Don’t Throw Out the Baby with the Bathwater

Bobby Halton   By Bobby Halton

The fire service has always had a very interesting perspective on change. For as long as anyone can remember, we have been opposed to it-or at least that’s what you would believe if you listened to some of the discussions that go on routinely when we get together. At almost every fire service gathering or whenever you flip through one of the fire periodicals or visit a fire Web site, you can always find someone quoting the often-used phrase “1,000 years of tradition unimpeded by progress.” Unfortunately, you’d have to be completely deaf, dumb, and blind to even remotely believe that that line applies in any way to the fire service. The other interesting thing about those who believe that the fire service has been opposed to progress is that they always identify the other guy as being the one opposed to it and not themselves.

The real truth is that the fire service has been one of the best examples of an institution that is changing with technology, society, and research. Look at how our gear has adapted as we have discovered new fabrics and new methods for putting these fabrics together. Look at how our command system has evolved and continues to evolve as we learn more about how the brain works and how people react under pressure and stress. Look at how our apparatus have evolved from hand-drawn carriages (it was lamented when they phased into horse-drawn carriages) and how the horses were missed when they phased into motorized apparatus.

We have always been incredible change agents and will always be incredible change agents; but change needs to be managed, and that is where sometimes things get away from those involved in change. The fire service is not immune to having things get away from us when it comes to change. There is a scientific principle called the “normalization of deviance” and the related concept of “drift into failure,” which is also the title of an excellent book on the subject by Dr. Sidney Dekker. Normalization of deviance is generally defined as “the gradual process through which unacceptable practice or standards become acceptable. As the deviant behavior is repeated without catastrophic results, it becomes the social norm for the organization.”

Drift into failure, as described by Dekker, has five features. First, just like on the fireground, are uncertainty about the event or the environment; a scarcity of resources, as in the initial alarm; and time pressures, which force us to make decisions that sometimes deviate from our normal safety procedures. Second, drift happens in small incremental steps, almost invisible in review. Third, regardless of how large a system is, enough small changes can lead to catastrophic results. Fourth is unruly technology: It is often misunderstood how our technologies are going to interact until it’s too late. Fifth is that complex systems can sometimes overwhelm and subvert the very structure that is supposed to keep them from failing.

It’s important to understand drift into failure and normalization of deviance because they have affected the fire service in the past. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, as we became enamored with our newfound technological advances, improved bunker gear, improved radio communications, preconnected lightweight 1 3⁄4-inch hose, and improved command systems, we began to focus more on our command systems and our ability to penetrate fires more rapidly and more deeply than before.

In a classic example of the normalization of deviance, when the mayor of Bipperville found out that the Bopperville Fire Department was staffing with three, he decided it could work there too. Then so did Kipperville and Copperville. Some politicians even thought, “Well, two should work then.” And so began the drift in our staffing numbers: We lost the doorman, we began to vent more haphazardly, we stopped paying attention to wind direction, we lost sight of riding positions, we began to advance without backup lines, backup lines became redundant instead of bigger, and the list goes on and on. All were small changes to the system, but all had the ability to cause our systems to fail and, when brought together, could create the perfect storm on a dynamic and complex fireground.

We are change agents, and it’s important that we respect the hard-learned lessons of the past while at the same time embracing and integrating the newfound knowledge and technology of today. There is tremendous wisdom to be found in what used to be called common sense. One of the best pieces of advice comes to us from the technological advances in the 1800s. Back then, when homes were constructed, a small porch or enclosure was generally built right off the kitchen to house the bathtub.

On Saturday night, the matron of the household would heat water on the kitchen stove and fill the tub. The head of the household, generally the father, would take the first bath, followed by the matron, followed by the oldest son, followed by the next child, and the next, and the next, and the next, until finally the baby got the opportunity to be bathed in what was generally at this point cool sewage. After the baby was bathed, someone had to throw out the bathwater, from which we get the old saying, “Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.”

We need to embrace what we have learned from experience and tradition, for much of it comes at a dear price. We need to embrace what we are discovering in our research, for it is incredibly valuable and accurate. But we need to be mindful not to throw out the wisdom with the data.

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