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Firefighter/EMT Safety, Health & Survival: Develop a Firefighter Safety Culture

Fire chiefs in the current all-hazards fire service industry continue to be pulled further and further away from their organizations’ day-to-day operations due to surging community exploration of regionalization, cost containment, improvement in quality of care and efficiency of services provided. How then can chief executives ensure a culture of safety has permeated their organizations?

By definition, institutionalization is to establish something as usual, to make something an established custom or an accepted part of the structure of a large organization or society. How do we institutionalize a safety culture and ensure an organizational safety dialogue is part of our daily work culture?

We can't simply create volumes of policies and procedures and expect our folks to fully know the content and details of these processes, let alone perform them step by step during the chaos on scene. Nor can we go through researching, drafting, proofing and implementing safety procedures without having a plan to train on and revisit each procedure over and over again to obtain organizational acceptance.

We’ve all faced the situation where we thought we had performed due diligence in implementing policies and procedures only to find a significant disconnect between administrative development and practical application by line personnel of the procedure.

The institutionalization period will vary based on the complexity of the policy/procedure, the size of your organization and the importance of the policy/procedure in meeting your organizational goals. Furthermore, trying to implement multiple policy and procedural changes at once requires vigilant awareness for potential saturation, causing the volume and pace of process implementation to overwhelm the organization’s ability to accept the changes.

An organizational safety culture must be rooted in every area of a fire/rescue department, including governance, administration, operations, fire prevention, safety, training, EMS and special operations.

For example, it should be a fundamental goal of the budget process to discuss, educate and advocate for appropriate funding to ensure our service delivery methods comply with industry standards and best practices and legal compliance issues. Doing more with less doesn’t mean compromising our personnel or risking the safety of our communities as we cut financial resources. We need to have honest conversations with our community stakeholders about what it takes to provide services safely as well as efficiently.

In December's "Firefighter/EMT Safety, Health & Survival: Are We Just Giving Lip Service to Firefighter Safety," Chief Prziborowski discussed the importance of industry advocacy of fire-sprinkler legislation and the impact on our organizational safety culture. Fire prevention and code enforcement goals are a significant piece of protecting our personnel and the community, and the story of these efforts should constantly be shared within our organizations.

Do your operations meetings begin with a discussion on organizational safety? Do all of your officer meetings have a safety discussion high on the agenda or is it treated as an afterthought, when folks are thinking about lunch or mentally running through the overwhelming task lists they just acquired?

Are your officers fully committed advocates of your safety policies and do they have total buy-in? Make it a point to ask them on a regular basis and listen to their input.

Do your post-incident analyses focus on safety-procedure performance measurement?

Regardless of the size of your organization or your operating procedures, do you ensure that you’re measuring the critical safety processes on all of your defined service responses, whether fire, EMS or any of the special-operations disciplines?

This should be a key component of your PIA process.

During these tough economic times, it hasn’t been uncommon for fire departments to downsize or eliminate their training and safety division personnel while attempting to maintain service delivery staffing. While this is an incredibly unfortunate position for any organization to find itself in, the importance of training in creating and maintaining a culture of safety can’t be understated.

By building a culture of safety, brick by brick, during recruit and academy training, we can ensure a strong foundation of safety to build further on throughout each individual’s career of service to our communities. It's in the arena of training that we can ensure NFPA standards are incorporated into our collective culture.

This is also the time for national initiatives—the National Firefighter Near Miss Reporting System, International Fire/EMS Safety &, Health Week, the Rules of Engagement for Structural Firefighting and others—to become part of our organizational conversation and practice.

We always teach that safety is everyone’s responsibility—and it is! But creating an organizational culture of safety requires leadership that is unwavering and ever attentive.

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