By David Griffin
Never Forget is a phrase said all too often between firefighters to remember our colleagues lost in the line of duty. We can say “never forget” all we want, but until we actually put this phrase into action, it’s simply just two words. The City of Charleston (SC) Fire Department (CFD) put this phrase into action after losing nine of its firefighters in a furniture store fire on June 18, 2007. The course “In Honor of the Charleston 9: A Study of Change Following Tragedy” focuses on the action that went behind the words Never Forget to make REAL change in an organization. The course is based on the best-selling book of the identical name that has assisted organizations–whether public service, nonprofit, or for profit–all over the world change their organizational culture to one focused on learning.
As a captain with the CFD and the operator of the firs- due engine on that tragic day in 2007, I along with my colleagues have partaken in a change process over the past seven years that most firefighters or anyone in any other profession will experience. It is my hope that no one will have to experience this amount of change because of losing members of their organization. This class was developed to identify areas of an organization that need to be addressed before an emergency incident turns into a tragedy.
Over the past two years, I’ve been blessed to travel to more than 100 organizations with this program and describe what actual change looks like from a firsthand point of view. The reason for this is simple. I want the fire service to learn from someone who was actually on the scene of a line-of-duty death (LODD) incident rather than someone who studies it and has no personal connection to it.
Although we can all learn from individuals who study these events, it was hard for me to attend a class a few years ago at a large fire service conference and listen to a speaker attempt to explain what happened on June 18, 2007, when much of the information was significantly incorrect. I thought that if the information in that presentation was incorrect, then was the information published on other LODD incidents incorrect as well? If so, then how are we learning as a profession if the truth of an organizational culture and a LODD incident are not spoken about by the actual responders? More importantly, why aren’t the actual responders empirically studying the event in which they were involved to provide cutting edge research on new tactics, leadership styles, and equipment that could have prevented the tragedy? That’s just it: We weren’t.
While researching decades of LODD studies, I realized that the only studies published showed the deficiencies of an organization that lost a firefighter and how the specific incident unfolded. However, there were no studies on what happened to the firefighters who responded to a LODD incident personally and professionally. This was an area of not only the fire service that needed to be studied but also of public service as a whole.
What happened to the responding firefighters? Did they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder? Did they walk away from the job they loved? Did their family suffer from the tragedy? Did they take the necessary steps to make significant progression in their organization? In all of the studies I read, these answers weren’t there. This was concerning. Firefighters rely on experiences from one another to assist in their response to certain situations. In the most tragic of situations, firefighters did not know what their colleagues went through after losing someone in the line of duty. Therefore, this course had to be developed.
During the course, attendees are taken on an emotional ride from the dark days of firefighting in the CFD to today, where the CFD focuses on innovative tactics, leadership styles, cutting-edge training, and up-to-date equipment. The attendees hear radio traffic from the final minutes of nine firefighters’ lives, view never before seen video footage from the incident, review research on the concept of organizational learning, and witness the transformation of an organization from one that was not following national best practices to one that is leading the way in this arena. That is a significant amount of change that came to fruition over the past seven years thanks to organizational learning.
Organizational learning is a collective learning process where group-based and individual “learning experiences concerning the improvement of organizational performance and/or goals are transferred into organizational routines, processes and structures, which impact the future learning activities of the organizations members.”1 (Schilling & Kluge, 2009, p. 338). Therefore, if organizations do not continuously change internally and adapt to changes met in their operational environment, survival and success will become difficult.2 (Lahteenmaki et al., 2001).
Let’s relate this to a product we all know and love, the cellphone. Stay with me here. Ask yourself, how many cellphones have I purchased since they were introduced? Probably more than you can remember. Well, we purchase so many cellphones because the companies continue to improve the technology year after year. If they didn’t do this, they would not keep up with the changes in their operational environment, the business world, where innovation means higher profit margins. They are continually improving their product so they can make more money. Well, why don’t we feel the same way about progression and innovation in public service? Many times, the progression does not directly affect one’s paycheck, so individuals feel they aren’t getting a benefit from it. It’s unfortunate that some of our colleagues feel this way about public service.
I hear it all the time: “They’re not going to pay me anymore for doing this; so why bother? It’s just more work for us.” Well yes, genius, it is more work because we are trying to create an environment that is safer for our profession. Will this always be possible? No. We work in a dangerous field, and I am all about being aggressive on an incident, but with controlled, thoughtful aggression. We hear the arguments of a culture of safety or a culture of extinguishment. Let’s try this one on: a Culture of Thinking. We’re all brilliant in our own way in this profession, and whether we are safety proponents or extinguishment proponents, at the end of the day, we should all be thinking very deeply before we make a decision. A Culture of Thinking is going to allow you to respond rather than react. Furthermore, it will allow you to make an educated decision based on the science behind an incident rather than your ego.
This all brings me back to my original statement, Never Forget. This simple phrase is cliché in our business. Don’t tell me Never Forget. Show me Never Forget. Take your crew and deploy hose until they Never Forget how to stretch it. Make them tie knots until they Never Forget how to tie them. Make them throw ladders until they Never Forget proper hand and foot placement. Make them practice forcible entry until they Never Forget the difference between an inward and outward swinging door. Work with them on the rapid intervention team equipment until they Never Forget how to connect it with gloved hands. Train them until they have unconscious competence in everything that they do so they will Never Forget their profession. When we say Never Forget, we really should be outside drilling on exactly that: NEVER FORGETTING the job we do. That is how we honor fallen firefighters. With less talk and more action, we will progress into a Culture of Thinking. Are you up to the challenge?
1. Schilling, J & Kluge, A. (2009). “Barriers to organizational learning: An integration of theory and research,” International Journal of Management Reviews; 2009:11(3), 337-360. Doi: 101111/j.1468-2370.2008.00242.
2. Lahteenmaki, S, Toivonen, J, & Mattila, M. (2001) “Critical aspects of organizational learning research and proposals for its measurement.” British Journal of Management; 2001:12(2), 113-129. doi: 10.1111/1467-8551.00189.
David Griffin is a captain and a training officer with the City of Charleston (SC) Fire Department. He was the operator of the first-due engine on June 18, 2007 when nine of his fellow firefighters perished in the line of duty. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in education from The Citadel, a Master of Science degree in executive fire service leadership, and a Doctorate of Education in organizational leadership and development. He is the author of In Honor of The Charleston 9: A Study of Change Following Tragedy; a global speaker and instructor; a certified fire officer with The Center for Public Safety Excellence; an enrollee in the Executive Fire Office Program at The National Fire Academy; and owner of On A Mission, LLC at drdavidgriffin.com.