Responsibility, Authority and Accountability: These Aren’t Synonyms

By:  Robert AvsecFlorida EMS Providers

A few years ago I was leading some staff development workshops for a client of mine, Patriot EMS of Ironton, Ohio. The material in one of those workshops, EMS Supervision for the First-Line Supervisor, was very familiar to me as I had developed the original program in the mid-1990s for the Officer Development Program at Chesterfield Fire & EMS.

As frequently happens when I’m teaching or facilitating training, my mind suddenly conjures up a story that makes a difficult concept much more easily understood by both my audience and me. While working with this particular group, the differences between responsibility, authority and accountability suddenly became crystal clear, for me as well as my group.

Now maybe I’m a little “dull,” but I’ve always had some difficulty explaining the differences between these three interrelated terms. As this section of the workshop approached, a story that could clearly explain these three concepts came to me. My story was about how I obtained my driver’s license in the state of New Jersey.

Not me!

My Mom taught me how to drive. She taught me everything there was to know about operating and taking care of a car. She started out letting me drive in parking lots and on the back roads where there wasn’t much traffic. She focused on making sure that I knew the traffic rules, driver courtesy and what happens when you don‘t do maintenance — everything I would need to successfully obtain my driver’s license and become a safe and courteous driver who understood my responsibilities as a driver. But none of that allowed me to start driving the family car on my own.

For that, I had to go down to the local office of the New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles to take and pass the driving test, both written and practical. Only by demonstrating competency by passing those tests did the State of New Jersey give me the authority to operate a motor vehicle legally. By successfully obtaining my license, I entered into an agreement with the State of New Jersey: I could legally operate a motor vehicle so long as I obeyed the state’s rules on operating a motor vehicle.ResponsibilityAuthorityAccountability Picture

Along with that license came accountability. By obtaining my driver’s license, I also understood and accepted that there would be consequences if I failed to follow the rules. Violations of those rules, such as exceeding the speed limit or being involved in a motor vehicle crash or other such activity would earn me “points.” Earn enough points and the State of New Jersey would revoke my license — my authority — to legally operate a motor vehicle.

Simple, huh? My audience that weekend thought so as well. I had been working with these terms for years and never really felt good about how I was explaining them to my officer development students. If only this “ah-ha” moment had come sooner!

How can we apply these concepts to our leadership and management of our folks in Fire & EMS organizations?

Responsibility. Create and maintain accurate job descriptions and performance expectations for all positions.  Use those documents as the foundation for all training that a person receives for the position they will fill.  Don’t assume that because a person earns their state firefighter or EMT certification that they know what the job entails in your organization.

Authority.  Create and maintain an objective process for each position in your organization that requires the employee or member to demonstrate that they have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to meet their job responsibilities.

Accountability.  Create and maintain a system of progressive discipline so that from the moment the employee or member assumes the position that they understand the potential consequences of not fully carrying out their authorized job responsibilities.

So, how are you using these terms in your Fire & EMS organization?

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec makes his home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, [email protected].