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Rules of Engagement for Incident Commanders: Act on Unsafe Practices and Conditions that Can Harm Firefighters

Act on reported unsafe practices and conditions that can harm firefighters. Stop, evaluate and decide.

Objective: To prevent firefighters and supervisors from engaging in unsafe practices or exposure to unsafe conditions that will harm them, to allow any member to raise an alert about a safety concern without penalty and to mandate that the incident commander and command organization promptly address the question to ensure safe operations.

Because firefighting poses significant risk to firefighters, the incident commander and the command organization must eliminate or minimize firefighters' exposure to unsafe conditions and stop unsafe practices. NIOSH firefighter-fatality reports routinely describe incidents where unsafe conditions or practices existed that weren't reported and later were listed as contributing factors in a line-of-duty death.

Additionally, research conducted by Paul LeSage, assistant chief (ret.) of the Tualatin Valley (Ore.) Fire and Rescue Department, determined that 74% of errors happen because someone failed to intervene.

The fire and emergency service has always been a paramilitary organization when it comes to fireground operations. In most cases, the incident commander makes a decision, sends the order down through supervisors to the company officer and crew. Fire crews have generally viewed these orders as top-down direction; there's often little two-way discussion about options.

Where this culture exists, crews have been trained to accept an order and do it—generally without question. This situation makes it very uncomfortable for firefighters to say no to unsafe conditions or practices. Additionally, in many cases, the fire service has not clearly defined how a firefighter, supervisors or the incident commander should process a safety concern identified by a firefighter.

The aviation industry experienced a similar problem of one-way decision making and communication. The old culture placed the captain in charge of all aircraft operations; it didn’t tolerate challenges from crew members. As a result, post-crash investigations found captains occasionally flew their planes into the ground, even as other crew members, including the copilot, knew something was wrong and often tried to tell the pilot—only to be rejected.

The commercial airline industry fixed its problem through a new management system called “cockpit crew resource management.” This system required the captain to listen to crew input regarding safety and authorized the crew to participate. Crew members became a team looking out for their own welfare and that of their passengers. The program resulted in a dramatic reduction in accidents caused by pilot errors.

This rule of engagement applies the principles of crew-resource management by encouraging all firefighters to apply situational awareness and be responsible for their own safety and that of other firefighters. In a sense all firefighters become additional eyes and ears for incident commanders, alerting them (or their immediate supervisor) of unacceptable situations. The intent of this rule is to allow any member to report a safety concern through a structured process without fear of penalty.

This rule by no means suggests that a firefighter is authorized to engage in insubordination. The fireground functions with fast-paced action and clearly must be managed by a well-disciplined and structured command organization.

However, this rule does allow a red flag to be raised about a safety issue by any member.

When a safety concern is raised, the supervisor is mandated to accept that concern, take a few seconds to stop (assess), talk and make a safe decision (go, no-go). In some cases, the situation may affect other areas of the fireground or the incident commander's action plan and must be communicated to the incident commander or other supervising officers.

The incident commander is ultimately responsible for safety on the fireground. As such, IC must act upon these reports and ensure the command team does likewise.

Much of the preparation for application of this rule must occur before a fire incident in training sessions and by developing SOPs. All firefighters need to know they're authorized to both report and say no to unsafe conditions and practices.

Further, supervisors must clearly understand their responsibility of accepting and immediately acting appropriately on any reported safety concerns by firefighters.

Bottom line: If any report from a firefighter indicates an unsafe condition or practice, fix it!

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