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RIDING BACKWORDS...A Rookie's Perspective on Issues Affecting the Fire Service

RIDING BACKWORDS – September 2010

Open Door Policies

Generally speaking, an open door policy refers to the availability of management to any employee at any level. Open door policies allow employees to step outside the traditional boundaries created by the hierarchy of an organization – what we know as the chain of command. Open door policies permit employees to bring their concerns to the appropriate level they feel can provide the impetus necessary to resolve their issue. Our discussion will begin on the importance of an open door policy in the fire service (specifically with regard to safety issues) and finish with my stipulative definition for open door policy which is “the eventual availability of any position within an organization/profession to an entry level employee.” In other words, once the entry level door has been opened to an individual, every other door can eventually become made available.

In the spring of 2004 the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation invited fire service professionals from around the country to attend the Firefighter Life Safety Summit in Tampa, Florida. The purpose of this gathering was to address the need for change in order to reduce the number of preventable line of duty injuries and deaths. Out of this summit came sixteen Life Safety Initiatives – which most would agree painted the fire service a very broad picture of what needs to happen on all levels to save firefighters from unnecessary harm. The most important initiative is debatable, however I stand firm in my belief that LSI # 4: All firefighters must be empowered to stop unsafe practices is key to the NFFF’s most admirable goal. Pivotal, yet controversial, let’s look at this initiative and how it can go from paper to practice with good open door policies.

Empowerment requires two things: knowledge and the ability to exert influence.

We’ve all heard the adage “knowledge is power.” In the fire service the foundation of our knowledge is derived from fire academy / recruit school. It doesn’t stop there, as a firefighter’s training never ends. The rest of our careers are not only spent watering that foundation but also building upon it. Good firefighters know what to do and how to do firefighters know why and/or why not. Rock-solid knowledge is a combination of that which finds you (experience) and that which you sought out (education). Not all in the fire service are fortunate to have the same access to experience, but the same is not true of education. Empower yourself and then empower others through experience and education.

Typical fire service culture establishes that an individual’s sphere of influence is almost always downward focused only. The degree and amount of one’s influence is based on rank, seniority, popularity or a combination thereof. Many times this one-way focused influence creates the opposite of an open door policy. Influence by definition is the capacity or power of persons or things to be a compelling force on or produce effects on the actions, behavior, opinions, etc., of others. Without an open door policy there is little to no chance of empowering individuals in inferior positions to influence positive change amongst their crew or organization. Knowledge without application is useless. Without an open door policy a firefighter is not be able to share his/her knowledge and exert influence. Do what you can to empower yourself and others in order to affect positive change.

The other open door.

How many fire chiefs have started their career as anything other than a firefighter? How about company officers? If you have a leadership problem in your department then you may have (or had) a hiring problem. People can change, but in the fire service values and attitudes typically do not improve over a career. If your firefighters don’t have the right values and attitudes when you hire them what is your guarantee that they will obtain them along their way up the ladder?

Take care and be safe.

John Barrett began as a student of the fire service eighteen years ago as a fire explorer in Denver (CO). He is an eight year veteran of the fire service and currently serves with the Plano (TX) Fire Department. John is the founder and current President of HONOR THEIR SACRIFICES, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to finding and disseminating the lessons learned from firefighter line-of-duty deaths and is an advocate for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation's Everyone Goes Home program.

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