Coffee Break Bulletin

It’s not about being their friend

Posted: June 14, 2017 by Kevin Brame

Why do some firefighter fatalities continue to occur when we understand how to prevent them through lessons learned and training? This Coffee Break Bulletin looks at “defensive reasoning behaviors” and their influence on firefighter fatalities.

incident commander talking to a safety officer

A recent, multipart article in a major Midwest news publication on firefighter fatalities, specifically related to fireground events, raised the serious question of,

Why are so many fatalities resulting from situations in which previous losses had identified lessons to prevent subsequent tragedies?

The article asked why the previous lessons are not leading to a change in operational behaviors and a reduction in fatalities. This is a valid question, with answers provided most often under the veil of what Harvard professor emeritus Chris Argyris would call “Model 1: Defensive Reasoning.”1

What is “defensive reasoning?”

Defensive reasoning is alive and well in many organizations, and in particular within public emergency services. Defensive reasoning behaviors are those that:

In the case of fire and Emergency Medical Services, the application of defensive reasoning crosses organizational boundaries and is often an industry-wide behavior. That is to say, we as an industry will defend our actions even in the face of contrary facts. We do not like anyone asking questions about how or why we do certain things, particularly if we feel it may result in a call for us to do something different, or perhaps even stop doing something we have always done.

“Defensive reasoning” in action

An incident I observed post-event via dashcam footage was one that resulted in minor burns to a firefighter. I asked the Incident Commander and the Company Officer why the firefighter was attempting this action. The fire was midafternoon and involved a double-wide manufactured home. Active fire and pressurized smoke were coming out of every window and open door. The potential of this being a survivable event was nonexistent, yet an attempt was made to enter the structure.

When questioned about the action, a myriad of comments — all to rationalize actions taken — defied logic and science. Of course, the firefighter’s status among peers elevated to hero for having sustained injuries while fighting the fire. A defensive reasoning mindset was clearly in place, and to dispute the actions taken was, in essence, considered blasphemous. So while the majority praised and smiled, those that critically inquired about the actions were quickly discounted and deemed not to be real firefighters.

Leadership and “defensive reasoning”

To overcome defensive reasoning by those willing to exercise leadership requires an attitude that leadership is not about being their friend. It is about exercising leadership through processes of critical inquiry. It is about challenging the rationalizations used to defend behaviors that have no basis for defense. It is about absorbing the anger directed at you for questioning the actions of others.

The reality is that it is often very lonely at the top. But, if your concern is about being their friend, then consider the scenario that will eventually play out: making that dreadful knock on a door to inform a loved one that their firefighter will not be coming home. You see, it was more important to be a friend then to exercise the tough love of leadership.

Exercise leadership, send everyone home safely, and the friendship will follow. Exercise the lessons of past tragedies and put an end to history repeating itself at the expense of ourselves and others.

Action steps for learning more about fire service safety culture

Learn more about how you can advocate for organizational change related to safety by enrolling in the National Fire Academy’s on-/off-campus class, Fire Service Safety Culture: Who Protects Firefighters from Firefighters?

Read the report National Safety Culture Change Initiative PDF 896 KB
This study reviews fire and emergency services cultural aspects that contribute to occupational illnesses, injuries and fatalities.

1 Argyris, C. (1990). OVERCOMING ORGANIZATIONAL DEFENSES: FACILITATING ORGANIZATIONAL LEARNING. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

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