There has been discussion recently about whether the focus on firefighter health and safety is impairing our ability to effectively operate at incidents. The concern is that the increased attention to health and safety may impair the fire service's overall goal to save life and property...
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There has been discussion recently about whether the focus on firefighter health and safety is impairing our ability to effectively operate at incidents. The concern is that the increased attention to health and safety may impair the fire service's overall goal to save life and property. Some are saying we are less aggressive now at fireground operations than we were in years past — "It's not like the old days riding on the back of a pumper to the fire."
No one would doubt that firefighting is inherently dangerous. Sometimes, even with the best information available, the best training and the best equipment, bad outcomes happen because we operate in an unstable environment. Our best efforts at gathering information and managing the incident in this dangerous and fluid environment may not be enough to avert a bad outcome that may be sudden and tragic. Leadership is about knowledge. It is also about managing the ever-changing calculus of risk versus benefit at any moment in the incident. We draw upon our firematic courses and personal experiences over our years in the fire service. We recall stories told by senior members or lessons written in articles read years before in Firehouse® Magazine or other journals. We ask the help of the others at the command post. We say a quick prayer that our decisions will be well guided.
Some lament that we are now a different leadership because we developed an institutional process to manage risk on a daily basis within the fire service. There are actions and policies off the fireground that directly impact the well-being of our firefighters. Unfortunately and despite all the advances in training, there are firefighters who are resistant to change. These naysayers believe that the health and safety of firefighters has never been a priority in fire service culture. It shouldn't interfere with their idealized version of reality where near misses are relived in firehouse lore. "Remember the time Bobby showed up at the scene straight from the bachelor party and the cops almost hauled him off? Wow, that was some night!"
Here are some examples that may leave you scratching your head.
• The physical fitness test is a basic standard of fitness and measures the ability to perform fireground duties. A career department in Connecticut required its members to annually pass a physical fitness exam identical to the one candidates take to be considered for hire. A line officer challenged that policy through the courts, claiming it was discriminatory, and the courts agreed. The policy was eliminated by the department.
The reasoning behind this decision is difficult to understand. The physical fitness test has been validated as an accurate representation of typical duties firefighters need to perform at fires. So why should some firefighters who respond to the same fires and perform the same tasks not be held to the same physical ability standard?
• A large volunteer department in New York State devoted significant resources to build and equip a fitness area in the firehouse. It took a couple of years to come up with the funds, but the commissioners spared no expense to have the finest equipment. They even hired a fitness instructor to train the firefighters on proper use of the equipment. They also had the trainer develop individual workout programs for each firefighter who asked for help.
The results were impressive for those who participated. Not only did they improve their health, but they spent more time at the firehouse and made more runs than members not in the fitness program. This improvement in response rates was very valuable to the department and the community since those members were immediately available to get the rigs crewed to respond.
Although some members used the fitness program each year it was offered, others complained it was a waste of money since only a few firefighters reaped the benefits. Those against the program actively lobbied the commissioners to fire the fitness instructor and use the funds for more conventional uses such as buying new plasma TVs with video games, new sofas and a more elaborate holiday party.