day to day issues—are perfectly happy with things just as they are. For those in leadership roles; they are even happier. For enacting change, or even considering it, is really hard work. And when you work in public safety—where salaries and evaluations don’t depend on performance—there is no institutional reason to go anywhere but the same place as yesterday. When you add in the fact that many agencies bathe in pride and honor and glory (whether overtly or subvert, deserved or not)— the ego decides that anything that challenges the perception that things are fine is not just wrong, but a threat. Together, any interest in doing things differently is inherently unwanted. Any voice from inside or outside that highlights an issue is a personal attack; and only the people in positions of power inside the organization—those with the most to gain from nothing—think they have the answers to any problem, or the right to ask any question.
And that is where inertia comes in. For an organization, the only thing that can change the direction of a hundred or thousand people moving in one direction, or not moving at all, is a very powerful force. The only thing that can clear the cobwebs of inaction, or the stain of ignorance, is a tragedy. It is not until something very bad happens that the light comes to bear on whatever issue or challenge was, to that point, mostly ignored.
Far too often, a death of a civilian is not what causes change. Sadly—routinely— it is the death of a member of the service. The most significant shock that can happen to a department is what brings out the questions, calls out for answers, and pushes the agency into motion.
The history of this pattern is long and extensive in the fire service. How many firefighter fatalities did it take before we decided that Rapid Intervention Teams were a good idea? How many vacant buildings have claimed firefighters, before people started asking—why? In the 911 center, how many senseless citizens were lost due to preventable mistakes—before discussion began of certification and training and technology to allow dispatchers—require dispatchers—to meet basic standards?
It doesn’t have to be this way. History shows us so many great leaders who listened to information from all sources; who welcomed ideas and influence and support from all sides to chart a new way forward. But many of them too, had problems along the way. For many of them, however, they were already moving forward. And the rule of inertia applies to them as well—and the power of those who fought Martin Luther King, or the US during WWII, or against all the innovators in the arts; science; sport—all of those who said “no you cant”; “that’s not your concern” “or “Mind your business” or “We have always done it that way”—all they succeeded in doing was pushing someone—or something—or some movement forward.
So ask yourself, are you moving forward in your agency? In your life? Are you letting the forces that try to stop you push you forward? Or are you letting that resistance hold you back. Whether a fire department or a person striving for a degree—the facts are the same and the price to be paid for never moving, never growing, never learning is the same. We owe it to our organizations to do better—we owe it those we serve not to accept that things must always be the way they are or were. With the ever increasing diversity of people in the public safety field and the trends in education and training—the ideas to prevent the next tragedy will possibly come before things really get bad.
Are you ready to listen?