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Flashpoint: June 2013

In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, newly minted federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau said in an interview with the CBC, “We have to look at the root causes.

June 4, 2013
By Peter Sells

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In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, newly minted federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau said in an interview with the CBC, “We have to look at the root causes. Now, we don’t know now if it was terrorism or a single crazy or a domestic issue or a foreign issue. But there is no question that this happened because there is someone who feels completely excluded, completely at war with innocents, at war with a society. And our approach has to be, where do those tensions come from?”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, echoing criticisms of Trudeau’s remarks, which had appeared in conservative media across Canada, replied, “When you see this type of violent act, you do not sit around trying to rationalize it or make excuses for it or figure out its root causes. You condemn it categorically and, to the extent you can deal with the perpetrators, you deal with them as harshly as possible.”

This is not a political column, although I would love to delve into this exchange along dimensions of leadership, sociology and partisan strategy. What we can glean from this exchange is found in Harper’s remarks, which seem to draw a hard line between understanding a problem and correcting it, between prevention and response. He couldn’t be more wrong.

Without understanding root causes of a problem, prevention will be ineffective, leading to protracted and costly response. Let’s look at the example of accidents in our workplace, emergency or non-emergency. Industrial safety pioneer Herbert William Heinrich published his book, Industrial Accident Prevention, A Scientific Approach, in 1931. Heinrich postulated that accidental injuries were the result of a series of events and conditions that he likened to a row of falling dominoes. Heinrich’s domino theory consisted of the following elements:

  •     Social environment and inherited behaviour;
  •     Personal fault;
  •     Unsafe act or condition;
  •     Accident;
  •     Injury.

If the work environment or set of common workplace practices was such that it allowed for the possibility of a faulty behaviour, then an unsafe act or uncorrected unsafe condition could allow for an accident to occur, which could result in an injury. The injury could be prevented if none of the previous dominoes was to fall. Trudeau’s root-cause strategy would be akin to fostering safe, healthy behaviours in the workplace, something all fire-service stakeholders take great pains to do. Harper’s philosophy would seem to be focusing on fault-finding and discipline after the fact of an accident to the exclusion of preventive measures.

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Both proactive and reactive controls have a place in reducing workplace injuries. It is not a simple case of proactive equals good and reactive equals bad, as some literature would suggest. Clearly, it is preferable to prevent an accident than to react to one, but not to react is irresponsible. The opposite of reactive is not proactive; it is inactive. The safest workplace – wait, let’s make it a fire ground – the safest fire ground is one in which well-trained and properly turned-out firefighters in adequate numbers work safely according to established protocols and procedures, and at which any accidents or close calls will be rigorously investigated with an eye toward prevention of recurrence.

I propose the strategy of a hard Trudeau followed by a soft Harper: a hard Trudeau because, as a supervisor or incident commander, I really wouldn’t care how you feel about safe workplace behaviours, I would only require compliance – it would be nice if you bought into the safety culture, but that would come with time; a soft Harper because we are not talking about criminal fault-finding or harsh punishment but are interested in identification and correction of unsafe behaviours.

This same set of strategies, whether we call it Heinrich’s domino theory or the Trudeau/Harper one-two punch, is applied across our society to reduce losses from fire. Ontario’s Office of the Fire Marshal states these strategies as three lines of defence, namely, public education and fire prevention, fire-safety inspections and code enforcement, and emergency response. Trudeau’s root causes fall most obviously into the first line of defence – public education. The introduction and reinforcement of safe behaviours reduces the incidence of fire. Harper’s hard line translates into lots of very busy firefighters acting as the third line of defence, if the other lines are under-prioritized. Neither leader, by analogy, seems to be addressing the second line of defence. Fire-safety inspections and enforcement can be thought of as addressing Heinrich’s centre domino, by identifying unsafe conditions, correcting them and pushing backwards to reinforce a safer environment.

The takeaway point: public safety problem solving, whether it be fire protection, law enforcement or counterterrorism, requires a multi-strategy approach. Tossing cheap political grenades is opportunistic and ultimately ineffective.


Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire-service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. He sits on the advisory council of the Institution of Fire Engineers, Canada branch. Peter is president of NivoNuvo Consulting, Inc, specializing in fire-service management. Contact him at peter.nivonuvo@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @NivoNuvo


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