Bill Tricarico and David Denniston don’t like it, but aren’t surprised, when they get calls from fire departments saying, “We’ve got a little problem,” or “You’re not going to believe this one.”
Tricarico is the director of Loss Control Services for McNeil & Company Emergency Services Insurance Program, and Denniston is a loss control training specialist for the same company. The two men, both longtime firefighters and officers, gave a presentation at Firehouse Expo on Saturday, July 24 titled, “Extinguishing the Flames of Liability: Top Ten Ways to Keep Your Firefighters Alive, Yourself Out of Jail and Your Department Out of Negative Headlines.
In a style reminiscent of a late-night talk show, the men counted down the “Top 10” reasons why departments get into trouble, and offered tips on how to avoid them.
10: Sexual harassment
At number 10 was sexual harassment. Tricarico said the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) investigates more than 12,000 sexual harassment complaints annually and the fines alone amounted to more than $49.9 million last year.
“And if the press gets wind of the story, they’ll be down saying; ‘Let us in.’ They’re looking for a juicy story,” Tricarico said, adding that the press will be long gone if the department is cleared any wrong doing. He recommends that chief officers be leaders and investigate any complaints as soon as they surface.
“Don’t wait,” he said.
9: Failure to follow rules
Coming in at number nine, is failure to follow rules. Denniston said there are so many rules and guidelines that some departments have never even heard of them.
For example, Denniston only got a smattering of hands when he asked if anyone had heard of NFPA 1500, which is the National Fire Protection Association’s Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program.
He said that standard was adopted in 1987 and firefighters at the time thought it was too radical for immediate adoption.
“They asked us to phase it in, to give them some allowance,” Denniston said. “Here it is at least 22 years later and a lot of you didn’t even know it existed,” he said.
Denniston said the rules were made for sound reasons and departments are obliged to follow them in the name of safety.
8: Poor record keeping
At number eight is poor record keeping. Tricarico presented several examples of inaccurate or poorly worded reports to prove his point. One actual report read, “The patient was alert and unresponsive.” Another said a patient, who didn’t want to go to jail, faked chest pains and came down with a severe case of “incarceritis.”
“Poorly written reports will get you in trouble,” Tricarico said, noting that police have figured this out because a bad report can let a bad guy walk.
At number seven is the need to control technology. Denniston explained that immediate technology on the internet, through Twitter, YouTube and other venues can mean that some things get said and disseminated that shouldn’t, and do so faster than they would have otherwise.
“Technology is traveling faster than our brains,” Denniston said. He encouraged attendees to restrict, or at least monitor what is going out about their departments.
6: Theft of funds
Number six is theft of funds. Tricarico asked the firefighters who attended how many different financial accounts they had and how closely they monitor those funds.
“It’s often your most trustworthy, hardest working firefighter, someone no one would suspect,” Tricarico said, adding that those who take the funds most often don’t mean to commit a crime. It’s a matter of running into financial difficulty and then “borrowing” the money with every intention to pay it back in the next paycheck.
Tricarico recommended audits, monitoring of all accounts and two signatures on checks, with policies preventing the advance signing of checks. He also cautioned against electronic banking because it’s too easy for someone to make a transfer and then leave the country.
5: Failure to have written policies
Number five is failure to have written policies. Denniston said his department’s policies are kept in a green binder on a shelf that is covered with dust.
“The worst days I have had are the days I see someone with the green binder open,” Denniston said. “That usually means that something bad has happened, or someone is looking to attack someone using the policies to do so.”
Denniston said polices need to be written, reviewed, revised and enforced.
4: Inadequate training
Inadequate training comes in at number four. Tricarico said that too many departments are lulled into thinking that everyone knows how to do a particular procedure, or has perceived skills that don’t measure up to standards. He said training and preplanning are fundamental to safe and effective firefighting.
3: Failure to utilize ICS
At number three, Denniston said, is failure to properly use the incident command system (ICS). Too often, departments just feel overwhelmed with ICS, but Denniston said they just need to keep it in perspective.
“The incident command system is a tool box,” he said. “You don’t have to open it up and use every tool in it, just the ones you need.”
Often, firefighters who are hurt, or families of those killed, say the leadership at the scene was at fault for the mishap or tragedy, and that shouldn’t happen, Denniston said.
2: Failure to respond safely
Failure to respond safely is at number two, and Tricarico said he often hears of frustration from officers who do not know how to get their firefighters to drive safely and obey traffic laws and rules of the road.
“I can’t drive it for them,” Tricarico said, repeating the comments he’s heard from chiefs.
Offering some startling statistics, Tricarico said there are 15,000 apparatus accidents annually, which is a 26 percent increase over the past 10 years despite that being a period of time that has shown a decline in the number of fire calls. It is the second leading cause of death of firefighters and thousands go to the hospital for treatment after wrecks.
To remedy the situation, Tricarico recommended routine driver training and emergency vehicle operations classes every three years.
Implementation and enforcement of seatbelt policies will also go a long way toward keeping firefighters safe.
1: Failure to lead
And, at number one, is failure to be a leader. “But they won’t like me,” is the argument Denniston hears.
Leaders have to lead and not be afraid of alienating the staff, Denniston said, adding, “It’s not easy to do.”
Summing up the program, Tricarico said he has developed a new fire service triangle. With safety being in the center as the goal, the sides of the triangle are policies, training and enforcement.
“If any one of those sides isn’t there, it all collapses and instead of safety, you have danger,” Tricarico said.
Using a quote from another presenter he and Denniston heard years ago, Tricarico said: “Every day you are given the opportunity to polish or tarnish your badge. Which will you do today?”