Why Now Is the Time For CRM in the Fire Service

When I think about the future of our business, there is not a lot that makes me nervous or pessimistic. Having been around for several decades, I am well aware that change can seem to take forever, but still usually happens. Not trying to sound trite or...


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In the aftermath of Flight 173's crash, the error-avoidance program known as Crew Resource Management was born. By 1980, all commercial airlines were required to place great emphasis on the avoidance of human errors by implementing CRM. As a result, the aviation industry has seen remarkable results in eliminating, avoiding or trapping human-error issues before there are any consequences (unplanned events, i.e., crashes). Even though the captain has the final say for all flight operational decisions (same as the incident commander), they are trained to listen and use a multitude of inputs before taking any critical action, including travel-route and/or emergency decisions.

In addition, the other flight crewmembers such as the first officer, flight attendants, maintenance folks and air traffic controllers, to name a few, are thoroughly trained to be bold and assertive to make sure that the captain gets the critical input necessary to safely operate the aircraft.

The results of full implementation of CRM have been phenomenal. Human-error accidents are now almost non-existent in commercial aviation. Further, other organizations have picked up the CRM process and, after only a few years, have seen a great reduction of accidents and personal injuries.

As an example, one of the military branches reported a 71% reduction in accidents and injuries after CRM was integrated into its air and field operations. I have heard only "glowing" reports about results relating to the utilization of the CRM process.

The Concern

After about 10 years of discussion, only a few fire-rescue agencies have developed, adopted and integrated Crew Resource Management into how they do business on the streets. My personal notation is that a comprehensive CRM program for our industry would greatly reduce firefighter injuries and fatalities, as well as greatly improve the service that we deliver to our customers every day.

Researching just about any firefighter fatality report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) will support this argument. While referencing the material, pay special attention to the incident causes and recommendations, as well as the root causes of the accidents that led to members' deaths. The typical findings will be that most firefighter fatality scenes are riddled with human errors.

The operational error that seems to occur most often is the failure to implement (or only partially implement) the incident command system, as well as the failure to identify and activate an incident safety officer. Without question, the complete application of CRM will eliminate this and all other human input errors, if used properly. A recent seminar I attended theorized an 80% or greater reduction in performance errors would be realized as a result of the application of CRM.

As I mentioned earlier, our armed forces are using CRM with great results. Beginning with the various aviation operations and then blending into all other functional operations, the transition of application of CRM for the military was relatively easy. The result of CRM speaks volumes and cannot be denied. The next logical step is to drive it further into each organization.

The medical field is now embracing CRM in an effort to eliminate human errors and omissions that occur each year at a rate of 1% to 1.5%. An excellent performance rate of 98.5% sounds like a great track record, unless you or a family member is part of the unfortunate group in the remaining percentage. Stories of being the wrong person under the knife are real and CRM will become a major tool for the medical field to reduce or eliminate these types of needless tragedies. Interestingly, Dr. Robert L. Helmreich, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas who is considered to be one of the CRM "giants," has co-authored a book (Culture at Work in Aviation and Medicine: National, Organizational and Professional Influences) as well as consults to medical care practitioners.

The Challenge

The American fire-rescue service must develop a comprehensive plan to fully implement Crew Resource Management. Further, if we are going to reduce firefighter fatalities and injuries anytime soon, we must take action on this issue quickly.

It is my hope that all of the major fire-rescue service organizations will accept this challenge and "run with the ball." Ideally, it is my desire that the National Fire Academy (NFA) will develop a comprehensive resident program as well as an abbreviated off-campus offering of CRM. Further, a substantial training component on CRM needs to be integrated into every NFA operational training course.