Firefighter/EMT Safety, Health & Survival: Safety as a Legacy

In preparation for this article, I reviewed the minutes of our safety committee for the last several years, looking for inspiration. Interestingly, I found there were many valid issues raised and addressed.

Items such as hearing protection dispensers, eyewash stations and MSDS sheets being installed and maintained in each of the stations were requested and added to the agendas. In addition, we’re working on a new program that teaches and evaluates lifting techniques to prevent back injuries. We considered weather-related slips and falls, as well, and now we have traction attachments for bunker boots to use in snow and ice.

From the outside looking in, this shows that our organization is very conscious of safety-related issues for our people.

Recognizing our personnel as our greatest assets, most of your departments have probably addressed the same or similar concerns in like fashion. The interesting point for me is that while these are necessary and important issues to address, we typically stop at the non-emergent when considering threats to our safety.

The easiest example is that of seatbelts on the apparatus. We all should be aware that one of the most dangerous times for firefighters is in transit to and from calls. This means we should be at our best (based on risk) while in the rigs. Yet almost daily, we hear of accidents somewhere in the United States where the responders weren’t wearing the simplest protective equipment: the seatbelts.

I continue to illustrate my point by pointing out many of the fire and emergency service trade magazines. Most include actions shots of fires, extrications and advanced trauma calls that depict emergency responders busy at their craft. Ironically, many of these hide dark secrets that only fire service professionals can find: the missing Nomex hood, the absence of gloves or goggles and even firefighters in a smoke-filled environment with their air masks dangling around their necks.

I purposefully didn’t list any specific examples to avoid singling out a department or its members, but we have all seen the photos. It’s funny how the media seems to frequently find us at our worst, since there many newsreels exhibit the same omissions.

So in considering this phenomenon, I have to wonder what the root cause is. Are we really that complacent with the actions that represent the greatest threats to ourselves, or do we just become caught up in the moment and take a shortcut?

There are many great speakers and classes that teach the common theme of “risk a little to save a little and risk a lot to save a lot.” But we aren’t following their direction. Some departments endorse the Kamikaze mentality and add risk as just part of the job while others perceive themselves as invincible.

In either case, the practice must stop. How do we change our behavior? For me, it must come from within and become part of our culture.

The fire service tradition evokes family, teamwork and service above self, but I think that we have lost some of the meaning of this along the way. Previous generations of firefighters were injured or killed to promote a new legacy of protective equipment and practices. Much in the same way that building codes are created, lessons learned in the fire service usually involve some sort of tragedy.

With each memorial service or medical retirement, the firefighter’s family or retiree usually pleads with attendees, “Don’t let this incident go in vain—change!”

This strikes a chord in the deepest sense of tradition: honor. We must heed the warnings of the men and women who identified safety issues or practices at their personal expense. One could conclude that each time we ignore their requests we dishonor our members who have paid such great costs.

As fire and emergency service leaders, we’re tasked with leaving a legacy that is better than the one given to us. What could be more important than the safety and wellbeing of our people? I challenge each of you to affirm that your people are your most valuable asset and instill a greater sense of safety in your culture so we’ll never have to look back and wonder why we didn’t listen.

David Burke, MS, EFO, CFO, MIFireE, is the fire chief for Duvall-King County Fire District 45 in Washington State. He is a member of the IAFC’s Safety, Health and Survival Section.

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