Firefighter/EMT Safety, Health & Survival: When Vanity Interferes with Safety

Over the years, I've heard many flawed excuses for not wearing personal protective equipment—everything from "a Nomex hood is dangerous because you can't feel the heat on your ears" to "I have to take my gloves off to be able to operate the nozzle" and everything in between.

I sincerely thought that I had heard it all until recently.

Not long ago, I was enjoying my off-duty time by participating in a fundraising motorcycle ride when one of the riders in front of me lost control on a curve, hit an uneven spot in the shoulder and flipped his bike. I joined several other fire service riders in providing aid and stabilization to the patient while waiting for the local jurisdiction to respond. I should point out that several of us carry basic first-aid kits on our bikes and we were wearing rubber gloves and minimal eye protection (sunglasses).

Upon arrival, the crew dismounted their engine and truly looked professional and well groomed, with starch and creases in their shirts and boots shined. We (including the spectators) were very impressed as it appeared that the crew was straight out of a television show. As they got closer and cologne was detected, the impression changed slightly to that of a commercial.

In either case, the image they projected was positive and there was confidence they would make a difference in the incident's outcome.

We began the process of transferring patient care and noticed that none of the three were wearing any PPE. One of the off-duty medics told them to take a minute and get their gloves and goggles on since there was a considerable amount of blood present.

The response was startling and left all of us concerned with the uniformed crew's interpretation of what was appropriate. The officer stated, "All of that stuff cramps my style."

After a couple of tactful statements from the off-duty group, the crew complied and donned their PPE. It should be noted that they did provide outstanding patient care.

After that event, I started thinking about other instances where the cool factor provided resistance at times when PPE was indicated. I shared this topic with several fire chiefs and found that other vanity excuses have been offered throughout our collective career experience:

  • The helmet will mess up my hair.
  • Bunker gear makes me sweat and my uniform smell.
  • Safety glasses look goofy.
  • I paid a lot for my jewelry and I want people to see it.
  • The powder in the gloves gets all over my uniform.

As the discussion circled the room, it was obvious that we each had encountered some form of vanity in our troops over the years. We wondered what caused that mindset and, more importantly, what could be done to ensure that personal vanity doesn't supersede or displace any safety practices.

Several theories were offered as potential causes; some believed the attitude to be generational while others pointed to a self-proclaimed subculture of superheroes.

Despite the cause, realignment would require a new attitude that places safety above all else. For this to be successful, the belief must be instilled at all levels of the organization and become an expectation that all are accountable to.

After reading this article, some will likely defend a vanity omission of safety equipment, citing the need to maintain a professional appearance. While I agree that a professional appearance in public safety is critical, I would argue that any changes in our appearance due to the use of PPE contribute to a professional appearance.

We can't afford to create any new risks in an already dangerous job. We must remove vanity from our credo and replace it with an addiction to safety.

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