Enhancing Safety Through Capable Leadership

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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.

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.

Dennis Compton will present “Fire Officer Leadership and Development,” “Mental Aspects of Performance for Firefighters and Fire Officers” and “Politics: Like It or Not, We Better Learn to Deal with It” at Firehouse World 2005 in San Diego, Jan. 31-Feb.4.

Chief Concerns is a forum addressing issues of interest to chief fire officers. Opinions expressed are those of the writer. We invite all volunteer and career chief fire officers, active and retired, to share their concerns, experiences and views in this column. Please submit articles to:

Chief Concerns




Dennis Compton, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a well-known speaker and the author of several books including the When In Doubt, Lead! series, Mental Aspects of Performance For Firefighters And Fire Officers, as well as many other articles and publications. He is also the co-editor of the current edition of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) reference book Managing Fire and Rescue Services. He serves as a national advocate and executive advisor for fire service and emergency management issues and organizations. Compton served as the fire chief in Mesa, AZ, for five years and as assistant fire chief in the Phoenix Fire Department, where he served for 27 years. He is past chair of the executive board of the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA), past chair of the Congressional Fire Services Institute’s National Advisory Committee and serves on the board of directors for the Home Safety Council (HSC).

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