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Safety Leadership Culture the Southwest Way

In a recent letter to the editor of Spirit Magazine, Southwest Airlines' official publication, the writer described how shocked he once was to recognize Gary Keller, chairman, president and CEO of Southwest Airlines, sitting beside him in regular-class seating to experience the experience of Southwest like any our customer or Southwest employee.

I remember Southwest Airlines being discussed at a near-miss reporting symposium in San Diego some five years ago. Southwest is well known for its relentless focus on a culture of safety, and the airline makes all flight crew members study near-miss encounters when they begin service to a new airport.

The correlation to the fire service is simple: successful safety cultures begin with chief executives making safety their priority for their organizations, members and communities. If fire service leaders focus on making safety a priority, so will their organizations, their people and their communities.

Recent research has identified serious threats to firefighter health, safety and wellness. Some of these include obesity and other related, modifiable factors that contribute to cardiovascular line-of-duty disabilities, deaths and injuries. Recent well-designed and executed federal-level research with 35,000 firefighters across three metropolitan departments demonstrated an occupational link with specific cancer types.

Despite this growing body of research demonstrating continued threats to the safety of firefighters, published reports demonstrate that only about 30% of departments have formal wellness programs in place.

Leaders build teams and teams build success. It's the responsibility of fire service leaders to invest in the health, safety and wellness of their employees and teams; those investments yield tremendous dividends. Many studies have demonstrated a three-to-one return on investment for health and wellness programs.

Furthermore, healthy employees who operate within a culture of safety are typically well motivated and demonstrate great commitment to their teams and organizations and to their goals and visions. Much like Southwest Airlines' goals and visions for which they're notoriously known within the airline industry: one-time performance, safely and exceptional customer service.

Are those not the same deliverables every fire service organization is striving for?

Business guru Peter Drucker once said that leaders can be either "the architects of change or the tenants of the results." I challenge every fire service leader to be the architect of change within their organization—to lead by example in making health, safety and wellness their overriding first priority.

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