Change following tragedy

Dr. David Griffin, a former Charleston, S.C. firefighter, shares his insights in moving past tragedy to understand better practices in running a department and in forgiving yourself to almost 100 local firefighters Saturday at Lawton City Hall’s City Council chambers.

When you survive hell, you gain insight. It’s something about the heat.

When your self-inflicted path to the inferno includes the loss of others, it takes time to see beyond the din, according to Dr. David Griffin. It takes awhile to make it better. But if you find the will to change, it does get better, he said.

Griffin’s seminar, “In Honor of the Charleston 9: A Study of Change Following Tragedy,” provided first-hand accounts of a tragic event as well as how its toll weighed heavy before becoming a catalyst for change. He also spoke about learning to release guilt.

As he spoke to 90 firefighters — 75 from Lawton Fire Department — who packed into the Lawton City Council chamber at City Hall Saturday morning, Griffin knows to whom he’s speaking. He’s one of them.

Griffin was the driver of the first engine to respond to a trash fire that turned into the disastrous 2007 Sofa Super Store fire that claimed the lives of nine of his fellow firefighters in Charleston S.C. He said that an operator error on his part, as well as from others within the department, turned the response from death-defying to deadly in the blink of an eye.

“What you’re going to see is there was human error involved, you’ve got to understand the mechanics,” he said of the response. “After this, I didn’t know I’d made any mistakes, zero.”

Griffin said that the internet, followed by some firefighter conferences, opened his eyes. The response and errors made at that notorious fire were being used as examples of bad practice. Although much of the information using his department’s response as an example was, he believed, wrong, it magnified the guilt he felt.

“Holy (expletive), this was really my fault,” he said. “I’m very hard on myself about that. … You’ve got to hold yourself accountable.”

In the aftermath, he said he was plagued by survivor’s guilt. Alcohol, painkillers, violent sports were his method to numb its pain. He said he’s always been a person who, if he was going to do something, would take it to the extreme.

“I’ve always been in fifth gear,” Griffin said. “That’s not a good thing.”

It took detoxing his body to begin to figure himself out and how to move on. It also took a beating to get there.

A turning point came following a brutal mixed-martial arts fight where Griffin ended up with his eyes swelled shut from the beating. In that time shrouded in darkness, he said he asked himself how his lifestyle honored the nine firefighting brothers who were dead. The self-pity began to lift by the time his eyelids were able.

“One can only sit around for so long and feel sorry for themselves until they have to get up and do something,” Griffin said.

A return to school led Griffin to complete his Doctorate of Education in organizational leadership and development. That period also allowed him to see his responsibility in the tragedy.

Now, he trains organizations across the globe on the importance of moving away from “the way we’ve always done it” mentality. The Sofa Super Store fire provides great opportunity for that.

It wasn’t just Griffin and other firefighters’ personal failings that led to catastrophe; those were symptoms of departmental dysfunction that included lax training and procedures. Those two ingredients went a long way towards the tragedy, he said.

“This was not a plan of mine,” he said. “Through teaching now, I want to set the record straight and also note and learn from mistakes to motivate and inspire.”

One of the things Griffin hopes these firefighters learn is that the responsibility to make changes begins with the individual. That means one person can be the one who starts checking to make air packs are filled and ready and that all gear needed for a firefighter is up to par and ready when called into service. You can’t expect change to be dictated and it take hold, it’s about personal responsibility, he said. That can lead to inspiration.

“You can lead from the back if you’re motivated to do it,” he said. “You’ve got to be that person.”

Griffin used the example of one person going above and beyond, even when three others may watch and even ridicule. Eventually, guilt will come into play followed by a move to step up for many. It builds momentum that can lead to change. He said that’s what happened with the Charleston department — it was in an “organizational crisis.” It took some time but it’s something that’s become the norm.

“It’s got to be organic for it to take hold,” he said.

Lawton Deputy Fire Chief Jared Williams said Griffin’s presentation offered a great opportunity for those in attendance to find insight into improvement. He thanked the City of Lawton for bringing Griffin in for the event.

“We couldn’t ask for a better speaker so far,” he said before the final portion of the day’s seminar.

Lawton Fire Chief Raanon Adams said Griffin helped him and his firefighters recognize things about themselves and how the department operates. In a field where tactics and practices are continually refining and improving, it’s important to recognize when change is needed and to make it happen.

“He talks about things we’re all guilty of doing,” he said. “It’s good to recognize the improvements we need to make and that we’ve made. It’s (firefighting) continually evolving and we need to evolve with it.”

Written by Scott Rains: srains@swoknews.com.

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