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Flashpoint: Compliance with standards is a good thing

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway. - Dr. Kent M. Keith, The Paradoxical Commandments

December 6, 2007 
By Peter Sells

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway. – Dr. Kent M. Keith, The Paradoxical Commandments

I just returned from delivering a presentation to a fire chiefs' group in the U.S. One thing that always strikes me as a major contrast between the American and Canadian fire services is our neighbours' focus on compliance with standards and regulations. Being a training guy, I have a professional slant toward working to standards. For the most part, this is a good thing, although it is always possible to have too much of a good thing.

Every jurisdiction in North America has legislation governing health and safety in the workplace. In the U.S., the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has as its mission "encouraging continual improvement in workplace safety and health" (from ). Similarly, the National Fire Protection Association states as its mission "to reduce the worldwide burden of fire and other hazards on the quality of life by providing and advocating consensus codes and standards, research, training, and education" (from ). Every Canadian jurisdiction has legislation or regulations that mirror these missions.

How could anyone argue against "continual improvement in workplace safety and health"? There really isn't anything wrong with standards, per se. The problems come about when compliance with the letter of a standard becomes more important than achieving the objective that the standard was intended to promote. As an example from south of the border, OSHA mandates specific training goals in the workplace based partly on minimum hours of training per year on certain subjects. Therefore, if a fire department can document that its members have received the minimum hours of training on a given subject, it can demonstrate compliance. In the best case, training is delivered that: meets the objectives of the regulating body; simultaneously meets the specific local needs of the firefighters based on their level of experience, the equipment they have available and the environment in which they work. The first criterion is determined externally by the regulating body. The second is determined by a rigorous, training-needs analysis conducted locally by the fire department. A focus on compliance as an end unto itself would place emphasis on the first criterion only. A focus on "continual improvement in workplace safety and health" would place the emphasis on meeting the locally identified training needs, which should, in all cases, be cross-referenced against the regulated requirements and augmented as needed to ensure that the training program results in compliance. That would be the best case. The worst case is a paper exercise in butt covering and will be recognized as such by all participants. Jaded veterans who have been through such experiences will tar all future training and education programs with the same brush. Dr. Kent Keith, author of The Paradoxical Commandments, would advise training officers who are accused of selfish ulterior motives such as being politically correct to continue with the good work that they are doing, focusing on the well-being of the organization and its members.


I remember the closing address given by now-retired Chief Dennis Compton of Mesa, Arizona, at the IFSTA Validation Conference 10 years ago. Dennis reminded us that the work we had done that week – writing and editing hundreds of pages of fire textbooks – would save firefighters' lives. I have wondered how many lives I have saved or injuries I have prevented because somebody did something right or didn't do something wrong due to my having taught a lesson, written a paragraph or delivered a lecture.

I also reflect on whether a focus on compliance by one well-placed, individual instructor or safety officer could have prevented any of the following well-known incidents from going awry: the Memphis Hell Night of October 2004 during which fire recruits were taunted, berated and hazed to the point of physical collapse; the Pittsburgh church fire of March 2004 or the Yellowknife roof collapse of March 2005, both of which involved firefighters being placed in unnecessarily aggressive positions at fires that should have been fought defensively; or the Baltimore live fire training exercise in February 2007 during which a fire burned out of control and took the life of a recruit firefighter. I will point out that there was a safety officer at the Pittsburgh church fire (compliance on paper, sort of).

These incidents resulted in the pointless deaths of five firefighters. My hypothetical well-placed individual mentioned above may have been thanked for his or her work, but I doubt it. Most likely the good work would have gone unheralded, or the do-gooder would have been subjected to the type of eye-rolling, head-shaking, "you're-taking-all-the-fun-out-of-this" reaction that training guys like me have seen more times than we can count (I can see you nodding and smiling as you are reading this).

Do the good work anyway.

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 councils of the Ontario Fire College and the Institution of Fire Engineers Canada Branch.

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