Creating an Accountability Culture

CarolinaFireJournal - Douglas Cline
Douglas Cline
07/15/2014 -

Over the years as a firefighter and even as an officer I have heard, as well as saying it myself, we need to hold “those people” accountable. As a chief officer I hear that we need to hold people accountable from the troops in the field as well as officers. What is unique is that the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Tampa2 Summit concluded earlier this year. Over 300 fire service leaders and personnel from across the United States converged on Tampa and the Westin hotel 10 years after the initial meeting or the Life Safety Summit where the 16 Life Safety initiatives were developed as well as the efforts for the Everyone Goes Home programs. I had the food fortune of being a part of this group where my passion and energy to implement cultural change and efforts for the prevention of line of duty deaths and energy received a tremendous booster shoot with several catalysts added. All I can say is WOW!


We have the personal obligation, each and every one of us in the fire service, to step back and check our attitude about the culture we are a part of and most of all creating. Chief Tim Sendlebach made the profound analogy of where we are ... “We are either riding the wave or redirecting it.” So I ask you what are you doing? Stop and do some serious reflecting in the mirror, do a gut check and look within your core being, which is it; riding the wave or redirecting it? Be honest with yourself. What stops the ripple effect is an obstruction or it runs out of energy. Are you being the obstruction, aka change agent, leader, trainer, advocate for safer practices, better trained firefighters and fire officers and will be the voice that provokes thinking differently than the way we have in the past. Those who attended Tampa2 were challenged by the top fire service leaders to be that person who stops the ripple, which means we have an obligation to every brother and sister in this great profession both career and volunteer to Do IT! I am sure that we will be held to that, making us accountable. I personally take that directive seriously. I am asking you to join me.

So what does it mean to be “held accountable?” Unfortunately, most people view accountability as something that belittles them or happens when performance decreases or is off course, problems develop or results fail to materialize. After all, when things are sailing along smoothly, people rarely ask, “Who is accountable for this success?” Accountability in the fire service is typically associated with negativity, when in fact we need to be focused on the negative but even more focused on the good or positive, that is where we are impacting the majority of performance. Further, when we execute holding people accountable it is often referred to as beating people up. So this term is thrown around like a fastball in the ninth inning, but in reality has several curves that are associated as it is people’s perceptions as to what it means.

Webster’s dictionary defines “accountable” as “Subject to having to report, explain or justify; being answerable, responsible.” Notice how the definition begins with the words “subject to,” implying little choice in the matter. This confession-oriented and powerless definition suggests what we all have observed — accountability is viewed as a consequence for poor performance; it’s a principle you should fear because it can only end up hurting you.

Consider the following new definition of accountability: “A personal choice to seek excellence in all one does, rise above one’s circumstances and demonstrate the ability to accomplish goals through predicated knowledge, skills and abilities, ownership of a positive team oriented attitude focused on achieving desired results — to Conceive It, Believe in It, Own It, Problem Solve It, and Execute It.” This definition includes a mindset or attitude of continually asking, “What else can I do to rise above mediocrity and achieve the results the team and I desire?” We as firefighters stand ready — like was described during a general session in Tampa of when things are bad we stand up and say boldly SEND ME! Accountability requires a level of ownership, one that demands a constant raising of the bar that includes making, keeping and answering for personal commitments and actions. I am asking you to focus on that plus influence others positively so their actions will meet the expectations we are describing. Such a perspective embraces both current and future efforts, actions and attitudes. OK, now that we have armed you with this new definition of accountability, you can help yourself and others do everything possible to both overcome difficult circumstances and achieve desired results.

Set Clearly Defined Results
The first step towards creating a culture of accountability is to define clear concise expectations within your organization or company. We need to evaluate closely comparing the 16 Life Safety Initiatives to your department or company’s performance and mentality. Truly look at each of the 16 initiatives identifying which is applicable to your department and make sure you clearly define the goal.

Whether it’s response safety, use of seat belts, emergency scene performance, customer satisfaction or a return on education and training investments. Then make it clear to all your officers and employees from the bottom to the top ranks. Everyone must know what they are working for and how their contributions push the organization forward.

We need to focus on the exceptional performance and recognize it, reinforce it and appropriately reward that performance. This is not to say we don’t put time and effort into non-desired performance, but we have to re-enforce the good so people know what that good looks like. Leadership, as well as peers, must generate joint accountability for results. In an environment of team accountability, it is impossible for anyone even to think, let alone say, that he has done his job if the team has not achieved its targeted result.

A lot of effort went into dissecting the 16 Life Safety Initiatives with challenges to think to the next level focused on the future. I can say what was accomplished at Tampa2 was tremendous, but we will need you. We will need each and every one of you to embrace these components and get involved to see them to fruition. We always say send me when the bell rings for a call, so I am ringing the bell (ding, ding) for you to go places you have never gone before, think differently and do it differently. The challenge has been issued, I am not scared how about you?

Achieving Real Results
How many times have you heard a leader demand: “I don’t care how you do it. Just get it done!” I cringe at the thought of this as I have been on the receiving end. If they don’t care how it gets done then they have no accountability, they have no ownership in it and it must not be that important. Many times, organization charts, position descriptions and the old dump factor have pushed people into boxes. They give people the idea that they are not important and we are just using their skills to perform a defined function or set of tasks. This task-oriented mindset leads people to believe that if they perform their functions they’ve done what they’re supposed to do, whether or not the result was achieved. I think I just described a significant portion of the fire service. This is not what we are after! Effective leaders operate on the premise that their people must focus on achieving results. They lead people beyond the boundaries of their jobs and inspire them to pursue results by creating an environment that motivates them to ask, “Am I doing everything I can? They lead their people so that their “job” is to achieve results. Each person’s daily activities must be in alignment with the targeted results.

OK, you have the meat and potatoes of how and what, so what are you waiting for ... get moving, get started, go forth and do everything you can do to make a difference!

Accountability for Your Future
Only when you assume full accountability for your thoughts, feelings, actions, and results can you direct your own destiny. The ability to influence events and outcomes before they happen, redirect the ripple, is the real value and benefit of accountability.

The customary view of accountability fails to recognize that people or organizations can gain more from a proactive posture rather than a reactive one.

This new view of accountability I have just described can help revitalize your leadership character, strengthen global fire service pro-activeness to prevent line of duty deaths and injuries, heighten innovation, improve the quality of service and safety of our personnel and increase the responsiveness of the fire service to the needs of our professional cultural change.

My closing words are simple: If not I, who? Make “Everyone Goes Home” more than just words on a slide, a flier or lip service. Make it mean what it means! Be Safe!

Douglas Cline is a 32-year veteran and student of the Fire Service serving as Assistant Chief of Operations with Horry County Fire Rescue. Cline, a former Fire Chief, is a North Carolina Level II Fire Instructor, National Fire Academy Instructor and an EMT-Paramedic instructor for the North Carolina Office of Emergency Medical Services. Chief Cline is President of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI) and the Immediate Past President of the Southeastern Association of Fire Chiefs (SEAFC).
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