Since 1977, the U.S. Fire Administration has recorded and analyzed firefighter fatalities in the United States annually. Through their comprehensive collection of data on the causes of each firefighter fatality, they’re able to analyze the circumstances surrounding each incident and focus on specific areas of concern. Once problem areas are identified, the USFA then directs their efforts toward finding solutions to reduce the number of firefighter fatalities in the future.
According to the USFA, 87 on-duty firefighters lost their lives as a result of incidents that occurred in 2010. This is the second consecutive year of substantially fewer firefighter deaths in the United States. During the previous six-year period (2004–2009), the average number of annual on duty firefighter deaths was 112.
The key components, I believe, that pertain specifically toward sustaining these desired outcomes in the U.S. fire and emergency service include the following:
- Include all levels in the process of adaptive work – Widespread inclusion from all levels in fire departments provides good cross-pollination of ideas and buy-in to the adaptive changes.
- Identify resistance to the cultural changes – Identifying the resistances to the changes and the various counter-rituals and artifacts of the fire service leads to an appropriate strategy and provides focus on the barriers that must be overcome.
- Use multiple mediums to describe and market the need for change – Using a number of mediums to describe and justify necessary cultural changes will extend across multiple intelligences and learning styles and will reach more department members and it will ensure a greater understanding of the need for adaptive work.
- Model appropriate behaviors by organizational leaders – Chief officers will provide credibility to the changes being implemented by modeling the preferred behaviors themselves.
- Provide appropriate training and education on the changes – Training, both classroom and hands-on, greatly enhances firefighters and fire officers understanding of the changes as well as the likelihood that they’ll practice the changes at emergency incidents.
- Consistently reinforce and acknowledge desired performance and consistently apply consequences for undesired performance – The development and promotion of leaders in the fire service should be geared toward rewarding those who embrace this new culture of safety and risk management. Risk management practices and safe operations at emergency incidents will only be internalized into fire service culture if there is consistent reinforcement and recognition for the performance of desired safe behaviors and consequences for noncompliant actions.
- Hold steady and remain focused on the changes – Cultural changes require that chief officers stay the course and not let up on modeling, reinforcing and acknowledging safe performances. They must also remain consistent in having consequences for unsafe and dangerous acts. Silence by chief officers upon observance of unsafe or reckless acts is not an acceptable option; they too need to be held accountable for their inaction in such incidents.
- Follow up and evaluate the change process and results – The adaptive work and changes are part of an ongoing process, where evaluation of the progress is performed continually and adjustments are made to the implementation plan. This continual cycle of control will help to ensure that the tipping point is reached and the changes are internalized into the organization’s culture.
Although the fire and emergency service has used some of these components to varying degrees in departments throughout the United States, the consistent and comprehensive use of all these components would result in an appreciable improvement in the firefighter mentality toward personal safety and wellness as well as a sustained reduction in their injuries and deaths.
In conclusion, these essential components of a cultural-change process can help fire service leaders continue the reduction in firefighter injuries and deaths. Firefighting, rescue and other types of emergency operations are essential activities in an inherently dangerous profession, and unfortunate tragedies do occur. This is the risk all firefighters accept every time they respond to an emergency incident.
However, the risk can be greatly reduced through leaders applying these essential components of adaptive change. The challenge for the future of the fire and emergency service is to make use of these components and move the fire service closer to the tipping point, where risk management and personal safety and wellness is revered, accepted, internalized and regularly practiced.
John McNeil is the fire chief for the city of Covington, Ga.
Several programs have been funded by the USFA in response to their analysis of firefighter fatalities. For example, the USFA has sponsored significant work in the areas of general emergency-vehicle operation safety, fire department tanker/tender operation safety, firefighter incident-scene rehabilitation and roadside incident safety. One of the USFA’s main program goals is a 25% reduction in firefighter fatalities in five years and a 50% reduction within 10 years.
Additionally, in an effort to focus on reducing firefighter injuries and deaths and in conjunction with the efforts of the USFA, thousands of firefighter-safety standards, laws, investigative reports and training programs exist today that were created by major national fire service organizations, such as the IAFC, NFPA, National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, International Association of Firefighters, OSHA and NIOSH. Fire service publications, national conferences and campaigns as well as training programs have also concentrated on lowering the annual number of firefighter injuries and fatalities.
Since the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, federal funding for the purchase of safety equipment, personal protective equipment and training programs for firefighters across the United States has increased significantly in an effort to be better prepared and operate more safely in an all-hazards environment. Millions of dollars have been provided and enormous ongoing training has occurred to improve firefighter safety and reduce firefighter injuries and deaths.