Accepting failure or faking perfection? It’s time to be realistic about our success and failures

We must review our incidents with honesty or we’ll never be able to improve as a fire service


If everything was perfect, few of us would be needed for this job.

Think about it, if there were sprinklers in every room, we’d just need help cleaning up a little water and rebuilding a few things. If there were AEDs and Narcan in every bedroom, we’d shock and dose each other, then transport the patient to the doctor’s office in our own cars.

This is extreme, I know, but it sets the stage for this simple fact: While we have come a long way in creating systems to speed service delivery, we have so far to go, both as fire and EMS agencies and as society as a whole, that perfection isn’t even on the radar.

Without leadership and change, history does tend to repeat itself. If you want to make change, sometimes you have to wait for opportunities, while sometimes you have to MAKE the opportunities.
Without leadership and change, history does tend to repeat itself. If you want to make change, sometimes you have to wait for opportunities, while sometimes you have to MAKE the opportunities. (Photos/Getty Images)

But still, there are some who tout their supposed perfection, as people or as fire companies.

From the trumpet: Sharing successes and failures

You’ve seen “that firefighter” or “that company” that tends to showboat their performances. Their speaking trumpets scream of the extreme heroism and the audacity of their badge, all the while implying, if not outright stating, that only they have THE answer, and only their way is the “right” way to get things done.

Rarely do you hear these individuals or companies trumpet their failures. This is unfortunate, as our failures are often the best learning opportunities. We need to use those trumpets to tell our stories, both good and bad, like professors engaged in deep analysis.  

I understand that some legal beagles amongst us will bristle at the mere thought of spotlighting our failures for public review. I get it. I also get that there’s a huge difference between dealing with gross negligence and dealing with the dynamics of fire science, building construction, response policy impediments, or individual crew performance.

Our challenge is taking the opportunity to learn equally from the successes as well as the mistakes AND even the gross negligence we see around us. This, of course, takes us back to the fact that NOT ONE of us is perfect. Whether the issue is operational, administrative, on-duty or off, we see the news articles and social media posts daily – sometimes multiple times daily – that prove our imperfections and the need for a focus on leadership.

Break it down: 3 methods of assessment

So, what’s the best way to consider our successes and failures? While there are many types, I’ll focus on three specific after-action report styles. Each should have the same learning objectives, while some may have statutory/regulatory status depending on the nature of the incident:

1. Tailboard critiques: This is an immediate after-incident critique of actions, successes and consequences. I’ve seen these held two ways: 1) on a crew-by-crew basis, as coordinated by the unit officer; and 2) as the incident subsides and before anybody leaves the scene, the incident commander brings all the unit officers together for a tailboard critique and debrief. These are great learning opportunities, with actions addressed as close to real-time as you’re going to get. What I see as the challenge in these is actually capturing the takeaways for others to learn from.

2. After-action reviews: AARs are usually held after significant incidents or as directed by department policy. These incidents might have had significant consequences, challenged crews in unique ways or simply involved groups that aren’t normally involved. Some departments require AARs at certain thresholds of response or operation, regardless of there being extraordinary outcomes. AARs are usually assigned to a particular person, team or office within the department, with certain timelines assigned to ensure they capture the freshness of the incident.

3. Safety Investigation Team (SIT) Report: These reports are usually reserved for significant incidents where there’s a firefighter near miss or fatality, significant departmental vehicle wreck, significant challenges to the health, safety or welfare of membership, or any time a real or perceived violation of policy/rule/standard has occurred.

The mirror: Handling a problematic reflection

It sometimes sucks to look in the mirror. But in this business, the mirror is our best instructor. It’s how we truly learn – the good and the bad.

It’s relatively easy to do SITs and AARs when everything goes great (or “perfect”). I can’t tell you how many SITs, AARs or tailboard critiques I’ve attended where I really wondered what fire the members were talking about – because it sure as hell wasn’t the show I just witnessed. When you experience a moment like this, chief officers have a responsibility to redirect the conversation to ensure a proper and realistic assessment of the incident.

It’s human nature, right? When things go great, we want everyone to know. When things aren’t so great, we don’t want anyone to know. No one likes to filet themselves or eviscerate their troops for the whole world to see. On the not-so-good incidents, one of the first challenges is accepting the failure – “yep, we screwed up and we’ve got to figure out how to not have it happen again.”

Not happening again – now that’s the real trick. How many times do we accept the “same” SITs, with the same recommendations, sometimes from fires on the same streets involving the same companies, before we take action and make definitive change? As is the case with true leadership – taking members where they ought to be, which may not be where they want to be – change is difficult.

Without leadership and change, history does tend to repeat itself. If you want to make change, sometimes you have to wait for opportunities, while sometimes you have to MAKE the opportunities.

You want to have real impact on the fire service? Then you may need to step on some toes and bruise some egos.

As for yourself, don’t like what you see in the mirror? Then accept what you see and change what’s happening in the reflection!

Editor’s note: What type of incident review do you perform? Which do you prefer? Share in the comments below.

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