“In communications, familiarity breeds apathy.”
William Bernbach (1911-1982)
At a recent fire department meeting the fire chief was addressing several concerns regarding the blatant disregard of departmental policies and numerous safety related infractions by some of the members. The list was quite long, and each item cumulated in what the chief described as ignorance and/or apathy. Two bewildered looking firefighters were sitting near the back of the room when one whispered to the other, “What the hell is he talking about?” The other firefighter defiantly replied, “I don’t know and I don’t care!”
The American Heritage Dictionary defines ignorance, apathy and safety as follows:
Ignorance —The condition of being uneducated, unaware or uninformed.
Apathy —Lack of interest or concern, especially in matters of general interest or appeal; indifference.
Safety — The condition of being safe; freedom from danger, risk or injury.
Ignorance, apathy and safety — “I don’t know,” “I don’t care,” “it won’t happen to me,” or “one of them is going to get killed if they don’t.”
I am willing to bet that you don’t have to wait very long to hear one of these well used phrases uttered in your fire station. But in our minds, it always happens to someone else — or — I’m just a firefighter, what can little ol’ me do about this? That pretty much describes the attitude of many firefighters today; however, current LODD statistics tell another story, do they not? Many of us continue to live by the “ostrich theory” — our head is in the sand and our butt is in the air just waiting for someone or something to come along and kick it. Fire department members are often complacent or ignorant about important issues. And by their actions — or lack thereof — they surely don’t care. The negative forces usually perceive change, such as implementing safety changes, as causing “problems” and long for the good ol’ days when nothing ever changed except when someone is seriously injured or killed. This widespread phenomenon is not entirely their fault.
In the past, fire administrators have not typically been portrayed as great communicators. If the membership is not included in the decision-making process and given critical information that will ultimately affect them, what do you expect them to say? The fire service has changed drastically in the past 20 years and it will continue to change. As a result of this inevitable change, many departmental Standard Operation Guidelines (SOGs) or Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are out of date. Any attempt to update procedures or guidelines should include input from the entire membership.
In every department there are a chosen few that are always “in the know” that may have the ear of those that make the primary decisions affecting the entire membership. They are not always officers; they may be friends with the chief, a politician or board member. Rumors and innuendo permeate throughout the department and as a result, kill the buy-in necessary before most new concepts have a chance to succeed. This can be the major contributor of overall departmental apathy and discontent. Discontent breeds more discontent and this cycle will continue unless a fair and effective means of communication is utilized. While the NIMS system is necessary to achieve a safe and efficient outcome at an incident, the traditional chain of command sequence regarding non-emergency communication/safety and efficiency is outdated and detrimental to the modernization and proactive safety upgrades sorely needed in the modern fire service. Every good incident commander knows the adage “control the situation or the situation will control you”; the same management philosophy should apply to the overall fire service management practices —applying proactive principles of management rather than being reactive after a failure in the system is realized.
What steps can a department take to overcome this common problem? All things, good and bad, start at the top. It is ultimately the chief’s responsibility to open and maintain the lines of communication and to establish fair and impartial criteria that all shifts must conform to. Safety/efficiency is everybody’s business — or should be! An “open invitation” inner department email system is an excellent place to begin the quest for better communication. Well conceived suggestions and concerns can freely flow upward, bearing the name of the sender, which if written in the interest of all, should extend into an invitation to discuss the issue further. The chief may be wise to post the following sign on his/her door: This office has an open door policy. All problems are welcome — as long as you bring a solution! The fire department leadership must open and maintain a direct line of communication to those that are expected to get the job done when called upon. Only then, will widespread ignorance and apathy be overcome allowing the entire department to safely and efficiently move forward.
Dave Murphy retired as Assistant Chief of the Richmond (Kentucky) fire department and is currently an Associate Professor in the Fire Safety Engineering Technology program located at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is certified by the NFPA as a Certified Fire Protection Specialist and a principal member on NFPA 610, which deals with safety at motorsports venues.
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