Last week, I had lunch with two good friends and colleagues. These 35-plus-year fire-department veterans and I share a common link: we all have a passion and commitment for firefighter safety and health. We try to get together monthly to catch up on our lives and careers, but the discussion of firefighter safety capitalizes most of the conversations.
Murrey Loflin is one of the original authors of the NFPA 1500 documents and other fire-department safety journals. He was the original safety officer for the Virginia Beach Fire Department (VBFD) and mentored me as I become a safety officer. He's currently a NIOSH line-of-duty death investigator. Steve Miles replaced me as the VBFD's safety officer; during a near-miss incident investigation, he included NIOSH to assist him and this led him to also become a NIOSH LODD investigator.
Between the three of us, we have more than 100 years of fire service experience. In our last discussions, we talked about qualities and attributes fire chiefs should look for in developing and maintaining good safety programs. This article intends to pass our years of experience on to others to help them develop a functional and successful safety environment within the fire service.
First and foremost, an organization's leadership has to embrace, support and model a positive safety attitude and culture. This is where walking the talk is of the utmost importance. Safety needs to be the major driver in all decisions, policies, procedures and actions. Nothing will tear down a safety culture faster than leaders only offering lip service.
The workforce has to have the same positive safety attitude as the leaders. Department members need to support and comply with the established policies and procedures. Commitment and demonstration of proper safety practices must be embedded in their daily operations and activities. This is all-inclusive: on the fireground and in the firehouse, members must reflect a positive safety environment at all times. Like the organization's leaders, they must also walk the talk.
The organization must have an accepted and effective safety program that includes all the policies, procedures, regulations, laws, ordinances, codes and rules governing fire/EMS organizations. Department members need to have access to these policies and regulations, and they need to train regularly on them to stay current and proficient. They also need to know the consequences if violations occur and be held accountable to them.
The safety program also needs to include a risk management section and philosophy.
A department must have a progressive and active training program, conducting regular, continual training exercises and drills in all aspects of the job to reduce the risk of injuries and accidents. Leadership must require members to train as they would work, following proper procedures and using appropriate PPE and the right tool for the job.
The members must stay proficient, comply with policies and procedures, utilize proper PPE and train accordingly. Equipment and PPE has to be properly utilized, maintained and trained on. Train with it, use it and maintain it. Do I need to say more?
Implement and develop a health and safety officer program or positions for your department. Good examples of safety programs are readily available on the internet; do some research or use your safety committee to evaluate or establish which program best fits your organization. Review and revise on an ongoing basis.
The person selected to be the health and safety officer should have a passion for firefighter safety and health, plus a commitment to the organization and the established safety program. The safety officer must have the confidence to make safe decisions for all parties involved, knowing they'll have the support of leadership. It's highly recommended and a proven best practice to have the health and safety officer report directly to the chief or deputy chief. This person must be properly trained, certified and credentialed as a health and safety officer. The Fire Department Safety Officers Association, NFA and USFA offer several safety-officer classes.
Develop a safety committee to review policies, procedures and training activities and to monitor and evaluate new equipment and other resources. This committee could serve as an interdepartmental accident/injuries review panel, with the purpose of determining preventable or nonpreventable findings with nonpunitive actions. They could identify safety trends or traps, training inconsistencies and improvements and could handle risk management/safety inspections or reviews.
Encourage your safety officers to be actively involved in local, state, federal and fire/EMS safety organizations and be actively involved in the fire-safety programs and committees yourself.
Develop a working relationship with the risk management office in your organization or governmental agency. The risk management office can be your best ally in developing a good safety culture in your department.
When I first became a safety officer, a safety officer from another organization told me, "Once you become one, you can't go back." I have found this to be true.
In 1996, I made the conscious decision to adopt a safety attitude and culture for myself. Since I started to see things through the eyes of a safety officer, I haven't been able to see them any other way.
My hard work, commitment and dedication to firefighter safety have been very rewarding and successful and can be attributed to following the guidelines above. Stay safe and healthy!