Safety: The Uphill Battle

Imagine a busy hospital emergency room in a major US city with no charge nurse, and the ER staff is just going through the motions of trying to treat patients and solve the medical crisis or situation in front of them and focusing on just that.  Carry on and hope for the best, practicing what you’ve been trained to do?  Now, imagine a major fire scene or multiple car pileup on a major interstate or highway, and there’s no incident safety officer, and where first responders are very focused on the task in front of them, not able to evaluate the scene in its entirety and possibly falling prey to obstacles, hazards, and other dangers lurking in these emergencies.  Is either situation acceptable?  So, if hospitals have, in most cases, several charge nurses, why doesn’t every fire department have at least one incident safety officer?  Who is managing the risk and looking out for the safety, health, and wellness of both patients and members?  It’s incumbent upon our fire department leaders to ensure someone fills this primary role; someone who is dedicated, certified, and well trained to identify and mitigate the elements of our profession that can put us at risk.   

For the most part, our fire departments are heavily focused on training and produce personnel who, at the end of the day, are very well trained with a heavy focus on safety as part of that training.  Each person who shows up on scene, to the best of their ability, has a level of responsibility to act safely to keep themselves and other first responders safe and out of harm’s way.  However, there is a multitude of unexpected or uncontrollable factors that can happen that interject high risk into the emergency. The best-laid plans, the best training can succumb to uncontrollable factors, or things that get missed.  This is when things go wrong, and consequences can be drastic.  This is why a dedicated, certified, and well-trained Safety Officer must be present to identify the hazards and put in place appropriate measures to mitigate risk. Someone who can assist us with seeing the big picture on each and every incident and training evolution.  Tunnel vision has the tendency to plague us while operating on an incident, our focus is often narrowed.   This allows others to continue doing their jobs without interruption or distraction.  Additionally, your personnel shouldn’t be repeating the same mistakes, or continuing to experience the same close calls.  Eventually, the risk will be too great.  

It is no secret that departments across the country continue to be challenged financially, while experiencing a growing list of needs, expanding community populations, addition of personnel, loss of volunteers, yet at the same time a shrinking budget or no budget. It’s not unusual for the safety officer position to be the first to go, or never get filled.  Choosing not to have a safety officer in a primary role is itself a liability.  Many industry leaders think they can’t afford to have dedicated safety officers, but the truth is, you can’t afford not to.  When chiefs make decisions about priority budget areas, where is the focus?  Is it staffing, apparatus, equipment, PPE?  Is your focus split because you have endless needs and lack the funding?  Everyone’s initial focus should be with their emergency service providers, but here’s where we strike a nerve when you say, “My focus is with my providers.” If that’s the case, why is the safety officer expendable?  We regularly partake in the industry’s popular rhetoric, “Taking Care of our Own,” “Everyone Goes Home,” “The Brotherhood.”  Are we really living up to this and walking the walk?  If you want to send your personnel home after a long career to a happy, healthy retirement, the preparation starts now, and it means not shortchanging your people.  An effective, impactful health and safety program cannot lead itself.  

While some departments refer to these professionals as incident safety officers or field safety officers, many have transitioned into options such as health and safety officers. This is where they begin to incorporate the needs of our personnel as they relate to PTSD and other job-related behavioral health issues, cardiac care and prevention, physical fitness and job conditioning, nutrition, meaningful meditation, and annual NFPA 1582 firefighter physicals.  This highly-educated, certified and well-trained health and safety officer is ever emerging in our industry and fire departments across the country and is showing his/her worth in a variety of ways to reduce risk to our firefighters.  These professionals mitigate stress, address suicidal ideations and supply peer support, show the benefits of a well-balanced diet and exercise, make physical fitness recommendations and referrals, and much more.

For the health and safety champions out there, who are passionate about the health and wellbeing of all their emergency responders, it will continue to be an uphill battle as it has been throughout history.  Like the multitude of other issues, it takes a culture change with change agents or champions to see it through.  You must continue to be part of the constant efforts to ensure your people are safe and healthy.   Be the champion.  Don’t stop the uphill climb when creating a culture and environment where health and safety is the primary goal. In everything you do, from educating, training, to incident response, stay loyal to your members and help them get to that happy, healthy retirement.  Make the safety officer position in your department a key player in everything you do.  Be the change you want to see.  Be safe, be well.
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