The primary responsibility of all fire chiefs is organizational safety—providing a safe work environment for their members. The fire chief sets the tone for the acceptable level of safety within the organization, a level that members find tolerable.
Fire chiefs can best influence organizational safety through a devoted and passionate desire to reduce risk. This personal commitment the fire chief makes to their firefighters promises they will return home the same way they arrived for duty.
Chiefs also recognize that this is not a business-as-usual attitude; it requires inspired leadership skills. This commitment or attitude is key to sustaining a culture of safety.
Leaders can have the greatest impact on the safety of others by presenting an attitude that recognizes:
- An uncompromising responsibility for safety in their organizations
- Mediocrity is not a standard to subscribe to
As fire chiefs, we must be vocal campaigners to establish a culture of safety within our organizations. Leadership must set expectations of acceptable, safe workplace behaviors and maintain accountability. This leadership function cannot be abdicated.
Some tactics to strengthen your personal commitment to safety include:
- Model expected and acceptable safety behaviors – Walk the talk; let your actions sell safety. Being a visible component means chairing safety meetings, taking ownership of consequences, setting expectations at all levels of the organization and providing tools to accomplish safety-program goals.
- Talk about safety – Reinforce safe work practices in daily training, shift changes and department communications. Reserve time in meeting agendas to discuss safety topics.
- Involve others – All levels within the organization should be encouraged to add input and help to develop safe workplace practices. Provide safety-leadership education so a culture of safety becomes an organizational value. Successful implementation also involves employees observing leadership commitment to safe work practices.
- Reward safe practices – Recognize desirable safety behaviors. Praise safe performance loud and clear for all to hear.
- Correct inappropriate safety behaviors and practices – Whenever you identify hazards or employees bring them to your attention, act promptly to correct the situation.
In terms of your personal commitment to safety, I advocate adding a 17th initiative to the current 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives developed by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation—a new initiative that reinforces the personal responsibility both firefighters and leadership must take for their own safety. Promoting personal safety as an attitude is a cornerstone of workplace safety.
As a fire chief, you can write and enforce policy, supply protective ensembles, provide training and adopt management systems. But to change a culture to include safety as a key value involves a personal commitment. Without your active involvement as a change agent, the opportunity to create an organization that values safety will be lost.
Your attitude as a leader must reflect that this is a serious business and you must lead the organization through your personal commitment to safety. Your leadership will inspire and influence positive safety attitudes within the organization.
Carry the torch. Safety is a choice; choose wisely.
Richard Kline is the fire chief for the city of Plymouth, Minn.