Online Exclusive

A Planned Approach to Firefighter Safety

The American Fire Service stands firmly with one boot in the 19th century and the other in the 21st century. In terms of firefighter safety, specifically line-of-duty deaths (LODDs), the American Fire Service has done little to impact the yearly rate of LODDs we experience.

The safety record of the American Fire Service continues to be dismal. Our death, injury and accident rates have not changed substantially over the past two decades. According to the National Fire Protection Association statistics, 82 firefighters were killed in the line of duty in 2009. The number of firefighters killed in the line of duty remains unchanged from previous years. Since 1977, an average of 100 firefighters per year are killed in the line of duty annually.

We continue to injure and kill firefighters in the same manner as we did decades ago, despite advances in technology and improvements in apparatus, protective equipment and incident management systems. We aren't inventing new ways to kill people. "The cause of death among firefighters is well known and the steps necessary to protect firefighters have been studied and reported in numerous forums," former United States Fire Administrator Kelvin J. Cochran said.

The Culture Of The American Fire Service

Many fire service leaders have identified the fire service culture as the primary reason why we can't seem to reduce firefighter injury and deaths. The American Fire Service has made extraordinary progress in developing systems, management protocols and technological tools to improve firefighter safety. However, these efforts to minimize injury and death have fallen short of being successful. The portion of the equation not easily addressed is that of changing behaviors; the end result of cultural influence upon thought and action.

Noel Tichy's statement on culture "as long as the culture fits the marketplace, it succeeds; but when the external realities change, the culture has to change as well" is well suited to the American Fire Service. The fire service "marketplace" has changed, but our cultural beliefs, practices, norms and accepted behaviors have not.

A culture of extinguishment is endemic and traditionally accepted as the primary core value within the American Fire Service. A cultural shift to include firefighter safety as having equal importance is required to balance our current state and reduce firefighter injury and death. Progressive organizations recognize the need to change but often struggle with balancing organizational disruption with introducing change.

The key is leadership and identifying the "right" strategy to manage change. Change begins with an engaged and committed leadership; leadership that is truly committed to improving firefighter safety. When and how to begin a cultural shift is often complex and challenging.

Choosing a management approach that matches the operating model, urgency, severity, timing, and organizational tolerance for disruption is important in aligning the agency for long term success.

Four Strategies To Initiate Change

Three effective management of change strategies are currently popular according to Sherree DeCovny. Choosing the "right" organizational approach is based upon problem recognition and acknowledgement. Appropriate action is also dependent upon gauging the health of the organization, desire and receptiveness to change, and recognizing cultural influences. These three fundamental organizational change approaches allow the agency, over time, to adapt to change, and adopt consistent and predictable safe practices.

The continuous improvement approach requires organizations to undertake many different small-scale initiatives and create an ongoing change capability. Programs are usually led by divisional or mid-level managers; require relatively small investments and tend to be natural extensions of current practices rather than wholesale re-inventions of the operating model. By definition, a philosophy of continuous improvement is an on-going process throughout the organization, evaluating strengths and weakness and creating opportunities to improve. In the case of firefighter injury and death, one learning tool to reduce risk to our responders is to review and adopt "lessons learned" from LODD and significant injury reports. An example may be to adopt different approaches to structural fire attack; considering staffing, event type, fire behavior and industry best practice. In this example, our first line decision makers are offered alternative approaches and options to choose when making tactical decisions. In this manner, senior leadership continually improves the organization by setting a tone of constant attention, review, and revisal of fire department operations.

Though being the least radical of the models, the continuous improvement approach can generate big payoffs in terms of sustainability and acceptance of change.

The targeted intervention approach is typically adopted in response to both external demands and internal stimulus to change. This approach targets one specific area; often designed for a quick, yet focused outcome. Organizations may choose this approach when they need to make sizable changes to their operating model but fear doing too much at once. Working on one initiative at a time, such as creating a new vehicle backing policy, avoids a major disruption to operations.

The third approach, the transformation course, ushers in large-scale change. Agencies taking this approach nearly always re-invent their operating model and significantly overhaul their organizational structure. When successful, this approach is the fastest way to execute large-scale change and to immediately impact the organization. This approach is the most aggressive of the three strategies. This risky approach tends to disrupt the equilibrium of the organization; a drastic move because it's a bet-the-business type of approach. The transformational strategy is driven from the top, and senior leaders must be comfortable with organizational turmoil.

A final approach may be to combine two of the strategies such as the transformational and targeted approaches. In this example, working on several targeted areas to create a rapid transformation change. In all cases, leadership efforts must be adaptive in nature; willing to experiment and search for solutions not in their normal repertoire.

The correct choice of change strategy will have ramifications upon future organizational effectiveness, cohesiveness and performance. Those that make the correct decision will position the organization for sustained and manageable growth; ultimately creating a culture of safety.

A planned approach to improve firefighter safety is needed and will only be accomplished if the effort is led by a strong and committed leadership, actively modeling acceptable behavior and correcting unacceptable practices. Future articles will illustrate case studies of successful organizational approaches and leadership strategies to transform the fire service culture.


  • DeCovny, S. (June 2009). Striving for High Performance Through Operational Excellence. Harvard Business Review. 40.

RICHARD C. KLINE has been the fire chief for the City of Plymouth, MN, since 1992. Chief Kline holds a masters degree in public safety and has attained accreditation as a CFO. Kline is the chairman for the Minnesota State Fire Chief Association's Safety and Health Committee. Chief Kline may be contacted at