Safety in The Fire and Rescue Services “It’s A Matter Of Attitude”
Several years ago I was on scene of a 1,000 gallon Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) tank that was laying on it’s side leaking what was clearly liquid creating a large white vapor cloud around the tank and creating a Lower Explosive Limits (LEL) hot zone of greater than 500 feet down wind of the tank. The Fire Department personnel went to work setting up hot zones, shutting down a major highway, evacuation and tactical strategies for entry to attempt mitigation. A second alarm for manpower was called for due to the heat and humidity. At this point you could say we were in the text book. The following could be the picture in Webster’s Dictionary beside the word freelancing. The County’s assistant Emergency Management Director arrived on scene. He ascertained information of the situation and a strategic plan was outlined for him (I did this personally from an operational command role). I guess this was not good enough for him or his ignorance and complacency just took over. He borrowed a set of turnout gear (no SCBA), accessed the hot zone from a non monitored portion of the incident, utilized his limited previous experience of working with LPG and made entry into the large liquid vapor cloud and shut off the leak…all without command’s knowledge. All of this occurred as crews were preparing to make entry with hose lines to do the operation the correct way. OUTCOME: The tank was shut off, the hazard was mitigated, and no one was injured. POTENTIAL: Catastrophic proportions, death comes to mind first.
Unlike other public safety professionals the fire and rescue service is charged with the responsibility of protecting people and property from the ravages of fire and other hostile forces – both man made and natural. Who is going to protect us with acts like these going on? We are our own worst enemy when it comes to safety. Failure to be safe is a human act… ATTITUDE!!!
More than 100 firefighters are killed in the line of duty each year and thousands more receive non-fatal injuries. Safety is an issue in every profession and business. The fire service is no different from a construction business when it comes to safety. Without safe working conditions and safety conscious personnel, there will be an excess of injuries. Recent statistics show that for every 40 fire responses and 1,217 non-fire responses there is a reported firefighter injury. For every 43,875 fire responses and 1,133166 non-fire responses a firefighter looses their life in the line of duty. The total line of duty deaths for 1999 was 112, thus the highest number of firefighter line of duty deaths since 1988. The year 2008 had 114 line of duty deaths. This is probably more astounding than you ever imagined. However, it is reality and we must strive to change these statistics. Last year every 3.25 days a firefighter lost their life in the line of duty. You are probably at this point asking yourself, how can we change these statistics. What can I do to make a difference? What can my department do that will lower these statistics? I believe that if you just follow and enact these ten simple philosophies into everyday practice and emergency responses, we will significantly drop the numbers. By the way Fire Chiefs, many of these do not impact your budget in a negative way.
It seems that when a firefighter is seriously injured or killed, the fire service does little to promote positive action to prevent a reoccurrence. The message spreads quickly of a fallen comrade, but the lesson is slow to follow and is seldom learned. One area of this is the line of duty deaths that occur as a result of motor vehicle accidents. It has been shown repeatedly where the “Need For Speed” is not relevant in most cases. Now I am not advocating that we not expedite our responses but the difference between 65 mph and 55 mph is a drastic difference when you look at the handling of a 48 1/2-foot long ladder truck that weighs 73,500 pound or a large pumper weighing 45,000 pound. The laws of physics show a drastic difference in the stopping distances not to mention the external forces that affect the apparatus. Time is long over due for the fire and rescue services to actively and seriously address the firefighter casualty issue. Too often we tend to take a cosmetic approach rather than getting to the root of the problem. We treat the symptoms and rarely the cause
The fire and rescue services, at all levels, must rise to meet this challenge. This means doing what is necessary to turn around the seemingly apathetic or complacent attitude about safety which prevails in the fire service today. At this point you may be saying to your self that the fire service is safer today than it ever has been. This may be true, but times change and we are playing catch up!!! Although technology is a necessary ingredient in the safety recipe, it is not the most important. This is where I feel a lot of professionals are missing the point. Sure we are dressed well today and out equipment and apparatus are safer. This aspect is of the utmost importance and is a portion of the recipe. This is the portion that is most often not left out. Where we are lacking is the ATTITUDE of both management and the firefighter.
When a firefighter commits an unsafe act, is it solely his fault, or the fault of management, or both? The origin of the problem has got to be management. Without the support of management, there is NO safety program. I know some of you may be shaking your head about the last statement, but think of it…Unsafe acts start with attitude or the lack there of. If a positive attitude, by administration, demanding safety is introduced the first minute the firefighter comes into the profession, then this is the first impression. If that attitude continues and is fostered then it becomes a part of the mental capacity. Thus safety is a paramount in the thought process of firefighters and will take hold. Division Chief Edward Buchanan of the Hanover County (Virginia) Fire and Rescue recently stated in a program at the Fire Rescue Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada that he could not change his department’s mentality over night, but he could impact positive change every class and every day. This statement holds exceptional power to the truth. And guess where it is starting…management.
Although the development and maintenance of an effective safety program can reduce the firefighter death and injury rate, it is useless if the firefighter is not willing to accept it. Management and the firefighter must make a concerted effort to promote, support, practice and ENFORCE sound safety principles and practices. Safety is a way of life; without it, we become highly vulnerable to injury and even death.
Motivation plays an intregal part in the success of a department’s safety program. This motivation should start with the highest management level and continue down through the ranks to the lowest level. If you don’t have the support of the chief, you don’t have an effective safety program! Many departments have elaborate safety programs and policies. It takes more than paper to develop a good safety program – it takes actions! This action and attitude is what we are missing most.
