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Being a firefighter can be hazardous, even if we’re doing things exactly the way we should. Firefighter safety is a critical element of the overall effectiveness of a fire department service delivery system. Fire suppression and emergency medical, hazardous materials and technical rescue services are delivered by firefighters who have committed to place themselves in harm’s way to protect others. That personal commitment is part of the foundation of a community’s fire and life safety emergency response system and represents a very special customer connection.
Over the past 15 years, the fire service has significantly increased the emphasis on the health and safety of firefighters. This includes training more effectively, providing strong incident command, developing and following standard operating procedures (SOPs), providing proper equipment, and complying with regulations and standards. In addition, health evaluations emphasizing psychological, emotional and physical wellness, tracking chemical and medical exposures, and using safety officers have also contributed to the health and safety of firefighters. The fire service functions within a mission that, by its nature, includes risk to our members in a variety of situations. Therefore, those who occupy positions of leadership must accept and act out their responsibilities in ways that impact health and safety in positive, practical and effective terms. This is easier said than done.
I would like to review a few key leadership issues that tend to regulate the effectiveness of safety efforts and our members’ attitudes towards safety. Strong leadership can improve the odds of firefighters surviving the emergency situations we send them to. No matter what formal positions of rank we hold, leaders demonstrate their commitment to safety through their behaviors and actions which sends a stronger message than anything they might simply “say” to those they lead.
There are many things that leaders should stress on a regular basis. The list should include those things that could get firefighters injured or killed. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) data clearly identify the most common contributing factors to firefighter injuries and fatalities. Although they can’t all be prevented, the following are some intervention strategies that leaders can emphasize that will minimize our risk:
- Firefighters and fire officers must stay mentally alert to the many ways that we can be injured at the station, in training, during response or at the scene of an emergency call. Inattentiveness or complacency cannot be allowed to affect our actions or decisions. There is no such thing as a routine call or task. Remember, minor injuries are usually just a matter of good luck; often, the injury could have been more serious than it was.
- Many firefighter tasks involve hard, strenuous work performed with little time for warm-up. Lots of firefighters die of heart attacks and strokes or experience career-ending injuries while training or working at emergency scenes. Maintaining a reasonable level of fitness, physical strength and flexibility, combined with an emphasis on psychological and emotional fitness, will significantly improve a firefighter’s odds of survival. If we add to this an effective rehab component to emergency scene management, firefighters will have a better chance of survival.
- Fire vehicle crashes that occur during emergency response and non-emergency travel are a major cause of firefighter injuries and deaths each year. Members must always take special care driving or riding to and from calls. They must stay seated and wear their seatbelts, period. If we follow this edict and take appropriate steps to protect firefighters from traffic while working at emergency scenes, firefighters will have a better chance of survival.
- Fire officers need to stop putting firefighters in offensive positions on defensive fires. If firefighters are positioned improperly, and things happen that compromise structural integrity, increase the extent of the fire, change the ventilation profile or a number of other factors, the result could be tragic for the firefighters.