Does the fire service have a personal accountability problem? Personal, not personnel. Mention accountability in the fire service, and the first thought is personnel accountability, the incident commander making sure no one is lost, trapped, or missing on the fireground. This article is not about personnel accountability, it’s about Personal Accountability–being accountable for your actions and behavior.
Today’s society seems more focused on placing blame on why others are at fault vs. taking personal responsibility for behaviors or actions. The fire service is not immune to this accountability issue. Our service with its rules regulations, policies, procedures, and best practices lays out a semi-rigid work environment. Our para-military organization makes it easy to place the blame game up the chain of command to skirt responsibility for our actions. This is further complicated when academy recruits and probationary firefighters are taught not to speak (your company officer will tell you what you need to know and do). While the concept that new firefighters must follow and trust their company officer is important, we must empower all firefighters at all levels to be accountable for their actions.
During the 2018 Fire Department Instructors Conference International, Keynoter Baltimore County (MD) Captain Angela Hughes talked about her very first day as a probationary firefighter. Her captain, Tom Pender, stated, “You haven’t failed until you blame someone else.” On her very first day, her captain was telling her, a probationary firefighter, to be accountable.
To get started, let’s acknowledge the fact that we are all accountable for our actions. Yes, as a backstep firefighter, I am accountable for my actions, my behavior, and my preparedness to do my job. Recently I have been promoted to captain, and now I have a higher level of accountability when it comes to our company. My battalion chief has a higher level of accountability when it comes to our shift, and my fire chief has an even higher level of accountability when it comes to our organization. However, the foundation of accountability of any organization lies in each individual regardless of rank, title, or position.
I am accountable for my attitude and actions. Others may influence how I feel. Others may challenge me in staying the course and taking the high road. In the end, my actions and my attitude are just that–mine. I am responsible for them. I am accountable for them. John C. Maxwell says: “People may hear your words but they feel your attitude.”
Typically, when we think about accountability in the fire service, we think about the incident commander tracking the whereabouts of firefighters on the fireground. (Photo by author)
Accountability Starts with Me became my mantra after a challenging time in my career when I allowed my emotions and actions to drift slightly off course because I had become frustrated. After some deep soul searching, I needed to take accountability and own my actions. I needed to take a deep look at my roles and responsibilities within the organization and make sure I was focusing on them. I needed to ask myself, “Am I the solution or the problem?”
Being accountable for my actions is fulfilling the personal responsibility I accepted to my organization and the community I protect when I took the oath of office. Recently, I heard of an organization that requires members to take their oath of office every five years. Sometimes we forget those vows we took to protect our citizens and to serve our organization; this serves as a little reminder.
Accountability is not about rules and regulations. In an ideal world, we would not need rules and regulations. Personnel would do the right thing because it is right, not out of fear of discipline for breaking the rules. As firefighters, we are heroes in the community; we need to rise above the minimum expectations set forth by rules and regulation.
Gear at a state of readiness on the apparatus allows for quick donning. I keep my traffic vest on my coat because I find it is easier to take off the vest for a structure fire than putting on the vest for a motor vehicle accident. My radio is sitting on top of my coat ready to don under my coat. My radio gets a fresh battery at every shift and radio channel confirmed. (Photo by author)
If you still do not believe that there may be an accountability problem with some members of the fire service, I ask you this question: Do red seat belts in a fire truck make us safer? The answer is yes but for the wrong reasons. Firefighters are more likely to wear the seat belt for fear of disciplinary action. This is not limited to the fire service. In the State of Missouri, the Workers Compensation Insurance Company issued bright orange seat belt wraps so employers can easily identify if seat belts are being worn or not. Is seat belt usage up? Yes. Unfortunately, it is not up because of personal accountability but rather fear of discipline.
