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Firefighter health and safety programs play a critical role in the overall effectiveness of a fire department service delivery system. The services we provide are delivered by humans - people who have committed to placing themselves in harm's way to protect others. That personal value is at the center of the emergency response component of a community's fire and life safety system. Firefighters are members of a very short list of organizations that can make that claim to customer commitment.
The leadership of the fire service has significantly increased its understanding of (and emphasis on) the health and safety of firefighters over the past 15 years. This includes selecting qualified candidates, providing strong incident command, standard operating procedures, proper equipment, and complying with regulations and standards. We are now conducting health evaluations, placing emphasis on psychological, emotional and physical wellness, and emphasizing chemical and medical exposure management. Ongoing training in a full range of subjects that impact knowledge and competence, assigning safety officers, and other issues have had a positive effect on the health and safety of firefighters.
As we function within a mission that naturally includes an active analysis of risk to our members in a variety of situations, those occupying positions of leadership must demonstrate that leadership in ways that impact health and safety issues in a positive, practical and effective way. This is easier to say than to do.
Rather than discuss all of the standard program management responsibilities within the area of firefighter health and safety, let's review a few key leadership issues that tend to regulate the effectiveness of these programs and our members' attitudes towards them. Doing so can improve the odds of firefighters surviving the emergency situations we dispatch them to handle. No matter what formal positions of rank we hold, demonstrating our commitment to these issues through our behaviors and actions will send a stronger message than anything we could simply "say" about them.
Safety Leadership Reminders
- Stay mentally alert to all of the ways we can become exposed or injured at the station, in training or at the scene of a call. Inattentiveness or complacency cannot be allowed to affect our actions or decisions. There is no such thing as a routine call. Remember that minor injuries are many times just a matter of good luck - it could easily have been much worse.
- Many of the tasks that firefighters perform involve hard, strenuous work performed with little time for warmup. Lots of firefighters die of heart attacks or experience career-ending injuries doing training or working at fires or at other emergency scenes. Maintaining a reasonable level of aerobic fitness, physical strength and flexibility, combined with an emphasis on psychological and emotional fitness, will significantly improve a firefighter's odds of survival.
- Fire apparatus 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 when driving to and from calls, stay seated and wear seatbelts.
- Fire officers must avoid putting firefighters in offensive positions on defensive fires. If anything negative happens regarding structural integrity, the extent of the fire, the ventilation profile or a number of other factors, the stage could be set for a terrible outcome.
The incident commander determines the strategy (offensive or defensive) based on an ongoing evaluation of critical fireground factors and through the management of an incident action plan. The building should not declare the strategy by running firefighters out at the last minute or by seducing leaders to take risks with firefighters' lives that may not be worth what they're trying to accomplish.