You Are Required to Report Unsafe Practices or Conditions that Can Harm You. Stop, Evaluate and Decide.
Objective: To prevent company officers and firefighters from engaging in unsafe practices or exposure to unsafe conditions that can harm them and allowing any member to raise an alert about a safety concern without penalty and mandating the supervisor address the question to ensure safe.
Because of the significant risk to firefighters, it’s the responsibility of the incident commander (and the command organization) to minimize their exposure to unsafe conditions and stop unsafe practices. NIOSH firefighter fatality reports routinely describe incidents where unsafe conditions or practices existed that were either not observed or reported and later became a contributing factor in a line-of-duty death.
The fire service has always been a paramilitary organization when it comes to fireground operations. In most cases, the incident commander makes a decision and sends the order down through supervisors to the company officer and crew. Fire crews generally view these orders as top-down direction. There is often little two-way discussion about options.
Where this culture exists, crews have been trained to accept the order and do it—generally without question. This situation makes it very uncomfortable for firefighters to say no to unsafe conditions or practices. Additionally, the fire service hasn’t clearly defined how a firefighter, supervisors or the incident commander should process a safety concern identified by a firefighter.
The aviation industry experienced a similar problem of one-way decision-making and communication. The old culture placed the captain in charge of all aircraft operations. The culture didn’t tolerate a challenge from crew members. As a result, post-crash investigations found captains occasionally flew their planes into the ground, even as other crew members, including the copilot, knew something was wrong and often tried to tell the pilot—only to be rejected.
The commercial airline industry fixed its problem through a new management system called “cockpit crew resource management.” This new system required the captain to listen to crew input regarding safety and authorized the crew to participate. They became a team looking out for their own welfare as well as their passengers. The program resulted in a rather dramatic reduction in accidents caused by pilot errors.
This rule applies the principles of crew-resource management by encouraging all firefighters to apply situational awareness and be responsible for their own safety and that of other firefighters. In a sense all firefighters become the additional eyes and ears of the incident commander and alerting him (or the immediate supervisor) of unacceptable situations.
No fire attack or building is worth the life of a firefighter or a preventable—sometimes career-ending—injury. The intent of this rule is to allow any member to report a safety concern through a structured process without fear of penalty.
The rule by no means suggests that a firefighter is authorized to engage in insubordination. The fireground is fast-paced action and clearly must be managed by a well-disciplined and structured command organization.
This policy statement does, however, allow a red flag to be raised about a safety issue by any member.
When the red flag is raised, the supervisor is mandated to accept that concern, take a few seconds to stop (assess), talk and make a safe decision (go, no-go). In some cases, the situation may affect other areas of the fireground or the action plan, and it must be communicated to the incident commander or other supervising officers.
NO GO: If anything will harm you, don’t do it! Report it immediately to command or your supervisor.
Gary Morris is a director at large on the Safety, Health and Survival Section board of directors and was the team lead for the Rules of Engagement project. He was formerly chief of the Rural Metro Fire Department in Scottsdale, Ariz.