Over the past few years, there has been much discussion in the fire service about Crew Resource Management (CRM), a concept that originated in the airline industry and utilizes every member of the crew to help with the overall safety of the aircraft. Of particular note is the checklist that pilots go through with the co-pilot every time they fly to ensure that every detail is addressed in the same way for each flight.
Ask yourself, “How many errors do you want the pilot of your aircraft to make?” Similarly, in the fire service we should ask, “When we respond to an incident, how many errors do we want the incident commander (IC) to make?” In each case, the answer should be a resounding “zero!” Unfortunately, lack of consistency in policy implementation in many fire departments has many ICs believing that multiple errors at an incident are to be expected.
I recently attended the funeral of a firefighter who valiantly gave his life in a residential house fire. Although this is not the first funeral I’ve attended, it was one of the few in which the risk actually seems to have been worth the sacrifice. Not that the death of any firefighter is necessarily “justified,” but sometimes, despite almost all the correct actions taken, a firefighter’s life is still lost. Of course, if people dig deep enough, they can probably find something imperfect with any incident. After all, almost every incident is a series of activities interrupted by human error. This means our challenge as leaders is to keep incident errors to the absolute lowest number possible or, preferably, eliminate them altogether. To do that, our goal must be perfection.
But how do we achieve perfection? In reality, we never actually get there. As the great Arthur Ashe once said, “Success is a journey, not a destination.”
Although absolute perfection is not possible, asking people to follow very strict safety policies in certain areas is not nearly as difficult as some make it out to be. For example, implementing the incident command portion of the incident management system should be one of the areas in which every fire chief expects perfection every single time. This is not an area where we can afford to be soft, indecisive or shaky in our perspectives.
With this in mind, consider the following approaches as you strive for perfection:
- Prevention, including a strong emphasis on community-wide risk-reduction efforts. What can you do to minimize your community’s vulnerabilities? The best way to manage an incident is to not have the incident in the first place.
- Preparedness, or a plan to react appropriately to potential risks. This also includes preparing firefighters for risks with policies, equipment and effective training prior to an incident. Particular emphasis should be placed on training, establishing clear performance standards for command personnel, and verifying the training levels of competency that command personal are expected to possess.
- Strong command at every incident, including a command structure that provides adequate span of control and oversight over the resources. It’s better to have too much command than not enough.
- Strong safety officer presence before, during and after the incident will help keep the safety message clear and consistent.
Making It Happen
As with most cultural shift efforts, safety is something fire chiefs must push if they expect it to happen. We as fire chiefs sometimes set up and/or allow systems to exist that do not challenge people to do things right more than a couple of times a year (usually when we are holding promotional assessments or annual evaluations). To what degree do we allow members of our organizations to give 90, 80, 70 percent or less of what is required of them? Is perfection too much to ask? I suggest that we always expect perfection in the management of the incidents to which we respond. After all, even on our safest and most effective day, this occupation is extremely risky; the small percentage that we allow to slip could be critical or even deadly.