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...


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.

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