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The 'Braveheart' Approach to Firefighter Safety

Braveheart, the multi-Oscar award-winning movie from 1995, is an inspirational film on many levels. It is based on the true events of Scotland's William Wallace and his efforts to gain his nation's freedom from England's rule in the late 13th century. Aside from the blood and guts, the over-the-top violence, and a testosterone driven plot, there are a few gems of wisdom that are worthy of reviewing. One pertains to the scene early in the movie but after the young William has lost his father in a clan versus clan skirmish. Uncle Argyle has come to take him home after his father's funeral when William eyes his impressive sword. As William gets his hands on the sword and raises it with his eyes wide open, Argyle swiftly takes it from him. Then, Argyle says, "First, learn to use this (pointing to William's head), then, I'll teach you to use this (the sword)!

Think Before You Do!

The message by Uncle Argyle is both simple and poignant. In the film William returns to his native land complete with battle-tested skill sets but more importantly with a wisdom that serves him well in his challenge with the King of England. The message here is equally as poignant for the fire service: thinking things through before acting is both prudent and safe. But that isn't the way of the fire service, is it?

Everything we do is built around speed. From fire poles, to jump seats, to racing to the scene we "feel the need for speed"! But in this day of the lawsuit, and also of the concept of risk-reduction, speed has become liability and also a trap for bad things that can happen. We may think that we are gallant and noble by speeding down the road until something bad happens. Then, quickly, public opinion can tank and worse, firefighters can be vilified and even serve prison time for causing accidents and killing people, both civilians and our own!

A Culture Of Speed

The mindset of speed is ingrained in us from the day we start in this business. It is reinforced on every call and, unless adverse events occur, it continues. The speed concept is a mindlessness that is a result of the firefighting culture, one that has had the luxury of hundreds of years of development. This is an important distinction because it will take many years to reverse an ingrained culture, if that is the goal.

This all brings to mind some well-known culture confrontations with the speed mindset, and not surprisingly, they both happened in the same city. The first issue involved getting apparatus drivers to slow down on emergency calls but also to stop at red lights and stop signs while enroute. After constant training, and re-training, and even negative sanctions, the department did not see much improvement for nearly a generation. In other words, the desired behavior was not realized until the older generation, for which a culture change was needed, left the job.

The second issue also centered on getting firefighters to slow down, but mainly once they arrived on the fireground. The desired behavior was to get all firefighters to stop and think more, slow down, and be more "deliberate" with their size-ups, risk-benefit analysis, and their reactions. The strategy was to take the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA's) out of the cab of the fire apparatus and place them into compartments. This action would require firefighters to exit the truck upon arrival and then don their SCBA's. The hope was to slow personnel down. The jury is still out whether or not the objective was met.

A New Culture

As difficult as it would seem, perhaps new cultures need to be developed to help avoid adverse outcomes. If speed, especially excessive speed, is an identified culprit than wise and prudent officers need to take action. It really comes down to leadership. But, the leadership that is needed can be daunting because ushering in new and decisive paradigms of safety will try your resolve. What is key to such a strategy though, is a well thought-out plan and complete unity of command in order to see the change through. Any less than this will be disastrous.

Perhaps a pragmatic approach would be to appeal to each firefighter's sense of dedication and duty to remain as aggressive as always, but to temper their traditional approach by also appealing to their intelligence. If the ultimate firefighting application is being more deliberate in response to all emergencies, then "smart and aggressive" would be a good battle cry.

All of the above was the whole intent of William Wallace's efforts seven centuries ago. He rallied his fellow Scotsmen to fight for their freedom from England's rule (paradigm shifts and culture changes). He impressed his friends, and even foes alike, that thinking was just as an important weapon in war as the other weapons that were available. And finally, he knew the importance of leadership in ushering in the needed and perceived change.

All good lessons for the fire service don't you think? Now, is the American Fire Service up to the same tasks as modeled by Braveheart's William Wallace?

This article addresses Firefighter Life Safety Initiative #1: Define and advocate the need for a cultural change within the fire service relating to safety; incorporating leadership, management, supervision, accountability and personal responsibility.

DAVID PETERSON, a Contributing Editor, is a 28-year fire service veteran who serves as a lieutenant and training officer in Madison, WI, and as the training coordinator for the department's regional Level A Hazmat team. David founded the Wisconsin Association of Hazardous Materials Responders, Inc. and teaches, presents, and authors articles on a wide variety of fire and hazmat topics. David is also a National Fire Academy instructor of chemistry and a Master Instructor for the International Association of Fire Fighters HazMat and Terrorism training programs. To read David's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. You can reach David by e-mail at