Many Christmases ago, my brother received a bow and quiver of arrows from Santa. This is not the smartest gift for a 12-year-old boy who has a running jihad with the next-door neighbors.
The blood feud between my brother and the next-door people began several years earlier when on a lazy summer day, he and his best friend took their beloved pets for a walk to the park. My brother’s pet was our family dog, a 220-lb. mastiff. His friend’s pet was an angry billy goat with horns painted shocking neon pink. When the city irrigated the park behind our houses (flooding it with about 6 inches of water), the boys would play gladiators and chariots by rigging harnesses and small sheets of plywood to their pets. It was quite a sight to watch outlaw 12 year olds surf behind a large dog and a bucking goat. Our next-door neighbor was a surly old woman who didn’t cotton to young’uns frolicking in irrigation that her tax dollars bought and paid for. She attempted to shoo the boys out of the park, which led to an unfortunate encounter between her ass and a set of pink goat horns. The old house Frau called the police, earning the scamps a stern lecture regarding the hazards associated with playing in irrigation water of an undetermined quality and the future consequences of assault and battery with a goat.
All of us have a nasty old lady that lives on our street, and most people don’t pay much attention to her constant grievances-we wish she’d just get a life. The set of parents in this fable were no exception; they told their sons to stay away from the nasty lady next door. They did urge the boys to keep better control of their animals, because the goat just as easily could have ass-rammed a kind and decent person.
Over the next few months, the biggest issue between the lads and the crazy lady was the ever-decreasing length of her horses’ tails. She was convinced my brother and his friend were sneaking over at night and grooming her ponies. The mystery came to an abrupt end when she came home with a pair of Doberman pinscher roommates for the ponies. All was calm until that fateful Christmas, when he received his treasured bow-and-arrow set.
This was not a kid’s toy with rubber suction-cup arrows. It was a long bow with steel-tipped arrows. (The image I still associate with that Christmas is my brother holding the bow behind him, placing it between his legs, hooking the end of the bow around one foot, utilizing his opposite leg as a fulcrum and using his full might to bend the other end over in order to string the weapon.) For the rest of our Christmas vacation, young Robin Hood’s quiver grew increasingly sparse, as evidenced by all the arrows sticking out of palm trees 50 feet in the air, along with the misfires that landed God knows where.
The few remaining arrows that led to the bow’s permanent removal from my brother’s arsenal had been fired through the next-door neighbor’s bathroom window, impaling themselves four to five feet above her commode. The irate, moo-moo wearing, curlers-in-her-hair neighbor showed up at my parents’ front door with a fist full of arrows, foaming at the mouth and ranting in a language that none of us understood. My parents calmed her down and assured her that the issue would be handled without passion or prejudice and would not be repeated. Under serious examination, my brother quickly broke and admitted his misdeed. The confession so surprised my parents that they were at a loss over stern discipline and settled on the destruction of the bow. My brother feared that my parents were only toying with him and assumed there would be a future flaying. To date, it is the only time in the history of our family when one of the children looked forward to going back to school.
In the end, the thing that saved my brother was taking personal responsibility for something he did. Thirty years later it’s pretty easy to sit back and think he really didn’t have any other choice-after all, he was the only 12 year old in the neighborhood who was running around shooting green, steel-tipped arrows with yellow feathers. The other mitigating circumstance was the neighborhood’s contempt for the victim. This was a woman who went on a fruitless crusade to have a little boy’s beloved pet goat destroyed, and many of the residents felt she had it coming. I think it was the first time my brother ever admitted to wrong-doing, and it threw my parents for a loop. All previous incidents ended with name, rank and serial number or a flat-out lie that it was my sister’s fault. (This became my brother’s standard response, which would illicit a standard response from my parents.) The act of contrition, combined with the mitigating circumstances (i.e., a goat-hating hag) turned the tide. Life would be much simpler if adults acted like my 12-year-old brother did back then.
There’s No Shame in Taking Blame
One of the problems plaguing the full spectrum of society is no one takes responsibility for their actions. In fact, this may be the mother of all problems and the root cause of all other problems. The problem ranges all the way from the President of the United States (“I did not have sex with that woman,” or for you liberals, “We will find the WMDs”), all the way to petty criminals who blame society for their lack of opportunity and the general insolvency of their wretched lives.
