By Jakki MacLean
“Sprinklering America: We Can, We Should, We Must,” was the theme of the 24th Executive Fire Officer Program Graduate Symposium recently held at the National Fire Academy. Accompanying this theme, the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg) Maryland was used to examine five core competencies of executive leadership. In response to the variety of presenters and demonstrations, these concepts were discussed with such intensity among symposium participants, I couldn’t help but ponder the diversity of opinions on the long trek home.
Recalling the various leaders in the Antietam battle — their knowledge, their style, their personality traits and the application of all of those in the work environment — I am reminded of how much our culture and value system influence not only our leadership styles and decision-making, but the very causes we defend and to what degree we are willing to defend them.
Applying this to “Sprinklering America,” there is clearly no doubt of the effectiveness of sprinkler systems as a life-saving tool and the data regarding the risk of residential fire death was undisputed. Yet less than 7% of the fire-service leaders attending this symposium have residential sprinklers in their own homes. What is the disconnect?
Truly there is an economic limitation for a number of folks. In Washington as in other areas of the country, many state and local workers have taken wage cuts, reduced hours, and furloughs, which have obviously impacted income. I spoke with a number of symposium attendees who are helping kids and grandkids as well. So that is a reality. In addition, there was discussion that a number of spouses aren’t at all supportive of retrofitting their homes, which would certainly impact one’s value system.
But the presentation by Dr. Burt Clark really caused me to challenge our risk reduction attitudes and behaviors. He discussed a number of risks that fire service professionals continue to engage in - risks for which we develop and implement entire prevention programs, technology, and legislation, expecting compliance from the general public. Even with the facts, even with the data, we as leaders continue in the types of risky behaviors from which we may literally be picking up the pieces of another. And yet we continue.
Whether it’s the use of seat belts or installing residential fire sprinklers or any other risk reduction measure, we know they work. We know they are worthwhile. We know they save lives. Perhaps the reality is that we still don’t think it will happen to us. Maybe in our heroic efforts to convince others of the need for protecting themselves, we might first need to convince those of us who are leading the charge that we should be leading the change.
Jakki MacLean, EFO, CFM, is the fire-protection bureau chief and fire marshal for the Yakima (Wash.) County Building and Fire Safety Division