Empower All Firefighters To Stop Unsafe Practices

Gary Morris examines why there is little two-way discussions between firefighter and fire officers about options on the fireground.

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.