Enhancing Safety Through Capable Leadership

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...


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The incident commander is in place to determine the strategy (offensive or defensive) based on an ongoing evaluation of critical fireground factors, command and control, and through the management of an incident action plan (IAP). The building should not decide the strategy by running firefighters out at the last minute or by seducing leaders to take risks with firefighters’ lives that are not worth what they’re trying to accomplish tactically.

If the appropriate strategy is offensive, then get with it. Half-hearted offensive attacks are dangerous to firefighters. However, if the appropriate strategy is defensive, get our firefighters out of, off of and away from the structure – and the leader needs to be willing to take the heat for those decisions if necessary. This risk-vs.-gain assessment is ongoing, and must be standard practice at all types of emergency incidents. Leaders must ask themselves initially, and again periodically throughout the incident, “Is the risk I’m taking with my people worth what we’re trying to accomplish here?” If the answer is yes, then keep going; but if the answer is no, then stop doing what you’re doing.

Keep the following risk model in mind (it’s been around for several years):

  • We will risk ourselves a lot, within a structured plan, to save a savable life.
  • We will risk ourselves a little, within a structured plan, to save savable property.
  • However, we will not risk ourselves at all to save lives or property that are already lost.

On the fireground, firefighters assigned to crews, companies or teams must not get separated from each other – they must not get lost. We should always remember that if we find ourselves alone and things take a sudden turn for the worse, or if we get disoriented, we could die – alone. When firefighters get lost in a structure fire, there is only one good thing that can result from it: they get found alive. Every other possible outcome is bad. Everyone must stay connected to the system and the incident commander, through his or her company, unit or sector/division/group. Freelancing must not occur at any level within the organizational structure.

As leaders and supervisors, our comments and actions toward health and safety significantly impact other members’ attitudes and actions regarding these issues. How we as leaders function to a large extent regulates the way our members view the importance of these issues and, therefore, dictates how they function themselves.

Within ancient leadership concepts developed in 600 B.C. in China, Lao Tsu professed and taught that one leads primarily by example. The inability or unwillingness of those in leadership positions (regardless of rank) to practice this basic leadership concept in a positive way undermines firefighter health and safety perhaps as much as any other factor.

Leadership and supervision includes modeling the behaviors and expectations we have of others. Leaders are always teaching others how to behave and perform by their own example, good or bad. Imagine the positive effect of putting emphasis on safety and survival leadership issues every day, and at every emergency incident. We could significantly impact firefighter safety in the specific areas I’ve mentioned, which happen to be contributing factors in 90% of all firefighter fatalities, career and volunteer.

We should never minimize the potential risks firefighters face, but as leaders, we can reduce that risk and improve their odds of survival. The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and the USFA have committed to meeting the following ambitious goals:

If we make the changes to fire service leadership, management and supervisory practices and culture that are suggested in this article – I mean really made them – in the volunteer and career services, we will achieve those goals. We can do that!

Take the time to review your department’s practices and procedures relating to the safety issues I’ve discussed, then review your own personal safety attitude and leadership behaviors as well. The most dangerous firefighters and fire officers I’ve ever known have been the ones who thought they were “fully trained.” Be very cautious working around them. Let’s take care of each other all the time, and as leaders, demonstrate that commitment through our own words and actions. We’ll all be better off, in health and safety, as well as in many other ways.