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Complacency: A Killer of First Responders

Curiosity killed the cat. But it’s not curiosity that is killing first responders. It’s complacency contributing to flawed situational awareness. What does it mean to be complacent? I could offer you the Webster’s dictionary definition. Instead, I’d like to offer you a definition based on my observations of those who suffer from the affliction.

Complacent: To believe that bad things only happen to other people; To fall into a comfortable rut of apathy – laziness; To have enjoyed success for so long as to believe all actions will result in successful outcomes; To rely on knowledge and skills that have grown stale for lack of practice and renewal; To develop a sense of indifference – to lack concern for – one’s safety and well-being. Let’s break this down now by expounding on each component of the definition.

To Believe That Bad Things Only Happen to Other People

This is often rooted in a mindset of judgment. While watching a video or reading about a casualty incident, the complacent first responder becomes a judge. The mindset is not one of trying to understand the root cause of what happened and to extract the lesson behind the lesson.  Instead, the complacent first responder wants to ridicule and offer judgment upon the misfortunes of others. One who is judging, cannot learn. This causes the lessons to be missed and perpetuates the belief that bad things only happen to other people.

To Fall into a Comfortable Rut of Apathy – Laziness

The energy required to develop and maintain competency is immense. It requires both a cognitive and physical effort to develop the knowledge and skills essential for top performance. Any deviation from being exceptionally prepared will result in a consequence, right? Hardly. In fact, in the vast majority of cases with large deviations from top performance have no consequence. That is both a blessing and a curse. If such deviations always resulted in casualties, the results would be catastrophic. For that, we are blessed. Yet it is the same lack of consequence that promotes apathy. The proof that one need not work as hard,rests in the successful outcomes achieved despite a reduction in knowledge and skill development/maintenance.

To Have Enjoyed Success for so Long as to Believe all Actions Will Result in Successful Outcomes

The surest route to success is to find something that works well and do it over and over again – to perfect performance. But what is to happen if the successful outcomes are not from skill, but luck? Even when outcomes are good, there are still lessons to be learned and shared. Reviewing near-miss reports are a good way to witness, from a distance, departments and teams who were enjoying success and then had a near-catastrophe.

To Rely on Knowledge and Skills That Have Grown Stale for Lack of Practice and Renewal

For skill and knowledge to be retained and useful, they must be practiced over and over again… and then over and over AGAIN… rinse and repeat. The process of learning and relearning skills is never ending. The pathways of the brain remain strong through repetition. Just because something was learned in  school 10 years ago does not mean the skill set is still flawless. Every expert in every field practices incessantly to keep skills sharp. So must first responders!.

To Develop a Sense of Indifference – to Lack Concern For – One’s Safety and Well-Being

This is, perhaps, the most pathetic part of complacency, as some first resonders lose sight of the fact that out there, somewhere in the world, are other people who love and depend on us. If not for yourself, fight complacency for them. I have been involved in helping several fire departments and emergency responder teams in the process of healing from a loss. It’s tragic when the catastrophe could have been prevented if the members were more diligent and took the risk of their jobs more seriously.

The complacency within an organization is often a byproduct of the organization’s culture, undisciplined leadership and individual member mindsets. This can change. The journey of one thousand miles begins with a single step. Do something today… take a step toward reducing complacency.


If you are interested in taking your understanding of situational awareness and high-risk decision making to a higher level, check out the Situational Awareness Matters Online Academy.
CLICK HERE for details, enrollment options and pricing.


Share your comments on this article in the “Leave a Reply” box below. If you want to send me incident pictures, videos or have an idea you’d like me to research and write about, contact me. I really enjoy getting feedback and supportive messages from fellow first responders. It gives me the energy to work harder for you.




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1 thought on “Complacency: A Killer of First Responders”

  1. I like this article. This gives insight as to what not do. Complacency is a lesson that we have to learn over and over again sometimes. Lessons are learned through the good and bad happenings. Always find what the lesson is in all things. Do not become complacent, but continue to grow. Thanks for sharing!

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