Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Monkey Parable, Safety, and Resistance to Change

The 2009 Fire and EMS Safety, Health, and Survival Week begins tomorrow. My department is using these resources to help our firefighters develop healthy lifestyles, and maintain a safer work environment. In honor of Safety Week, I offer the following - The Monkey Parable.

Once upon a time, some researchers conducted an experiment. They obtained five monkeys and placed them into a single cage. In the center of the cage was a stairway that terminated in thin air. After a hungry night in the cage, the monkeys saw a researcher lowering a bunch of bananas through the bars above the stairs. The monkeys immediately charged up the stairs toward the food. Other researchers immediately blasted the monkeys with ice cold water from fire hoses, played tapes of loud, discordant music, and turned on strobe lights. They repeated these actions every time they lowered the bananas into the cage. It didn't take the monkeys long to refuse to set foot on the stairs, no matter how hungry they were.

Once this conditioning had taken effect, the researchers removed one of the monkeys from the cage and replaced him with a 2nd-generation monkey. Down came the bananas. The new monkey raced for the stairs. Before he could set foot on the bottom step, the other four monkeys grabbed him and beat him down, not wanting to experience a repeat of the previous few days' unpleasantness. No icy bath, strobe lights, or discordant music resulted. This was repeated until all of the 1st generation monkeys had been replaced by 2nd generation monkeys, none of which had experied the unpleasantness through which the 1st generation had lived.

Once the 2nd generation monkeys were completely conditioned, one of them was removed from the cage and replaced with a 3rd generation monkey. Down came the bananas. The newest monkey dashed for the food, was caught at the bottom of the stairs, and beaten down, just as the 2nd generation monkeys were beaten down by the 1st generation monkeys. During the beat-down, the new monkey cried out"Why are you guys beating me?" The beat down stopped and the four 2nd-generation monkeys looked around at each other. Finally, one of them replied..."I don't know, it's just that we've always done it that way." Hopefully, fire-rescue and EMS personnel aren't so conditioned to "We've always done it that way" that we act like the monkeys in the story. We're supposed to be smarter than monkeys.

Chief Officers share in the responsibility to help keep our firefighters safe. Safety Week activities include resources to help the chiefs take care of the firefighters and paramedics for whom they are responsible.

How many firefighters will continue to die unnecessarily because we run into Born Losers...because we've always done it that way? How many of us will refuse to use new tactics and tools because we like the old ones...because we've always done it that way? How many fire and EMS personnel will die because we are too busy donning SCBA or performing patient care to ensure our own safety...because we've always done it that way?

Let's commit to safer, healthier firefighters and emergency operations. If we don't, then we're really not any smarter than the monkeys.


  1. That is indeed a beautiful and relevant parable- in fact, those very same monkeys now run my EMS service. Small world...

  2. Good points. BUT...the problem is that in this field what usually ends up happening is that people throw out everything that we've always done for the new. There is a tendency to forget that not all old ways or things are invalid or obselete. People need to actually critically think and examine. If they adopt the new ways just because they're new, and not the way we've always done it, then they're just doing the same thing that you're trying to advocate against. Remember, there were many new tactics and such that came out in the 80's-90's that have now been invalidated.