I subscribe to the argument, expounded so well in a 1980 Harvard Business Review article, that management ultimately is responsible for an organization’s success or failure. One year ago today in Charleston, SC, the city I now call home, nine firefighters died in a fire in a sofa store. The cause of the fire itself was likely a cigarette tossed by a smoker. Combustible materials were stored in the area of the unofficial smoking area, a loading dock and storage area built without proper permits. But nine firefighters died because of a failure of management – a 15 year reign of outdated firefighting practices, outdated equipment and a poor incident command process.
After the fire, the City of Charleston a team of fire experts, mostly experienced fire officers from around the country, to conduct a complete analysis of the fire department and the fire itself. Part I, issued in the fall of 2007, was bad. Part II, the final report, released on May 15, was stunning in its indictment of the failure of the leadership of the fire department. The failure was not an isolated instance of what happened that night. The failure was carried out over the 15 years that Rusty Thomas, a homegrown firefighter, has been chief.
"The operation was conducted in an unstructured and uncoordinated manner, without overall direction and with inadequate supervision. The Charleston Fire Department was inadequately staffed, inadequately trained, insufficiently equipped, and organizationally unprepared to conduct an operation of this complexity in a large commercial occupancy."
"The predominant factor identified in the analysis of Fire Department operations is the failure to manage the incident according to accepted practices," ….."There was no structured incident command system in place, and the essential duties of an Incident Commander were not performed.
The response from Chief Thomas?
"No one, no expert in this country, will ever know what took place in that building that night."
"I'm so sorry that myself or somebody could not have done something different that night to bring back those nine guys."
The tragic part of this denial is that the experts do know what happened in that building that night – it was quickly apparent what had happened. Further, Thomas had 15 years to build a department which had the staffing, training, equipment and organization to fight a major fire. And that is where he failed as a leader and as a manager. He himself did not have the formal training – college and certifications – that one expect from a fire service officer. Thomas learned on the job, and has never worked in any other fire department. Fighting fires is no longer solely a matter of brawn – fighting fires, as with so many jobs, it more about brains.
There are people in this world who are naturals at leadership and management. I do believe that many – not all, but many – can learn to be very good leaders and managers. But it takes a sense of curiosity and the ability to apply lessons learned to constantly make things better. The failure here was a lack of curiosity, an adherence to continue practices because that’s the way it was always done, so it was the way to keep doing it. At their best, a leader has to be always open to finding new and better ways to do things. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” some say. The best answer, “If it ain’t broke – you’re not looking hard enough”. In many ways, the fact that you are reading this tells us that you “get it”. The time you spend looking, reading and learning is time well spent, finding ways to do things just a bit better.