Learning vs. Accountability

BY BOBBY HALTON

I recently received three phone calls that raised some very complicated and disturbing thoughts on accountability and learning. The first call was from a newspaper writer, who asked me to speculate in relation to two firefighters dying in a fire. He asked if firefighters were being “surprised more” on the fireground.

The next call was about being available to visit with the firefighters in the same town, who were trying to understand what happened. The chief there wanted to share everything they had experienced to learn all they could from the event. This chief wanted to know what they didn’t anticipate or see, what they did see, and how they could avoid this in the future. He was convinced the fire service in general would be better by learning all they could from this tragedy. This organization felt compelled to learn all it could and accept the consequences. The members also cared a great deal that the cherished memories of the firefighters lost were honored, which would best be accomplished by learning from the tragedy.

The third call was different. It came from a firefighter who was involved in a different line-of-duty death. This firefighter was told by his chief that he could not speak to anyone about the event because of legal considerations. He was devastated, he was confused, he felt he was being silenced, and he was sure it was because “the bosses” were covering up the truth. He was upset because he felt the “truth” would never be known.

He is right; the “truth” may never be known. Truth is a very difficult thing when we are trying to understand dynamic hostile fire events. The truth lies in evaluating and deliberately trying to see as many different perspectives as possible in context. We know that no one perspective alone can provide enough detail for us to understand all the different influences that affect a fire and the firefighters at the time.

The struggle between accountability and learning for a sincere, conscientious community of firefighters can all come down to how the organization responds to the incident. The fire service itself, to a great degree, decides what is unforgivable and what is forgivable. We are forgiving when well-trained, well-led, well-equipped, and properly staffed firefighters are injured by unusual or unexpected fire behavior. This is where experience becomes a major factor: How can a firefighter who is “surprised” by hostile fire behavior be held accountable when his experience never included any previous hostile fire behavior? When we see a predominately residential fire department jammed up in a commercial event, is it forgivable?

The question becomes pretty complicated when human nature kicks in. If nobody gets seriously hurt, we are okay with it. When someone is injured or killed, the level of seriousness becomes extremely different. It is almost a standard comment in all professions like ours, where the work is conducted in conditions that are extremely dangerous and constantly changing and contain an unlimited number of variables.

The comment goes something like, “We did it that way a thousand times before, and nothing bad happened.” So it is okay as long as no one gets hurt; but if someone gets hurt is it different? When someone gets hurt, then we no longer feel it can be chalked up to inexperience or a simple technical/learning error.

We are extremely tolerant of inexperienced firefighters who make small and understandable errors on the fireground, because much of what we learn is only learned by actually fighting fires. And there is the problem. If we agree that expertise is developed over the course of many years of experience of fighting a variety of fires in a wide variety of buildings, then who is accountable when there is no experience, when fires are down, and when officers are promoting with very little experience?

We determine that a mistake because of a lack of experience is a forgivable mistake. We also get to decide what is a violation of our collective opinion of best practice. Lack of experience can be a factor 30 years into someone’s career because in our profession, the unknowns are infinite. No one ever has or ever will have seen it all or done it all. That is what makes learning all we can from events that are considered serious so critical to our ability to improve.

The first two calls were from an emotionally intelligent community. They were from departments that were surprised because modern fire behavior is radically more dynamic than it was 20 years ago. Tactics are improving because of departments like them who open the doors to the world when tragedy happens.

The third call is tragic, and the young man is right and wrong. The department is hiding, and by hiding and silencing members, it is rightly or wrongly concerned with accountability. Accountability involves commission or omission of the collectively understood behaviors that govern good firefighting.

Memphis and Phoenix are examples of departments with leadership who invited the collective American fire service inside to learn the lessons of those tragedies; there have been many others. We have begun moving in a good direction in our investigations. We need to learn all we can and, when appropriate, accept the responsibility for our shortcomings. Accountability is a gentler hand when we are open and allow as many points of view as exist to be explored and expressed. Truth is found in several points of view—each valid to the holder. Combined, they are valid to the observers, and this is how we continue to learn.

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