An Open Letter to Safety Officers

Brother and Sister Safety Officers,

I know many of you personally, as I spent 12 years on the board of directors for FDSOA and I have spoken at conferences throughout the U.S. and Canada for many years. I count several of you as close, personal friends. Although I officially retired from the fire service several years ago, I’ll never really retire from my passion for firefighter health and safety.

I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer just over two years ago. More likely than not, my cancer is job-related as my lifestyle is not conducive to cancer and there’s no history of cancer in my family.

Over the past two years, I’ve spent way more time in doctor’s offices, hospitals and cancer centers than you can imagine. I have been through radiation therapy, surgery and chemotherapy. I have a permanent colostomy and will be on some type of chemotherapy for the remainder of my life.

But don’t feel sorry for me; I have been and will continue to be significant with my life.

I would like to share with you what is on my heart in reference to the heath and occupational safety of the firefighters we’re responsible for as safety officers.

The concept of safety officers is about 30 years old in our chosen vocation, having come to the forefront in the mid-1980s. As the safety officer role matures into an adult, if you think of the discipline as if it were a human, so must the way we approach the responsibility of the position—that is, in a more mature manner.

When the safety officer position was young, we thought of the simple things that impacted the health and safety of our members; in most cases, we’ve been successful in reducing accident, injury and fatalities that come from that low-hanging fruit. In fact, I truly believe we have seen a change in the fire service to where we now embrace a culture of safety for the most part.

So where do we go from here as the discipline matures? I believe the answer is that we must—I repeat must—start to think about the bigger picture.

What is that bigger picture you ask? The bigger picture is the overall health and welfare of our firefighters. We’ve successfully gotten them to wear seatbelts, we have them using spotters to help in backing apparatus up, we have them wearing PPE (for the most part; I will address that later in this letter). So now’s the time that we begin to look at that bigger picture.

Brothers and Sisters, this won’t be an easy task, as it will require a totally new look at our safety culture. We won’t be addressing those issues that bring instant gratification, but those that may not show rewards for decades to come.

We live in a society that makes us think in terms of what can happen for me instantly. We can get a four-course meal from the driver’s seat of our car in 90 seconds, we can chat with a friend halfway around the world in real time and we can get information on any subject at our fingertips instantly.

With those capabilities, we’ve become less interested in things that may take time to show results. I challenge you to take a few minutes to think about what I am about to share with you and ask yourself, “Do I want to be successful, or do I want to be significant?

Success may only last a lifetime; significant can and will go on for generations.

So how do we make a significant impact? It will come when we embrace, as my good friend Janet Wilmoth calls it, a “whole-listic” approach to our responsibilities as safety officers. We must start to address those things that have a long-term impact on firefighter health and welfare. This won’t be easy, but it will be rewarding—no instant gratification here, but the satisfaction of knowing you’ve been significant.

These things include but aren’t limited to:

  • Tobacco cessation – Tobacco use is down in the fire service but is still much too prevalent; many cases of heart/lung disease and cancer can be attributed to tobacco use.
  • Nutrition – The fire service may have some of the worst eating habits known to man: large volumes consumed as if it were our last meal. A more healthy approach to the way we prepare and cook our meals needs to be addressed.
  • Regular physical exams – Had I gone for a colonoscopy when my doctor recommended it, we may have caught my cancer early enough to have avoided the need for major intervention. Many of the diseases we experience in the fire service can be treated and controlled if we can catch them early; regular physical examinations are the answer.
  • Exercise – Even the slightest amount of exercise can make a huge difference in our firefighters’ health and welfare. You don’t have to spend hours in the gym to get positive results from exercise.
  • Wearing personal protective equipment – Every incident. EVERY INCIDENT! Eye protection, gloves and mask where appropriate on EMS calls. Full bunker gear and SCBA until the fire is completely out, including through overhaul operations.

I truly believe that if I had worn my PPE, particularly my SCBA, more diligently, I might have avoided my colorectal cancer.

PPE may be uncomfortable and hot, but you don’t want to wear the PPE I now have.

My PPE now involves sitting in a chair at the Cancer Center for six hours at a stretch connected to a cocktail of medicines that takes your body and slams it to the point that you can’t even get out of bed some days.

My other PPE is a colostomy bag that I will wear 24/7 for the rest of my life. My cancer required the removal of my lower digestive system from my descending colon to the “exit,” if you know what I mean.

Wear your PPE!

Addressing and enforcing these won’t necessarily make you the most popular person in your department. However, if you became a safety officer to win a popularity contest, you might want to rethink your choice.

Don’t feel sorry for me because of my cancer. Instead, go out and make a difference. And think about me when you do.


Sandy Davis, Chief Safety Officer (Ret.)
Shreveport (La.) Fire Department

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