Empower All Firefighters To Stop Unsafe Practices

Firefighter safety must always be a priority for every fire chief. Over the past three decades, the fire service has applied new technology, provided better protective clothing and equipment, implemented modern standard operating procedures (SOPs) and improved training. During this same period, the fire service has seen a 58% reduction in firefighter line-of-duty deaths. But the country has also seen a paralleling 54% drop in the number of structural fires over the same period. With a continued annual average of 100-110 firefighter fatalities, the question remains: Have we really made a difference with all these improvements or is a significant cultural change needed?

The fireground creates a significant risk to firefighters and it is the responsibility of the incident commander to minimize their exposure to unsafe conditions and stop unsafe practices. The fire service has always been a paramilitary organization when it comes to fireground operations.

In most cases, the incident commander makes a decision and sends the order down through supervisors to the company officer and crew. Fire crews generally view these orders as top-down direction. There is little two-way discussion about options. Where this culture exists, crews have been trained to accept the order and do it — generally without question. This situation makes it uncomfortable for firefighters to say no to unsafe conditions or practices. Additionally, we have not clearly defined how a firefighter, supervisor or the incident commander should manage such a situation when it is encountered.

The aviation industry experienced a similar problem of one-way decision-making and communication. The old culture placed the captain in charge of all aircraft operations. The culture didn't tolerate a challenge from crew members. As a result, post-crash investigations found captains occasionally flew their planes into the ground, even as other crew members, including the co-pilot, knew something was wrong, and often tried to tell the pilot — only to be rejected.

The commercial airline industry fixed its problem through a new management system called "cockpit crew resource management." This new system required the captain to listen to crew input regarding safety, and authorized the crew to participate. The program resulted in a dramatic reduction in accidents caused by pilot errors.

In my many years as a chief fire officer, including two separate stints as a department safety officer, and past experience as a fire chief for two different fire departments, I've learned that there are three essential influences in creating a safety-conscious work force:

  • Awareness training (teaching firefighters what will kill or hurt them — i.e., reading smoke)
  • Clearly stated safety policies and procedures
  • A demonstrated commitment to safety by the fire chief and the department's management team.

Without these key elements, we can have the most modern equipment and technology and still operate in an unsafe manner. If the fire chief doesn't take a visible and aggressive lead in changing a department's safety culture, there will be little change in safety attitudes and behaviors by the workforce.

The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) is committed to reducing firefighter fatalities through a set of 16 Life Safety Initiatives (see page 79). As a fire chief, I used the initiatives as a guide to develop a nine-point safety policy titled "Best Safety Practices in Risk-Assessment Decision-Making" and implemented the policy in the two most recent fire departments where I served as fire chief. The objective was to deliver a message directly from the fire chief explaining member responsibilities regarding safety and I expected every member on the fireground to identify unsafe conditions or actions, report them and take appropriate corrective action. One of the more significant points aligns with Initiative Number 4: "Empower all firefighters to stop unsafe practices." My directive was: Any member is authorized to say no to unsafe practices or conditions. Stop, talk and decide.

This item by no means suggests that a firefighter is authorized to engage in insubordination. The fireground is fast paced and clearly must be managed by a well-disciplined and structured command organization. This policy statement does, however, allow a "red flag" to be raised about a safety issue by any member. When the "red flag" is raised, the supervisor is mandated to accept that concern, take a few seconds to stop (assess), talk and make a safe decision (go, no-go). In some cases, the situation may affect other areas of the fireground and must be communicated to the incident commander or other supervising officers.

The importance of this authorization can be illustrated by a tragedy described to me by a firefighter who survived a basement collapse at a commercial building fire that killed his officer and three other firefighters. In the early moments of that night-time fire, interior crews did not know there was fire in the basement. The firefighter described his crew arriving as a second-due company and stretching a line to the front door. As he was leaning over putting on his self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) facepiece, he noticed smoke pushing out of the cracks in the sidewalk — which he believed was awfully odd.

The culture of the department at the time did not allow a firefighter to challenge the officer. The crew entered the building and, moments later, the floor fell away. Fortunately, this firefighter was able to scramble out a window. He stated that the new procedure would have made it more comfortable for him to raise the "red flag" and ask his officer why smoke would be coming out of a sidewalk. He believed had the officer allowed the question to be raised, and taken corrective action, he and the other firefighters would be alive today.

Authorizing firefighters to say no to unsafe practices or conditions creates a safer fireground. In my experience, it changed the culture. Every fire chief should immediately implement a policy or procedure empowering firefighters to stop unsafe practices.

GARY P. MORRIS served for 30 years with the Phoenix, AZ, Fire Department, retiring as an assistant chief. He also served as the department's safety chief officer on two separate assignments. Morris later became fire chief for the Rural-Metro Department, near Phoenix, and chief of the Seattle, WA, Fire Department. He is a director at large for the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Safety, Health and Survival Section.