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Company Officer Leadership: What Does Changing the Culture for Safety Mean?

The first of the 16 Life Safety Initiatives in the Everyone Goes Home campaign is, in part, “Define and advocate the need for a cultural change within the fire service relating to safety.”

Some hope to achieve this by admonishing their members to “be safe” or “have a safety mindset” and letting the rest figure itself out. What does it mean to be safe or have a safety mindset? Just exactly how do we do that?

No one wants to get hurt or get someone else hurt. Maybe a few see it as a badge of honor if it happens to happen, but they don’t get on the truck in the morning hoping for a free trip to the burn ward.

If you don’t know better, you might think combating this residual badge-of-honor mindset is what we mean by safety. No doubt it’s important and should not be overlooked. That is, if your members have this attitude you should immediately and forcefully dispel it. It’s your duty as a first-line officer to make sure your young members know that being crippled isn’t cool and there’s nothing fun about lifelong suffering.

Your agency should have already done that and what is meant today by a cultural change goes beyond mere admonitions not to do anything stupid.

Today, indeed in this decade, the cultural change needed is more subtle and requires a more professional approach. With the NIST and UL studies and the reams of research being turned out each year on things like cancer and cardiac events, we must change our culture to embrace evidence-based practice. Safety should be organic to our operations and not something that’s merely bolted on to the side of what we already do. If you do the right things the right way at the right time, you’ll be safe.

You can’t conduct positive pressure attack on an uncontrolled fire using a 90GPM fog pattern safely. You can’t discount what NIST has found by saying that “every fire is different” and still operate safely. We should already have the parts down where we wear seatbelts and airpacks without being told. Now we need to change hearts and minds closer to the fire.

Our tactics have to be well-founded in the science and literature. The depth and breadth of research is a luxury our predecessors never had. If we want to be taken seriously as a profession, we can’t give too much deference to past practice just because it’s supposedly worked for us so far. Too often all that means is we’ve been lucky enough to have a relatively small sample size.

Internalizing this message and acting on it even when it contradicts our own long-held beliefs about “the right way” is the culture change for safety we need now.


Safety Stand Down Week is June 17-23, focusing on firefighter medicals and physicals. Is your department ready?


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