In this segment of the Recipe From Hell’s Kitchen series, I share the third step of the recipe – confidence and more specifically how an overinflated sense of confidence can erode firefighter situational awareness. Confidence is the sense of assurance that results from the performance of duties believed to be high quality. The problem is confidence can rise from the performance of low quality (incompetent) behaviors especially when those incompetent behaviors lack consequence (bad outcomes). This can cause confidence levels to rise and can also cause the evil cousins of confidence to rear their ugly heads – Ego and Arrogance.
The Recipe from Hell’s Kitchen
STEP 1: Take a large helping of incompetent behavior.
STEP 2: Remove all the consequence.
STEP 3: Cover and allow confidence to rise.
STEP 4: Deny the existence of the deadly mixture until complacency sets in.
STEP 5: Put into PPE and send into an oven. When PASS Alarms ring the catastrophe will be ready.
Recall in the previous two segments I shared how a first responder can behave in a way that is incompetent and not even know it. This unawareness can come from a variety of reasons, one being the lack of consequence (no bad outcome). When these two ingredients are combined (incompetence and lack of consequence) and repeated over and over again it can cause confidence levels to rise, leading the responder to believe the inappropriate behavior is acceptable. The responder may even believe he or she has discovered a new best practice because the task can be accomplished more efficiently or more effectively than doing it the way it was taught during recruit school.
The combination of these three ingredients can have many unfortunate results. When I have been invited into fire departments following a line-of-duty event, I often uncover the factors that contributed to the casualty were a series of incompetent behaviors (though they did not see them as incompetent) that were being performed over and over again for many years. The department had become comfortable in performing tasks in incompetent ways because there was never a consequence.
There are may terms used for this phenomenon. It is sometimes termed: The Standardization of Deviant Behavior – where undesirable behavior becomes the norm because no one sees the behavior as unacceptable. Everyone is too close to the problem to see it. In my classes, I call it Error Creep and describe it as the movement toward incompetent behavior over a period of time. The pace is so slow those involved are unaware they are heading (creeping) toward disaster.
Performing incompetently over time without consequence builds confidence and can lull responders into believing their behaviors are now best practices. They’re not… but the responders think they are. It’s false confidence. If someone tries to point out their shortcomings, they’re likely to be admonished for even suggesting there’s a problem with a performance standard that has been successfully used for years. There’s little success to be found in arguing with a person whose full of self confidence and arrogance.
Self confidence, left unchecked by reality, can inflate the ego. When someone has found success in the repetition of incompetent behaviors, their sense of self-esteem is high. They become completely comfortable – confident – in the performance of their duties the same way they’ve always been done it and self-assured the results will be the same (good). It can be very difficult to convince them otherwise.
In fact, efforts to convince them their practices may be dangerous is tantamount to trying to teach a pig to sing. You’re not going to be successful and you’re only going to annoy the pig. The same may be said when trying to convince a responder who has become arrogant as a result of inflated confidence that his or her performance may result in a casualty.
There are abundant examples of this phenomenon documented in casualty reports where the investigators are able to chronicle the presence of flawed performance over long periods of time. The sad things is, when a casualty event does occur, the department and its leaders seem stunned that such a consequence could befall them. They were doing everything right. Actually they weren’t. But they were blind to their shortcomings. Blinded by confidence, ego and arrogance.
The lack of consequence and the resulting over confidence can also cause responders to let their guards down. When this happens, the responder can stop capturing the clues and cues that are essential to the formation of situational awareness and predictably, situational awareness erodes.
One of the ways to hold confidence in check is to continually be conducting self assessments, trying to identify how things can go wrong. This is sometimes termed having a preoccupation with failure. Look at operations and ask how things might turn out poorly if only one or two factors were different (e.g., volume of fire, experience level of the first-in crew, water supply, wind conditions, violent patient, inattentive driver… the list may be endless).
Where bad outcomes are predictable, they can be prevented. However, that requires taking a critical view of performance and identifying where incompetent behaviors exist and fixing them. Expect some pushback. If there hasn’t been consequence, few people are going to buy in to the notion that anything needs to change. You know… If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it! Use near-miss and casualty reports to demonstrate how other responders have suffered consequences from doing the very behaviors your organization feels are acceptable.
When using casualty reports as examples, if your responders talk about those agencies who experienced the loss in disrespectful ways, SOUND THE ALARM BELLS! Over confidence and arrogance have taken a deep hold in your organization. There’s nothing more dangerous than for one to think he or she is above making the mistakes of others.
In the next segment, I’m going to talk about complacency – developing a sense of self satisfaction that leads to laziness and a failure assess organizational performance to industry-wide accepted best practices.
1. Describe a near-miss or casualty incident your department has suffered and never saw coming because of inflated confidence levels.
2. Pick an incident you’ve had recently and look at it through the lens of preoccupation with failure. Identify what factors, of only changed slightly, may have caused the incident to result in a casualty.
3. Discuss three ways your department could overcome the trap of inflated confidence, unhealthy egos and arrogance to improve safety.
The mission of Situational Awareness Matters is simple: Help first responders see the bad things coming… in time to change the outcome.
Safety begins with SA!
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