The response to crises such as the 9/11 attacks, the Boston Marathon bombings or the landslide that collapsed a Baltimore street this spring inevitably elevate the public consciousness of the professionalism and courage of police, firefighters and other first responders. But sometimes a different kind of consciousness is raised. Corruption or lawless behavior by public-safety personnel — such as the shootings and looting by New Orleans police officers following Hurricane Katrina or, more recently, the police chokehold that killed an unarmed man on a Staten Island sidewalk, caught on video by members of the community — can undo all of that goodwill in a moment.
Recognizing this, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio last week assembled a group of law enforcement, religious and social leaders for a round table discussion aimed at improving community relations after the Staten Island incident. Public-safety professionals serving in our communities often are the most visible manifestations of government. Their uniforms, badges, police cars and fire trucks remind us of the decision these individuals have made to put service before self. But as visible symbols of government, they also have an important role of community leadership that brings the responsibility to model behavior that is beyond reproach.
That's why it should become the duty of every member of the public-safety profession to support and work for a sustainable culture of leadership consciousness. Leadership consciousness can be defined as the awareness that there are consequences for all of the actions that one takes — either positive or negative — and that as a public official you have the ability to influence people through the authority of your position. So while your authority to take action in times of emergency is noble, your authority to influence a positive model within the community and throughout your agency is just as great.
Public-safety personnel are some of the most highly trained professionals in America's workforce. They receive hundreds of hours of instruction to meet initial certification requirements and countless hours of continuing education to maintain these credentials. The goal is for that training to become second nature, enhancing their efficiency and survival chances during stressful situations.
So, you may ask yourself: How is it that incidents such as those in New Orleans and on that New York sidewalk can occur within an institution built on discipline and self-control? The answer is that amid all the training public-safety workers receive in how to take action in the face of danger and chaos, less continuing attention is given to awareness of the implications of their actions and behaviors. In the end, the goal is a simple one: As former Baltimore police Commissioner Leonard Hamm once told a police academy graduating class, "Do what's right in the face of what's wrong."
Leadership consciousness requires that members of the public-safety profession at all levels honestly examine their own thoughts and beliefs while never losing sight of the visibility and impact they have. Leadership is not about the title that one holds in a public-safety organization; it's about the influence all members of the profession have on the people they serve. From the person on the front line providing emergency-response services to the person at the top of the organizational chart, each individual needs to remember that every move he or she makes and every action he or she takes will be watched and critiqued.
In a position of such great magnitude, fiduciary responsibility and visibility, everything matters. Public officials are watched almost as much as the members of professional sports teams. Members must be cognizant that with every action they take there is a camera rolling somewhere in the vicinity. Public safety officials have a duty to represent themselves and their organizations in a professional manner every time they put on that uniform or engage in any way with the public. In the end, leadership consciousness within public safety is the ability to understand that public officials represent something bigger than themselves and that each day they carry the reputation and image of fellow colleagues on their shoulders with every action and behavior that they exhibit. So never underestimate the impact that actions and behaviors will have on someone else.
Samuel Johnson Jr. is the regional training and exercise coordinator for the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management. His email is email@example.com.
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