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Firefighter/EMT Safety, Health & Survival: Culture Change Needs Climate Change as Well

Over the past decade, particularly in the wake of the 2004 National Fallen Fighters Foundation's first Line of Duty Death Summit, there has been significant conversation in the fire service about the need for cultural change. The well-meaning and purely purposed goal has been the basis of many efforts by fire service leaders to change the culture of organizations by a variety of methods that have produced a variety of results. However, an important yet less frequently discussed component of cultural change is climate change.

The first of the National Fallen Firefighters 16 Life Safety Initiatives, "Define and advocate the need for a cultural change within the fire service relating to safety; incorporating leadership, management, supervision, accountability and personal responsibility," has and remains one of the most important.

In fact, the IAFC and the U.S. Fire Administration are working on a supporting effort that has been dubbed the National Safety Culture Change Initiative. One of the many ideas that have surfaced as a result of a decade of discussing cultural change has been a realization that changing culture is inextricably connected to changing climate.

Safety climate is not only a set of values, beliefs and perceptions about safety as a concept, but also the policies, procedures and practices that support safety in an organization (Colley, Lincolne, & Neal, 2013; Goulart, 2013). Safety climate is constructed by the shared perceptions of not only the policies, procedures and practices that are enforced, but the behaviors that are rewarded (Zohar, 2010).

Safety climate is what is occurring at a given time and actually predates by a few years the concept of safety culture (Goulart, 2013).

While safety climate was first discussed before 1980, safety culture was first introduced in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. The International Atomic Energy Agency suggested that safety culture has two parts: the framework established by organizational policy and managerial action and the response of people within and benefiting from that system.

In short, safety climate is how people feel about safety and safety culture is how they act as a result of those feelings.

An argument can be made that conversations about safety climate and culture are in essence chicken-and-egg conversations. Do people act based on their feelings or feel certain ways as a consequence of how they act?

The reality is that both are true, so attention to both is necessary if changing the way safety manifests itself in an organization is important. In a fire/rescue organization, as in any other organization, it's important that there's a balanced approach to both safety climate and safety culture. In fact, long-term safety cultural change is rarely effective without short-term safety climate changes.

For some, climate change immediately brings to mind the scientifically sound, yet politically debated fact that the Earth's climate is warming and will continue to do so over the next century (Cole and McCarthy, 2014). Using indoor climate as a metaphor, if a room is comfortable in temperature, it's more likely that people will remain for extended periods. If they can alter the climate to suit their personal level of comfort, they'll remain even longer. Ultimately, whoever controls the thermostat controls the level of comfort in the room.

In a fire/rescue organization, the person with the most significant impact on the thermostat and the safety climate is the supervisor.

Though frequently fire chiefs and senior leaders are given the lion's share of either the blame or the credit for an organization's culture, supervisors establish the most immediate safety climate. Supervisors are both responsible and accountable for the circles of influence they've been assigned. These circles increase in size as their organizational responsibility increases, often because of rank; however, supervisors typically have the greatest impact on climatic effect on those they directly supervise.

An example might be a company officer who requires those in the vehicles under their charge receive the appropriate training to safety operate the vehicle, that all passengers are required to wear seatbelts for even the slightest movements and the vehicle is operated within the organization's safety guidelines. These requirements will minimize if not eliminate the potential for injuries from vehicle collisions. This climate creates a culture over time where people know that safe vehicle operation is how it's done in this unit, crew or station.

Just exactly how do safety cultures change and how long does it take? The question may be connected to how much attention is paid to deliberate and sustained efforts to change an organization's safety climate and to doing so in a specific, coordinated and sustained fashion. It's important to not lose sight of the importance of safety climate and to realize that safety climate change today is necessary to achieve safety culture change tomorrow.

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