Accountability begins on our way to work–arriving mentally and physically ready for work. Some organizations define your responsibilities when you arrive. Regardless if these rules exist, we have a personal responsibility to be prepared for an alarm as soon as we walk through the door. We are accountable for being job ready. Checking our gear and ensuring our equipment is ready prior to our shift beginning are our responsibility. We have a personal responsibility to the citizens we protect, to our organization, and to the members of our company but, most importantly, we have a personal responsibility to ourselves and our family to ensure we are combat ready. Turnout gear is staged at the apparatus in a ready position, just not thrown on the floor. How is our SCBA? Is it functioning properly? Is the tank full–not just to minimum standards but full? In the heat of the battle, wouldn’t it be nice to have a few extra breaths? PSI equals breaths, and breaths equal life. Does our flashlight work? Are our tools present and in working order? Recently, I had an opportunity to teach a class on fireground survival. It was surprising how many members did not carry wire cutters. What might be even worse is some members had cutters, but they were rusted closed. For drivers, is the truck at a state of readiness? Is the booster tank full–once again, not showing full on the lights on the pump panel but full to the tank overfill? In the heat of battle, those few gallons can mean the difference between life and death.
Place gear on the apparatus first thing in the morning before you do anything else. (Photo by Rachel Gettemeier)
We are accountable to our companies–being prepared and proficient with our job. We need each other for an efficient team. The team is only as good as its weakest link. We don’t want to be responsible for compromising the team’s safety or mission failure.
We are accountable to our family and the family of the firefighters who serve on our crew. When we fail to be accountable for our responsibilities, we fail all of them. We took an oath to protect the citizens of our community. We also took an oath to be there for our family, to provide for them.
We are accountable to our shift–our interactions with other shifts represent our crew, shift, BC, and other individuals who make up our shift. Be to work early. Arrive with a positive attitude. Leave the station and apparatus in good condition for the oncoming shift.
We are accountable to our organization–we are a representative of our organization on duty and off, within the district and outside the district. Every interaction we have with the public we are an agent of the organization. Every business inspection, station tour, public relations event, shopping trip to the grocery store, and even emergency calls. You never know what type of day or trials and tribulations a citizen maybe going through. A positive interaction may change the course.
We are accountable to our citizens–the house, apparatus, and equipment belong to them; they are tools they loan us to protect them. In return, they expect us to be prepared to safely and efficiently use the resources they provided to protect them. Chief John Eversole of Chicago one said: “Our department takes 1,120 calls every day. Do you know how many of the calls the public expects perfection on? 1,120. Nobody calls the fire department and says, ‘Send me two dumb-ass firemen in a pickup truck.’ In three minutes they want five brain-surgeon decathlon champions to come and solve all their problems.” He is correct. Our customers want the very best service anytime they call us.
Consider checking SCBA on your back in the position that you use it. Gloves add an additional layer of realism. Typical SCBA checks have members facing the SCBA, putting everything in reverse. (Photo by Rachel Gettemeier)
Company officers have the added responsibility to ensure the above task are completed. In the case of employees who do not accept personal responsibility, they must ensure they are meeting the expectations of the agency. Managing people is something most bosses hate. Failure on your part to manage poor behavior is the equivalent of accepting the poor behavior. It is also your responsibility to make sure your crew is trained and given the tools to succeed.
Some organizations have greater resources and opportunities to train than others. However, you can drill in the engine house, the basics skills are what trip up firefighters. The Internet is full of training articles and videos; just do your homework and ensure the videos are from reputable instructors or organizations.
Take personal responsibility, accountability, for your actions. Remember, accountability is not about rank or position. Being accountable is the courage to stand up for what is right, regardless of who is looking and what promotion opportunities are around the corner. Accountable firefighters build accountable companies. Accountable companies build accountable organizations. An accountable organization provides the most efficient services with the resources provided.
To quote Captain Mark vonAppen, Palo Alto (CA) Fire Department: “Excellence is my responsibility.”
Brian S. Gettemeier has been in the fire service for 27 years, with the past 24 years as a career firefighter with the Cottleville (MO) Fire Protection District, where he serves as a captain. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire service management from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and has numerous state certifications. He teaches all-hazard classes for numerous organizations throughout the state of Missouri.