The Courage to be Safe course, part of the Everyone Goes Home: Life Safety Initiatives Program, distinguishes between two distinct types of courage.
The first is a traditional sense of courage that one identifies with observable acts of valor, such as engaging in an interior structural attack or venturing beyond protection of a fire stream to rescue a savable life.
The second type of courage is less obvious but arguably just as important.
The second type of courage is found in firefighters and fire officers who continually stand up to do the right thing in direct conflict with the very personality traits that enables firefighters to do their job. What are these personality traits found in the typical firefighter and why do they conflict with good safety practice?
Research affirms firefighters identify with risk. Indeed, many are attracted to such elements of the industry as the excitement and danger. Injury and line-of-duty death are considered an inherent risk of the job. Some research further suggests it’s possible that firefighters may resist transition to a risk-averse mentality because it would eliminate the elements that initially attracted them to the fire service. One researcher suggested remove the risk and you remove a firefighter’s identity.
Other traits that inhibit a migration to a best safety practice are tradition and experience. Some tradition is good, such as that found in Chief Risk Lasky’s Pride and Ownership Program. Tradition becomes problematic when firefighters refuse to accept best-practice models promulgated from scientific study and research.
Two prime examples are resistance to putting on seat belts and SCBA. Experience can be great, but to quote C.S. Lewis, “Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.”
A firefighter may meet tactical objectives based on past experience with successful outcomes, but the methods employed may be unconventional, abbreviated or simply dangerous. Successful outcomes reinforce poor practice. Often, no issues are encountered, but one time may result in tragedy.
Initiating change in a risk-inclined industry to that of a more risk-averse one is not without challenge. All levels of the fire service, from the national to the local, must promote and reinforce best practices. An agency’s position on firefighter safety must be stated, communicated and enforced. The challenge is especially great for firefighters attempting to initiate a culture shift who find they’re unsupported by executive leadership.
A true exhibition of courage is evidenced by fire officers who don’t practice a head-in-the-sand attitude. The path of least resistance is to simply avoid confrontation and allow unsafe practice to continue unchallenged. After all, if an officer challenged a seasoned fire service veteran because he didn’t buckle up or because he didn’t fasten the waist strap of an SCBA, he’s liable to meet with resistance. Friendships may dissolve or tempers may flash.
Pessemier identified the greatest influence on safety attitude and culture is found with the company officer. The fire officer who consistently insists all members are buckled up before the apparatus moves displays remarkable courage. The fire officer who insists all PPE is worn consistently displays remarkable courage.
The fire officer who cognitively evaluates conditions versus resources available before commitment of firefighters displays remarkable courage. The fire officer who insists on safe operation of all fire apparatus displays remarkable courage.
Finally, firefighters who defy traditional response-mode-only attitudes to promote prevention demonstrate incredible courage.
Many industrialized nations are successful at reducing firefighter and civilian death rates through prevention efforts. The U.S. fire service should study lessons learned from these countries and employ best practice whenever possible.
Courage exists in different forms. That most associated with the fire service obviously includes elements of active firefighting. An often less visible form of courage is demonstrated by fire service leaders who confront and correct unsafe practice whenever and wherever these practices occur. Allowing continuation of poor practice only exacerbates the problem and inhibits true professional growth.
Ask yourself: Do you walk the talk?
Danny Kistner is the fire chief for Lufkin, Tex.; he’s the newly appointed fire chief for the McKinney (Tex.) Fire Department and will begin serving there July 5. He’s treasurer for the Safety, Health and Survival Section and a Texas Life Safety Advocate for the Life Safety Initiatives Program.