From the Chief's Corner

Are you playing it safe — and losing?
By Chief Sam DiGiovanna
Verdugo Fire Academy/Lexipol Consultant

We talk a lot about safety in the fire service. Remember when the term "culture of safety" first started getting used? There was a lot of resistance at first, but slowly we started to realize safety wasn't a four-letter word.

Staying safe is a good thing when we're talking about avoiding physical injury or exposure to carcinogens. But playing it too safe can backfire on us. A fear of taking risks can make us conformists. We go along with the crowd, hesitant to try new things or do the same things differently. Even when we recognize the opportunity for improvement or growth, we talk ourselves out of it, afraid of failure or of disapproval.

Recently I read a story inspired by John 12:23-26:

Imagine two grains of wheat lying on the floor of a warm and cozy barn. One day, the farmer comes in and tells them, "I want to take you out of this comfortable barn and plant you in the earth. I'm going to place you in the cold ground and cover you with soil. It will be dark, and you will die. But I promise that you will multiply and become very fruitful."

Well, you can imagine what happens in the story: The first grain of wheat refuses the offer, choosing to remain comfortable and warm. The second one takes the risk, focused on the promise of the future harvest. Within a few days, the grain of wheat has become a sprout, which in turn produces more grains. The farmer plants them and the harvest multiplies. Year after year, the process is repeated, until the one grain of wheat has millions of descendants.

And the grain of wheat that stayed in the barn? Well, he's comfortable, I guess, but he sure hasn't grown or multiplied.

I started this article by mentioning how often we focus on safety in the fire service. Well, we focus on risk, too: Risk a lot to save a lot, risk a little to save a little, and risk nothing to save nothing at all. This isn't just a good motto for a fireground; it's a pretty good guide for life!

What are some of the risks you should consider taking so you can be like that sprouting seed of grain?
  • Take the risk of engaging with people. Too often we hide behind our phones, bury ourselves in work or rely on routine interactions. Instead, challenge yourself to have more candid, face-to-face conversations. Really listen and try not to shy away when things get uncomfortable or awkward.
  • Take the risk of not knowing. Do you ever just nod and smile in a conversation because you're reluctant to admit you don't know what the other person is talking about? When you find yourself doing that, stop! Don't be afraid not to know. Strive to be curious, discovering all you can, but also confident enough to admit when you don't know something.
  • Take the risk of being different. Are you doing things in life because they're expected of you or because they really make you happy? Conforming to others' expectations robs the world of your uniqueness! For sure, we all must follow certain rules. But if you're curbing your interests or going along with the crowd out of fear of being rejected, you're selling yourself and them short.
  • Take the risk of failing. As children, we fail all the time — only it's called learning. As we get older, society starts to impose on us the idea that failing is bad. We no longer look at mistakes as learning opportunities, but instead punish ourselves and others for making them. If you find yourself afraid to fail, picture yourself learning to ride a bike. If you'd given up the first (or 50th!) time you fell, you'd never have experienced the joy of pedaling as fast as you can downhill, no hands, wind whistling in your ears.
So, which grain of wheat are you? Are you willing to risk a little to grow a little? Or risk a lot to grow a lot? As firefighters, we must operate as safely as possible. But in life, we must ensure playing it safe isn't holding us back.

"Never let your fear of the unknown and things being too difficult make your choices for you in life. One of the saddest lessons in life is finding out that your fear made the situation worse than what it was and a braver person stole the dream you gave up on."
– Shannon Alder


Sam DiGiovanna is a 33-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as Fire Chief at the Monrovia Fire Department and currently serves as Chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale, Calif. He also is a consultant for Lexipol Fire Services.