I Have a Dream...for Safety in the Fire Service

Statistically, it is easy to argue that we, as an industry, are not getting better. Less fires - yet the same number of fatalities and injuries.

The books are almost closed for the year 2006 and the tally of firefighter deaths comes to 106. Barring more deaths that may still occur from events that happened last year this total far exceeds acceptable levels. What are acceptable firefighter death totals? The answer varies from firefighter to firefighter, but, in light of the statistic that tells us that the number of structure fires in our country has decreased significantly over the last several years yet firefighter deaths and injuries have remained the same, then the death toll is wholly unacceptable. With all of the words that are written concerning firefighter safety, all of the training efforts and courses geared toward firefighter safety, all of the national firefighter stand-down days and other safety initiatives, and all of the safety efforts such as engineering controls, administrative controls, and behavior modifications, one would think that the fire service would achieve "critical mass" and the numbers would drop dramatically. But the numbers do not lie! We still have a problem and it is not going away!

Statistically, it is easy to argue that we, as an industry, are not getting better. Less fires - yet the same number of fatalities and injuries. Something is wrong and we need to pull our collective heads out of the sand. Also, just because a fire department has not had a line-of-duty-death (LODD), we do well not to fall into the mental trap that there is not a problem. Prudent fire service leaders are always looking for ways to improve safety and strive to prevent firefighter deaths and injuries.

One of the problems we have is that the eyes that are reading the words right here, right now, are not necessarily the ones that really need the message. Words like these and columns like this are in effect "preaching to the choir". Most of you already know the statistics and concepts that are revealed here. What is needed, then, is people (like you) to share safety messages (like this) with people who do not know. That is your safety challenge today.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote an extraordinarily poignant book called The Tipping Point that has application for the fire service. Gladwell outlines numerous incidents in history where ideas or information spread widely and the surge of acceptance reached critical mass, or the tipping point, quickly. He explains why these things have occurred in detail but a main concept was how the word got out. Gladwell wrote that three things are needed to get a message disseminated and they are; connectors, mavens, and salesmen.

Good ideas need people to spread the message effectively. These people are the "connectors". They know how to reach others and they seem to be well embedded in the community, or industry, and have a vast, intricate network. Think of a spider in the center of its elaborate web where each silk strand is connected to another strand and so forth.

Good ideas also need people who have knowledge of the concepts behind a message and know how to convey the message properly. These people are the "mavens". They are the technical experts who can explain how things work or can reference technical data and share the information in lay terms.

Good ideas prosper with people who can sell the concept. These people are the "salesmen". Good salesmen have techniques to hook people or get them interested in an idea or concept. Good salesmen also know how to keep customers interested. They tend to know how to motivate people to want to "buy-in".

Connectors, mavens, and salesmen may be one in the same or several people.

Gladwell's words application to the fire service are simple; as an industry and occupation we must take the safety message to each and every firefighter and sell them the importance of the safety concepts. To do this we must connect with them through every means possible such as e-mails, written letters, speeches, formal instruction, informal groups, pre and post incident sessions, and so on. We must show them studies, statistics, and case reports to reinforce the desired behavior and even change an ingrained culture. We must apply gentle but relentless pressure to all firefighters concerning the safety message.

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