Is the fire service becoming too safety conscious? Lately, this is a question that seems to be discussed on a regular basis in fire blogs and trade magazines and around kitchen tables at fire stations everywhere.
Since joining the fire service in 1982, I've witnessed great strides in firefighter health and safety initiatives. The fire service has benefited from technological advances in protective clothing, breathing apparatus, thermal imaging and apparatus design, to name a few. So with all these advances in firefighter safety, why do we continue to lose close to one hundred firefighters annually to line-of-duty deaths?
We work in a dangerous occupation that at times requires us to take extreme risks. We teach firefighters that we should risk a lot to save a lot and risk a little to save a little, so why do we continue to injure and kill firefighters at incidents that have very little to save? Is our safety message being lost to past unsafe traditions in the fire service?
We as fire service leaders continue to allow our personnel to conduct unsafe acts responding to, operating on and returning from the emergency scene. When I ask students how many of their organizations operate a dedicated safety-officer position, many say they continue to operate without this vital function.
The fire service is currently under attack. Many organizations are being asked to do more with less. Fire department budgets are being reduced, fire departments are being required to reduce work-force levels and fire apparatus and equipment aren't being replaced in their normal budget cycles. These reductions translate into potential safety issues that we're being asked to deal with daily.
So how do we ensure our safety message isn't being lost? It takes a commitment from the entire organization.
We define leadership as the act of controlling, directing, conducting, guiding and administering through the use of personal behavioral traits or personality characteristics that motivate employees to the successful completion of the organization's goals. As fire chiefs, we can't just talk the talk; we need to ensure we give our organizations the needed resources to function in the safest environment possible each and every day.
As fire service leaders, we must establish departmental safety policies and procedures and, more importantly, enforce these safety policies and safety messages. We need to motivate, guide and mentor each layer of our organizations to buy into firefighter health and safety. Not all health and safety initiatives must have a dollar amount attached to them to make a difference. Leading our organizations to work safely can be accomplished through education, changing norms and eliminating unsafe fire service traditions.
So back to my original question: is the fire service becoming too safety conscious? I don't believe we are. Each and every day, we continue to work in a dangerous, fluid business. We must ensure our personnel are well-trained, equipped and work in as safe an environment as possible.
Firefighter safety is an organizational attitude, an attitude that we as leaders need to instill. So as a fire service leader, are you ready to walk the walk?