Several months ago, we had an incident where a firefighter operating in an aerial platform above a defensive fire got burned. This injury occurred for several reasons, mainly because the platform was operating in the wrong position and the firefighter wasn’t wearing the proper protective gear. We caught the entire episode on tape (from multiple camera angles), and since no one was disabled or killed, and this wasn’t the only out-of-balance act that occurred at this particular incident, we shared the incident critique and the lessons learned with our entire department (and anyone else who would listen; we did a workshop on this incident at our department’s annual Incident Management Symposium).
A week or so after the flaming-bucket incident, several chief officers were discussing the event at the fire chief’s monthly meeting (the same man who broke my brother’s bow-and-arrow set into dozens of little pieces with his bare hands). I sat in stunned amazement as I listened to response chiefs making arguments that the fix for the safety violations at this incident was somehow training related. After the first guy offered up the training antidote, some of his counterparts began to chime in with similar comments. Having felt like I just ingested a platter full of brightly colored hallucinogenic rain forest frogs, I asked a question befitting a deranged homeless person: “Does this mean we’re going to go out and train all of our members on how to put on their gloves?” The fire chief, who was enjoying the discussion, shot me a polite reply that really meant shut up and urged the young, intelligent and vibrant battalion chiefs to continue. They were ready and willing. “The sector officer on the backside of the building had a crew advance an attack line into a position they shouldn’t have been in, and a falling wall knocked one of the firefighters senseless. No one ever trained us what to do when crews take offensive positions at defensive fires.” I wanted to crawl into a dry cleaning bag and take a nap.
Most of the unsafe acts I have been party to weren’t the result of insufficient training. In fact, it was quite the opposite. I was able to survive unsafe actions because of the quality of my training, along with an abundance of sheer luck. Our department has taken a very healthy and positive organizational approach to sharing the lessons learned when one of our members performs unsafe or non-standard actions by incorporating those lessons learned into department-wide training. In many cases, these events are the result of acts most of us have done on an almost routine basis and served as a vivid reminder of why we call it a hazard zone. Analyzing and sharing these “near hits” has become the most effective way I’ve seen to improve firefighter safety.
Despite the organizational mileage we get out of these events, we do not execute our members when they make mistakes. If that was our practice, none of us would still be here. Admitting that you make a mistake is the first step in keeping it from happening again. You have got to wonder when a fire chief says, “We wouldn’t have changed a thing” after a firefighter dies in the line of duty. Do you think that chief’s firefighters look at one another and wonder who’ll be the next one to bite the dust when they do it exactly that way again?
I have been involved in my share of fire attacks that didn’t have any resemblance to our SOPs. I recall standing with the assembled group after some of these tactical misadventures, listening to battalion chiefs gloss over serious errors, commend poor attack-line positions and late salvage work, only to become irate when one of the firefighters had the nerve to wear a uniform shirt with cracked stenciling on it. All of the workers recognized their mistakes and always thought less of the boss when he chose to ignore them. The best bosses I’ve worked for were honest when critiquing an operation without making us feel stupid when we did something wrong.
One of the benefits of the training programs our department has implemented over the last four or five years has been the standardization of structural firefighting. This has created a system where the post-incident critiques are based on the same systems we use in training and actual incident operations. This has shifted our after-incident review from a rank- or ego-based critique to an approach grounded in, “What did you have when you arrived on scene?” and “What did you do based on what we agreed on over the last four or five years?” This has brought us closer together in an operational sense. Senior members of the command staff have remarked that at our department’s recent critiques, all the incident participants appear to have been at the same fire, whereas in the past the group of incident accomplices sounded like they were all at different fires.
A few weeks after the fire chief’s meeting, I sat in on our department’s critique of the flaming-bucket incident. Many of the participants offered a variety of explanations regarding why and how things got out of whack. It sounded a lot like doomsday psychics trying to explain why their end-of-the-world prophecies didn’t come true. Deflection abounded until the sector officer operating where a crew advanced an attack line up to the doorway of a fully involved defensive fire spoke up. She told her story and ended it with, “When I came around the corner and I saw where the crew was, I knew they shouldn’t have been that close to the building, but I didn’t have the balls to tell them to move.”
I learned several things from this critique: 1) It was the first time she had ever been a sector officer; 2) We should probably train officers on how to handle situations where crews are operating in unsafe positions; and 3) She had the biggest balls in the room. There are a couple of things at the heart of this matter. We are all human and like to be recognized and commended when we do something right, but it is more refreshing when someone who makes a mistake takes the credit for it.