The very first initiative in the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives is Define and advocate a cultural change within the fire service related to safety; incorporating leadership, management, supervision, accountability and personal accountability.
Many of the safety concepts being discussed throughout the fire and emergency service involve the change of an ingrained culture. This isn't to say the existing culture is totally bad, but enhancements and evolution must occur if we truly want to reduce line-of-duty deaths and injuries and reverse the occupational diseases that occur while serving as a firefighter and in the years after active duty and into retirement.
Let's examine a few notable issues that continue to be a safety concern:
Seat Belts – We all know that seatbelts improve the safety and survivability of occupants involved in a motor vehicle crash; all states have implemented seatbelt laws because this has been proven. What's more, we witness it with our own eyes when we respond to an auto accident, especially where an occupant has been ejected.
Why then is it so hard to get all first responders to don seatbelts in moving vehicles? Every year, firefighters die from accidents involving fire apparatus just because they weren't wearing their seatbelts.
Apparatus Speed – Too often, fire apparatus are involved in accidents where speed is a factor. We have the conflicting issues of needing to arrive quickly versus operating emergency vehicles safely. Many departments have enacted policies regarding speed, and laws have been enacted that require emergency vehicles to stop at negative right-of-way intersections, but how many departments enforce these policies? If you allow a driver to exceed the speed limitations of your policy, what good is the policy?
Medical Physicals – We know that more than 50% of LODDs are related to cardiac events and strokes. Investigations continually report that the condition that led up to an event may have been identified if an annual NFPA 1582 medical evaluation had been performed.
An annual medical physical is a true benefit for anyone, but I have heard firefighters—career and volunteer members—comment that they're afraid something will be found that prohibits them from being a firefighter! Is being a firefighter truly more important than your physical wellbeing and health? What about the danger you pose to your brother and sister firefighters if you collapse during an emergency incident. Think about others even if you choose not to think of your own needs.
Cancer and SCBA Use – For years, the hazardous atmosphere of fires has been proven through research, and we know that carcinogens exist in the smoke; the dangers of overhaul continue to be exposed. Yet many firefighters don't properly don their SCBAs before entering a fire building or remove their masks as soon as the fire is out but still smoldering. And we continue to view pictures of firefighters performing overhaul without respiratory protection. Why?
These four issues all need to be dealt with through leadership. That doesn't mean it's all on the shoulders of the fire chief. Company officers and individual firefighters have truly important leadership roles in making these cultural changes and positively affecting firefighter safety.
Don't get me wrong, the fire chief must articulate the vision and expectations to effect the changes needed in the organization, but the company officers and firefighters are the ones who will ensure accountability and adherence to safe practices. It takes everyone's leadership to create the necessary cultural changes to effectively address the issues described above.
Ask yourself: Have you done all within your control to ensure the safety of yourself and your fellow first responders? Leadership is necessary to make the fire service safer.