When I was a rookie fireman in 1970 at the Kentland Volunteer Fire Department (KVFD) Company 33, Prince George’s County Fire Department, (PGFD) MD, an old timer (he was 35, I was 20) told me, “The next call you go on may be the biggest fire in your career, so you must be ready.” At the time, the KVFD was responding to about 1,000 alarms per year and many were working fires. This advice was burned into me, literally and figuratively, at the affective, cognitive and psychomotor levels of learning. I was among the top 10 responders my first year as a firemen and I was injected with Ben Franklin’s DNA for the next 40 years.
The 2011 safety stand down week theme was “Surviving the Fireground.” When does fireground survival begin? The place to start insuring your survival on the fireground is at the fire station before the alarm. If there is no water in the engine’s tank, or your self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) only has 1,000 psi, or your hood and gloves are missing from your bunker coat, or the battery in your portable radio is dead, the chances of you surviving the fireground are beginning to diminish.
When I read the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) line-of-duty-death (LODD) reports on fireground fatalities, I wonder what little change in the sequence of events could have avoided the error that lead to the tragedy? We have not invented any new way to injure or kill firefighters; Professor Frank Brannigan taught me that in 1974, and it is still true today.
If you do not put your seatbelt on before the apparatus begins to move, or if your driver fails to check that everyone is buckled in and your officer fails to enforce the seatbelt standard operating procedure (SOP) and your chief doesn’t consider seatbelt use a priority, the chances of you and the crew getting injured or killed on the fireground go up because you are not ready for the biggest fire of your career or any fire for that matter.
It seems as if you, your team and your fire department have decided that SOPs, safety equipment, duty and accountability do not apply to you. Everyone in your department can pick and choose what they do and don’t do. If you and your crew are like this, you are in the majority of the fire service today. As an occupation, more firefighters are disciplined for being late for work than for safety violations.
Blame it on Ben
Why does this persist? We learned it from Ben Franklin over the past 275 years. I know you are thinking “Clark has finally lost his mind. He is blaming seatbelt and fireground LODDs on Ben Franklin.” I am not alone in this thinking, so keep reading.
The number one firefighter life-safety initiative from the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) “Everyone Goes Home” campaign states, “Define and advocate the need for a cultural change within the fire service relating to safety; incorporating leadership, management, supervision, accountability and personal responsibility.”
We have to define fire service culture before we can change it. Having a common definition of anything is not easy. Professionals use common definitions among themselves so they can clearly communicate with each other. For example, if I tell you the patient has an open fracture of the left femur, you could all draw a picture of what it looked like whether you are an MD, EMTP, EMTB or first responder.
However, if I asked you to draw a picture of an engine company, we would get a bunch of different drawings. Having a shared definition of fire service culture is difficult because the words must mean the same thing for all fire departments, regardless of size or location. What is the definition of fire service culture, what does it look like, do we all draw the same picture of fire service culture? Does a culture exist in 1.2 million firefighters and 32,000 fire departments nationwide? Let’s start by defining culture as it relates to organizations.