We in the fire and life safety business tend to grouse about the public failure to heed our prevention message. We have studies by fire research organizations to tell us how to improve our reach to certain demographics. We have statistics that demonstrate the effect socioeconomic conditions have on fire loss, permitting us to focus on where we need to concentrate resources.
But despite our efforts, we keep coming back to the observation that while we strive to educate and legislate about fire prevention and injury prevention, there are those for whom the message falls on deaf ears.
When people make poor decisions that we are called to mitigate, I often hear how these individuals “keep us in business.” I tend to agree to an extent. We are, as I have stated in my more skeptical moments, truly “interfering with natural selection.”
But now that we’ve all enjoyed this little laugh and feeling of smugness, let’s shift our gaze onto our own attitudes. For in truth, if we believe our prevention message isn’t being regarded by the public, we should reflect on our own failures to manage risk within our ranks. While looking at methods we employ to get the public to buy into our life-safety message, perhaps we should spend some time looking in our own cupboards first.
For decades, we’ve been concerned about our own safety practices, predominantly those that precipitate line-of-duty deaths. With an outstanding number of these deaths being preventable, it should concern us all. As leaders, we must begin to make value decisions that promote firefighter safety and health and not just pay it lip service.
There are still an overwhelming number in our ranks who consider safety an issue for soft hearts and group hugs. We’ve seen the web posts, the bumper stickers and the t-shirts: “Firefighters assume risk when they sign onto the job.” “REHAB is for quitters.” “We fight what you fear.”
Suggest a safer culture and these people will look at you like you just suggested tofu for dinner.
The fire service’s lack of engagement with a life-safety culture comes somewhat from our desire to maintain the heroic status of the job. I get that. But taking a risk-averse posture doesn’t preclude anyone from doing heroic things. It could instead be framed in our mantra, “We’ll risk a lot to save a lot,” while considering that we shouldn’t reward those for risking a lot to save the unsavable.
Motivation comes from offering somebody something they want in exchange for something we want. It may be very basic and intrinsic or something concrete, but regardless, individuals don’t change “just because.”
Individuals change when they find a reason to change. There has to be a reason, and continually rewarding poor choices just perpetuates poor choices. As leaders, we must push for better personal risk management when it comes to making both fireground and lifestyle decisions.
So why do we continue to throw our most valuable resources—our personnel—into situations that are already losing battles? If we truly believe we should risk a lot to save a lot, maybe as fire service leaders we should put our policies where our mouths are and be more emphatic that we buckle up in apparatus, we get regular physicals and we insist on a fitness standard.
Likewise, when individuals make poor decisions and cause harm to themselves in the process, perhaps we should consider risking the ire of those who mock a safety culture and reflect instead on how we frame it when a civilian makes a bad decision.
If we catch ourselves wondering about why our prevention and life-safety messages are unheeded and those victims are considered to be too dumb to survive, we might want to be quiet and realize that as we continue to ignore similar warnings, we too are contributing to natural selection.