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The Normalization of Deviance Could Kill You.

       We hear the words situational awareness quite a bit in the fire service. We talk about how we need to maintain a wide lens and not tunnel vision in on the un-important things. We can’t lose focus on what the task is at hand, right? I think tunnel vision is human nature. It happens in our everyday lives. It happens at home, driving down the road, and so on. It happens at work too. This is where we run into a problem, especially if the Group Supervisors and/or the Incident Commander are the ones losing focus. If they lose focus people could get hurt, or even killed.

       I just put the final touches on a PowerPoint for a class titled First-In Decisions for First-In Fire Officers. There is a portion in there about situational awareness, but within that portion is a video by a former astronaut, and he speaks about the normalization of deviance. He goes on to state that the normalization of deviance is when a person has a task to perform but is under pressure, and because they are under pressure they take a safety short cut. The short cut happens and the person taking that short cut gets away with it. There are no consequences. That person didn’t die, nothing blew up, and everything was ok. So, what’s wrong with that? What precedent did that just set in that person’s mind he asks’? Well, what it did was tell that person that taking that short cut was “ok”. It gave a falsehood belief in their mind that it was safe to do so and everything was ok because nothing negative came about because they took that short cut. When that person goes to perform that same task again, whether under pressure or not, do you think they will do the proper thing or take the same short cut because it worked last time?

       Unfortunately, the answer is, they will more than likely take that short cut. They may get away with it safely again too. Do firefighters take short cuts? Do they get away with them? I would be a blatant liar if I sat here and told you I had never taken a short cut on a scene somewhere. I’ve done it and I got away with it. I see it all the time and it will continue to happen. You see when you have a normal action and you take a short cut, it lowers your standard. The standard in your mind now is that short cut works and its safe. I will ask you this though, “What happens when they perform that short cut one day and they don’t get away with it?” In this business that could mean serious injury. It could mean death. When they perform those actions and something goes wrong it is known as a predictable surprise. We knew it could happen, or it would one day, but we continued to do so because the less than normal standard became the standard. We deviated. That is the normalization of deviance.

       We need to maintain our standards. We need to consistently be evaluating our own actions, your crew’s actions, and the other crew members working around you. You’re the leader and they’re watching. When you’re the fire officer it is your job to enforce the rules and standards and set a tone of what is accepted and what isn’t. You can do this around the firehouse, on scene of emergencies, training, and more. You have to be the boss and tell firefighters to stop taking short cuts when you see them do so. You may cause a little stir up and someone get angry at you but you’re the boss right?

       I would hate to see a firefighter get injured and know that he was performing an action he had performed in front of me so many times before but I didn’t enforce the rules or standard, and because I didn’t do so, this time the predictable surprise happened. Is it his fault, yours, or both? I would say both because we both knew right from wrong. Our job is very dangerous brothers. We aren’t responsible for one thing, or ten, or a hundred. We have thousands of different natures of calls that we can be called to and those citizens expect you to know what to do, and to do it safely and accurately. Let’s be sure to watch each other and not allow us to drop below the standard. This starts in training and positively re-enforced on the fire ground. I want to go home to my family, and I believe you do too.

Stay Safe

-First-In FireFighter

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Comment by Chad Menard on August 22, 2015 at 8:38am
Chief Halton,
Thanks for the comment and the referenced material. I will look into both of them. I hope to see you at Indy a again!!

Comment by Bobby Halton on August 22, 2015 at 8:30am

Chad, well said I was privileged to present with  Mike Mullane the astronaut several years ago at a IAFF Redmond symposium. Excellent speaker and nice man. Here is a link an article by Sidney Dekker related to the topic of Situation Awareness in Fire Rescue magazine and here is a link to Sidney Dekkers book "Drift Into Failure" regardinng normalance of dievance both great reads! hope you enjoy them and see you in Indy! 

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