Blog by Todd LeDuc
Deputy Chief, Broward Sheriff Fire Rescue (Fla.)

Numerous tragic line-of-duty deaths and close calls have taught us that firefighter safety and survival are linked to situational awareness of current and changing conditions on the fireground and the emergency operations scene. But what about situational awareness at the leadership level in the office?

As firefighters progress through the ranks and become chief officers, we sometimes lose focus on the skills and instincts we relied upon as firefighters. Chief Officers must navigate complex interactions with a wide array of stakeholders (e.g., elected officials, labor unions, employees, city or county administrators and taxpayers) who often hold competing interests. In such interactions, our situational awareness at the leadership level is even more important.

Good Advice
Chief Fire officers are responsible for communicating to their members the expectations of a culture of firefighter safety and survival. To do this, fire service officers at all ranks must know best how to reach their members. In these days of texting, Facebook, Twitter and related electronic “stuff,” that isn’t always easy.

Many departments today are going through an interesting generational turnover as Baby Boomers retire. New recruits learn and adapt in vastly different mediums than their mentors. As a chief officer, you can’t just issue hierarchical policy directives and establish written policy, sit back and assume everything’s good because odds are, it ain’t!

You have a responsibility to protect your members, and that includes actually making an effort to embrace them and their culture. That requires you to exercise your situational awareness skills and monitor your environment — what we like to call “reading the tea leaves” — to ensure the message is heard. Unfortunately, in what has been described as the “ostrich syndrome” or “ivory tower leadership,” leaders often surround themselves with people who isolate them from reality, telling them what they want to hear: Yes, boss, everyone is following your directive without exception to come to a full and complete stop at intersections and wear seatbelts.” When you hear that, pay attention!

Successful chief officers, on the other hand, monitor their environment by surrounding themselves with proven, trustworthy advisors who are secure enough to give open, candid and often differing guidance, as uncomfortable as that can be sometimes. It’s been written that a wise man seeks wise counsel, when more so honest and candid counsel! Successful chief officers also genuinely solicit input. And it’s important that if you ask for it, you’re able to “take it.”

How do you identify the people who will give you straightforward advice? It often falls back on gut feeling and history. After all, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Another method is to choose members within your ranks who represent certain stake-holder groups and are looked upon as informal leaders. These people usually become infectious, gung-ho champions of change if they understand the change if they understand the change and buy into it, which will make your job a lot easier.

The informal leaders may also carry the message to your rank and file, making the culture of firefighter safety and survival come from within rather than top down. Look, the goal is for no one to get hurt unnecessarily. Although the job is risky and sometimes we have no choice but to take a risk in which we may ultimately get hurt — in those rare situations where we must put our lives on the line or our troops in harm’s way to potentially save a life — we can take steps to eliminate unnecessary risks.

An Eye on the Dashboard
In addition to monitoring systems that provide information about you as a leader, you must also establish systems to monitor the progress of your department, the office-based equivalent of monitoring fireground progress. Typically, this includes community risk analysis and system performance analysis — whether your system and its members provide timely and adequate resources to achieve department objectives safely and efficiently.

Department monitoring can often be accomplished by a master or strategic planning process that analyzes genuine, objective and measurable performance relevant to current and future system demands and community risk and workload. If your department hasn’t done this, it’s well worth your time to start such a process for the good of your members and your community. It’s also unacceptable for needless tragedy to strike because your department isn’t planning ahead and isn’t monitoring the department’s and the community’s “instrument panel” when it comes to risk. In other words, reading the tea leaves can be a tool in predicting the predictable.

A Challenge
Fire service leaders at the chief or company officer level must be tea leaf readers who monitor their environment regularly for signs of danger, best practices and innovation to provide their members better tools and resources. As such, they must have multiple information monitoring and gathering systems in place to effectively listen to and learn from information around them. Do you scour LODD reports, remain vigilant of industry safety and performance improvement trends and follow trends outside the fire service that may be adapted to improve your members’ safety? If the answer is no, or “I have other people in my department do that,” we challenge you to rethink what being an effective fire officer means and what it takes to live up to that tremendous responsibility. Don’t count on someone else to read the close-call articles or near-miss reports, you must do it too. After all, as an officer or a chief, the buck stops with you when something goes wrong. And it will be a real tragedy if the incident was clearly predictable and therefore, preventable.

Reading the tea leaves means predicting what may go wrong. The easy path is to sit back in your chair, ignore the obvious and hope nothing goes wrong. And honestly in most cases, nothing does. That’s the easy way to handle it, chief. However, the right way to handle firefighter survival-related issues is to look into your department, determine the issues — fitness, apparatus driving, supervision, size-up, staging — that typically have been the most common contributors to firefighter injury and death, and do something about it. If you don’t have systems in place to minimize the risk, the tea leaves have spoken! Develop new policies to address the gaps, conduct hands-on or classroom training to ensure understanding at all ranks, and then enforce the policies, fairly, across the board, without exception.

Remember: The same ability you developed as a firefighter to monitor your environment, seek out necessary information and make critical decisions is just as important in your job as a chief officer. In fact, as chief, it’s even more important, because you’re not just protecting your own safety; you’re protecting the safety of all your members.

About the Author
Todd J. LeDuc is the deputy chief of department for Broward Sheriff Fire Rescue in Florida. With more than 25 years in the service, he lecturers and publishes frequently on fire service leadership, safety and wellness topics. He has worked extensively with fire departments in more than a dozen states with master and strategic plans, accreditation, department evaluations and consolidation studies. William Goldfeder contributed to this report.