How an empty salt shaker leads to firefighter death

International Association of Fire Chiefs

By Assistant Fire Marshal Chris Beal

I recently had the privilege of being involved in a conversation between a couple of “salty” assistant chiefs from different departments. While I received my information secondary to the original conversation, the salty chiefs and I learned a very basic lesson.

These two chiefs were working at a Boy Scout camp, and during their downtime they were having a conversation about things at work that made them mad.

Chief A said he was extremely mad about the cleanliness of the bathroom after the chief of the department complained about it. The lack of toilet paper in the chief’s bathroom could be construed as a minor emergency.

Chief B recalled from his military career an incident involving a salt shaker that was left empty. He spoke of a superior officer who asked why he made such a big deal about an empty salt shaker.

Chief B explained that, yes, anyone can fill the salt shaker, but his point was that this particular, insignificant task was assigned to someone. I believe the way he said it was, “Filling the salt shaker was someone’s job.”

Think about it: If every member of the military failed at one small task of their job, we would have total chaos and lack any sort of organization.

If a fire shift can’t take care of minuscule tasks such as cleaning the bathroom or filling the salt shaker, what other small tasks are getting missed? This also reflects poorly on the chain of command. Captains’ and lieutenants’ jobs are to ensure the day-to-day operations of a fire department are running smoothly. If not, this reflects poorly on the battalion chief whose job, again, is to ensure the fire department is functioning every day.

Let’s talk about chaos. Chaos, defined by Websters Dictionary, is a total lack of organization or order. Synonyms include disorder, disarray, disorganization, confusion, mayhem, bedlam, pandemonium, havoc, turmoil, tumult, commotion, disruption, upheaval, uproar, maelstrom, muddle, mess, shambles, free-for-all, anarchy and lawlessness.

You see, an unfilled salt shaker or unclean bathroom create chaos. Chaos leads to missed air-pack or tool safety checks. What if this failure (i.e., chaos) was to lead to misplaced medical equipment on the ambulance? Now we’re not only affecting the day-to-day operations, but potentially putting the public at risk.

How about the risk to your crews? Do I care that the jump bag has the proper equipment in it? When I need it, I certainly do.

Do I care that the drinking water on the truck has been changed or iced down? If it’s 101 degrees, I do.

Before joining the fire service, I served proudly in the military for 10 years. A lesson I learned from that military career has come full circle and is now a part of my fire service career. “Attention to detail” seemed like a daily catchphrase in the military, but I remember that a great leader of mine, a first sergeant, once told me, “If you depended on a parachute rigger, you would expect attention to detail.”

He was right. The minor details of whether the risers were stored correctly could lead to devastating consequences. The parachute rigger signed his name, assuring all that this task was done correctly simply because “it was his job.”

So, let’s dig a little deeper. Would an empty salt shaker kill a firefighter? (This thought was supplied by an assistant chief over a cup of coffee in the bay.) Not likely, but it could.

What if the firefighter who failed to do his job of filling the salt shaker is passed on to other crews 10 years later? What if “missed salt shaker” firefighter becomes a captain and his get-by-with-the-minimum-amount-of-work attitude spreads to his crew?

What if that lack of attention to detail leads to a firefighter death? Think about it.

The point is that filling the salt shaker, cleaning the bathroom, checking the truck, filling the air bottles and checking the jump bags are all someone’s job.

Go to work and complete your job today with as much attention to detail as possible. Do it right. Have pride in everything you do. Even the small jobs.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 21, 2016 issue of the International Association of Fire Chiefs' On Scene and is republished here with permission.

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