Each officer is responsible for practicing and enforcing all safety measures both written and unwritten. He is responsible for the safety and welfare of their subordinates. This holds true for non-emergency as well as emergency activities. Motivation is necessary in the training environment as well as the emergency and non-emergency ones. The instructor, like the officer, is responsible for the safety and welfare of the students. The instructor is charged with keeping safety foremost in the minds of students, officers and other instructors. The dangers as well as safety precautions associated with the practical training evolutions must be emphasized before, during and at the end of each training evolution. The same holds true for real life incidents. We must learn from mistakes and never make the same mistake twice. The firefighter must develop a total awareness of the need and value of safety. He / She should want to comply with safety regulations out of concern for their own well-being as well as the well-being of other firefighters rather than out of fear of punishment.
The department must reach the entry-level firefighter and must reach out to change seasoned firefighter’s mentalities. The entry-level firefighter is the easiest of reach since they know very little about the hazards of the occupation. They can develop a positive attitude about safety with little to no biases. It is up to the instructors, officers and administration to get the message across. The instructor, officer and administration must approach and deliver the subject with enthusiasm, interest, and conviction. Remember, the firefighter’s reaction to what you have to say will be influenced by how well you deliver the material (i.e. how you come across). You have to be a great sales person. You must sell the product – safety. As to how much of the “product” is bought by the firefighters/students is going to depend largely upon you – the officer / instructor. The officer / instructor must reach every level of firefighter. The entry level is especially important as a target audience due to the fact they have no preconceived ideas or knowledge as to what safety is and has very little knowledge about the hazards of the occupation. This makes it easier for them to develop a positive attitude about safety. It is up to the officer / instructor at the outset and throughout each day, week, month and year to focus on this concept of safety.
The safety cycle consists of six areas that must have constant focus. These areas are; Training, Station, Response, Emergency Scene, Return and Personal.
In Training safety must be emphasized before, during and after each practical evolution. Remember, the training grounds should be only one step removed from actual emergency operations. A safety zone or area would be identified to warn that personnel entering it must wear full protective clothing. This applies to everyone. Safety is the responsibility of everyone. Recently I was out at my departments training facility as set up to high angle rescue operations training was being set up. It was a part of a regional USAR training session. As they were nearing the beginning of a drill one of the individuals that was facilitating the exercise called out to me. Chief you need a helmet on or you need to leave the area. This statement was as powerful as any law enforcement tazer gun hitting me. Here I constantly preach safety and I was the one who was caught being complacent. Wake up call… yes, but one well deserved. My hat is off to this gentleman for pointing out my shortcomings. He was doing what he was programmed to do and what he believed. That is one positive hit that I am glad to be the recipient of.
In the station we must not let our guard down as we are in a “safety zone” in our minds. Many debilitating injuries to emergency services workers happen in the station. We must maintain a constant focus towards the safety aspects of every inch of our stations and the activities within. The response to and from emergency scenes, nearly every week you can read of emergency apparatus being involved in a motor vehicle crash as they respond to emergencies. It is a known fact that the more you respond the higher the risk is for you being involved in an incident. However there are a few control factors that can have a significant impact on the incident and the frequency of which we see them. One is the old saying “I feel the need…the need for speed”. Well Richard Petty, just slow down. The difference in a few miles per hour speed is not proportional to the amount of time you could possibly save as compared to safety. The risk benefit analysis is not there. We are risking a lot to say well, I don’t know since I am not on scene. Also, remember the control factors, the size of the apparatus has a significant impact on the stopping distance, maneuverability and steering. Drive for the road conditions not the emergency!
The emergency scene is one area that most individuals would focus if their mindset were towards safety. However, each year we continue to have many line of duty deaths on scenes. The hazards of scenes range from fire-heat to the building itself, the area of working to how well your equipment is maintained. Personal safety is a must. No one loves you like you do. Do not be part of the problem, be part of the solution. You must take ownership in safety for yourself before others can help keep you safe. Your personal safety is about how well your emotional status, alertness, physical fitness levels, training and most of all how your ATTITUDE is. Freelancing is one term that comes to mind when I talk about attitude and personal safety. If you are off doing your own thing, then you really are not taking ownership in your safety much less the safety of others on that scene.
Chain of Safety
The chain of safety is like any other chain; it is only as strong as its weakest link. When there is a failure of one or more “links”, the safety program is in jeopardy and the likelihood of an accident is increased. There are four components in the safety chain: Fire Chief, Officers, Training and Firefighters.
The Fire Chief must openly support the safety program. Support means encouragements as well as enforcement when necessary. The officers of the department must practice what they preach. To do less is to be negligent of their duties. The safety and welfare of their subordinates is a moral and legal obligation. When it comes to safety there is no place for the “good ole boy” syndrome. This syndrome broken down into a definition would read like this; failing to encourage or require subordinates to do their job out of fear of being disliked. Such a syndrome promotes disrespect, distrust and most importantly unsafe acts. A positive attitude and a safe training environment must prevail in the classroom and on the training grounds. Safety must be accorded due respect and consideration on each and every training class. It is important not to become complacent in this area because the instructor should serve as the role model. Finally if the firefighter doesn’t accept the safety program, then the program will fail miserably. We all must learn to appreciate the value of performing our duties in a safe manner
Ten Commandments of Safety
- LEARN the safe way to do your job before you start.
- THINK safety, and ACT safety at all times.
- OBEY safety rules and regulations – they are there for YOUR protection.
- WEAR appropriate personal protective clothing at all times.
- CONDUCT yourself properly at all times – horseplay and freelancing is strictly prohibited.
- OPERATE only the equipment you are authorized to use and do it safely every time.
- INSPECT tools and equipment for safe conditions before starting work.
- ADVISE your superior promptly of any unsafe conditions or practices.
- REPORT any Injury immediately to your superior.
10. SUPPORT your safety program and take an active role in safety daily.
Safety in the fire service is a matter of attitude. We must work to foster the right attitudes. We can not afford not to! As the old saying goes “Better Safe Than Sorry”.