Nail It! Fighting the Scourge of Complacency in Public Safety

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Editor’s note: This article is part of a series. Click here for the previous article.

Gordon Graham here!

In my last article, I made the following statement: The vast majority of things the women and men of American public safety do, they are doing right! I want to keep this thread going for the next few articles. So let me say that again: In spite of the complex, high-risk nature of the job, with all the thousands of permutations of events public safety personnel get involved in—things are getting done right!

Why? Because most of what cops, or firefighters, or corrections officers do, they have done before. When you take a good woman or man (and I know we have them in public safety by the thousands) and put them in a high-frequency event, Recognition-Primed Decision-Making (RPDM) kicks in and things get done right.

Now, as I mentioned at the end of the prior piece, there are exceptions to this rule. Occasionally our people do commit errors while performing high-frequency events. There are many proximate causes to these errors, but when you look at the root causes, there are only a few. They include:

5 root factors of errors in public safety

Let’s take complacency first. Many of you are familiar with Below 100. The smart people who put this program together came up with five tenets to help reduce annual law enforcement line-of-duty deaths to a number below 100. These tenets are:

  1. Wear your belt.
  2. Wear your vest.
  3. Watch your speed.
  4. WIN – What’s important now?
  5. COMPLACENCY KILLS!

It’s no mistake that complacency is one of the five tenets. It is very easy to get complacent in a high-risk job, and law enforcement is a high-risk job.

Please do not get complacent. I don’t care how many times you have taken a dirty needle off a drug suspect—the next time you do it is as risky as the first time. I don’t care how many times you have unloaded a shotgun or rifle at the end of your shift—the next time you do it is as risky as the first time. I don’t care how many times you have backed the apparatus into the station, or approached an emotionally disturbed patient, or performed the task of feeding inmates. The next time you do these things—or anything of the thousands of other things you do each day—is just as risky as the first time you did them.

Please remember this: The level of risk in these activities never changes. Acclimation to risk, however, does change—and when high-risk tasks become routine, that is a problem lying in wait.

The danger of complacency is not limited to public safety. It applies to all high-risk occupations. Let’s take aviation as another example. Aviation is filled with risk. And this is of interest to me, because I spend way, way, way too much time on airplanes.

Not to digress (I tend to do that), but if you have been to any of my live programs you know I give many examples of things I’ve learned by talking to people. This “talking to people” is a dying behavior. Too many people are so focused on themselves that they’re missing out on a lot of opportunities to learn from others.

The level of risk in these activities never changes. Acclimation to risk, however, does change—and when high-risk tasks become routine, that is a problem lying in wait.

So when I am in a shuttle bus in the middle of the night going from the airport to the hotel and there is a flight crew on the shuttle, I talk to them! What is going on in the aviation world? What do you think about the new 787 Dreamliner? What is the inside scoop on the lithium battery issue? Do you watch people on the plane when you are doing the pre-flight safety briefing to see who is paying attention?

A few years ago, I was talking to two Southwest pilots on a shuttle bus. Southwest does a lot of takeoffs and landings. If you have studied aviation tragedies, you know that the first three minutes and the last eight minutes of the flight are the most dangerous time. I asked the senior of the two pilots, “What are you thinking about when you are sitting at the end of the runway getting ready for the takeoff?”

His answer is one I will remember (and hopefully you will also) for the rest of my life: “I turn to my co-pilot and remind him or her that this is the most important takeoff in our career—and we are going to nail it.” I love that attitude!

The next time you stop a car for some minor violation, please remember that this is the most important approach you will make in your career. And then nail it! Pay attention, make the safe right-side approach, check the occupants, be aware of traffic and pedestrians and all the other things that must work together to ensure you do it right.

The next time you pick up the 9-1-1 line as a telecommunicator, please remember that for the caller, this may well be the most important moment of their entire life. And if they have a real emergency (not the nonsense that so many callers talk about—“Was that an earthquake I just felt?” “Are the Yankees in town for the game yet?” “Is it raining?”), this may well be the most important call of your career. Don’t get complacent!

I am rapidly approaching the maximum word count for this piece, so I’ll continue next time with some thoughts on how to attack complacency in your job. Until then, please work safely—and DON’T GET COMPLACENT!

TIMELY TAKEAWAY—Between now and the time you read my next rambling, ask a friend who has a high-risk job (outside of public safety) how they fight complacency in their operations. Talk to a roofer or an electrician or a car mechanic and get their thoughts on complacency. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn that people in other occupations also think about how to combat risk and complacency—and you just might learn something from them.

Gordon Graham

GORDON GRAHAM is a 33-year veteran of law enforcement and the co-founder of Lexipol, where he serves on the current board of directors. Graham is a risk management expert and a practicing attorney who has presented a commonsense risk management approach to hundreds of thousands of public safety professionals around the world. Graham holds a master’s degree in Safety and Systems Management from University of Southern California and a Juris Doctorate from Western State University.

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