Leadership: We Killed Firefighter Brian Hunton

If you are the fire chief and you know that you do not have a 100% compliance 100% of the time with your seat belt policy - you killed Firefighter Brian Hunton.

If you do not wear your seat belt when riding on the fire truck, if you do not make your partner put his or her seat belt on, if you drive the fire truck and all passengers are not buckled up, if you are the officer and you do not enforce the seat belt policy, if you are a chief officer and do not hold your company officers accountable, if you are the fire chief and you know that you do not have a 100% compliance 100% of the time with your seat belt policy - you killed Firefighter Brian Hunton.

I can hear the feedback to this charge now. "Clark, you have lost your mind! How dare you accuse me of killing a firefighter! Who the hell do you think you are? I don't know Brian, I'm not on his company, I wasn't driving the apparatus, I'm not his officer or chief, firefighters have to take responsibility for themselves. Firefighting is dangerous we all know and accept the risk that's our job. The charges are unfounded and outrageous. I am not responsible." Pick your excuse. The fact is that Brian's death could have happened in any fire department, including yours. It is only by fate or the grace of God that it did not happen to you or me.

Our dysfunctional fire service seat belt culture is the root cause of Brian's death. That culture ignores safety standards, does not use readily available equipment, flaunts SOP's, and denies responsibility at the individual, team, and organizational level. Firefighters and officers have told me that using the seat belts will slow them down, resulting in people dying in fires. The latest comment from a firefighter was "The only reason we have a seat belt policy is to cover the department's ass if I get hurt."

Culture drives behavior. Our seat belt culture let Brian down and he paid the ultimate price. We are all part of the seat belt problem and solution. We all must take some responsibility for our Brother Brian's death. The question is what are we going to do about it so it does not happen to another brother or sister?

The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation has just received a one million dollar grant to conduct the Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives Project. At its core this project is trying to change our overall safety culture with training programs, lectures, a web site, conferences, research, excellence awards, and demonstration projects. One of the US Fire Administration's operational goals is related to reducing by 25% the loss of life of firefighters. The USFA also uses training programs, publications, research, grants, and lectures. These two national activities are important to changing our overall safety culture. But if we can not change our seat belt culture immediately, we have no chance of fixing any firefighter safety issue.

Culture is the collective knowledge, teaching, beliefs, values, feelings, science, technology, art, and behaviors of a group or society. Overall the fire service has a proud culture of professionalism, volunteerism, duty, bravery, camaraderie, and service to humankind. Society holds the fire service in high regarded. One national poll reported that society trusted firefighters second only to their own family members. That trust includes returning firefighters to their families after the alarm - unharmed. Firefighters trust each other with their very lives. As professionals, both career and volunteer, we have a lot to be proud of.

Culture is a powerful human motivating factor and changing a culture is difficult. At its ultimate, a society defines its culture by where it draws the line in the sand. Crossing the line has significant consequences. Sometimes an aspect of our culture must be changed for the good of all. Today's popular phrase is "zero tolerance." For example, our culture of drinking alcohol then driving was changed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) because its members took a stand, drew a line in the sand, and put leadership on the line.

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