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Assessing What They LACK: The Culture of Firefighting

Editor's Note: The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s Courage to be Safe program identified four area where fire officers needed to improve their awareness, training and skills: leadership, accountability, culture and knowledge (LACK). This is the fourth article in a five-part series that helps officers focus on each area for a more comprehensive understanding of the program.

Culture is generally defined as the behaviors, attitudes, ideas, and beliefs that are shared within a group and conveyed to future members. It reflects the collective perception of right and wrong, good and bad, or desirable and undesirable behaviors and characteristics.

Within the fire service, we are steeped in a culture of traditions, history, readiness, and brotherhood. Above all else however, firefighting is a culture of service and of courage. This unique brand of courage has been attributed to firefighters for centuries. It’s what compels us to respond within a moment’s notice to a call for help.

But that same overriding rush of adrenaline that unleashes our courage and willingness to serve can interfere with our ability to lead effectively and act responsibility. It can result in an overriding sense of invincibility, common among teenagers, that nothing bad will happen to me. All too often, this impetuousness which some equate with courage leads to tragic consequences.

It is important to understand that it is not the culture itself that causes line-of-duty deaths, and implementing safety standards within the fire service culture is not an attack on our traditions. A firefighter should not back down from a significant challenge, especially when the welfare of another is in jeopardy. However, we must recognize when no clear gain will be made and when the risks of our actions far outweigh the benefits to others. To do our jobs effectively, we must bring the reality of fire safety initiatives to the forefront of our training and experience.

During the Firefighter Life Safety Summit in 2004 and a follow-up meeting in 2007, fire service leaders from around the country discussed, developed and refined a national strategy to significantly reduce firefighter line-of-duty deaths (LODDs). The resounding message from those discussions was the need for a shift toward a more positive, productive, healthy and safe environment.

Such a shift is not a call to abandon the culture of the fire service, but to identify areas that need to be adjusted to improve the overall performance and safety of its members. Research has shown that a firefighter dies in the line of duty because of at least one of the following six root causes.

  • Lack of effective policies and procedures. Every department must have a clear set of policies and procedures that underscore safety. This includes every standard practice, from the minimum number of personnel on an apparatus to how to proceed through an intersection when responding to a call.
  • Lack of leadership. Department leadership must not only develop a clear set of policies and procedures for all aspects of the department’s operations, but we must adhere to those policies and set appropriate examples.
  • Lack of preparedness. Departments must offer all necessary training, and all department members must participate in necessary training and recertification in a timely manner.
  • Lack of appropriate decision making. Consciously refusing to follow standard procedures and policies interferes with our ability, and our colleagues, to do our jobs effectively.
  • Lack of personal responsibility. We must be good to ourselves. Treat and manage medical conditions, all the available Personal Protective Equipment including the use of seat belts and other restraint systems in all vehicles.
  • Unpredictable events. There are extraordinary events that are beyond anyone’s control. Even when a firefighter does everything right there are times when something goes horribly wrong, and we must be prepared to handle those situations. Have the appropriate policies in place that will provide guidance on how to manage a serious injury or the death of a member.

A conscientious approach to fire safety should not be considered an affront to the valued traditions that distinguish the culture of firefighting. Rather, it is an opportunity to raise the bar of the firefighting culture and free the industry from the antiquated thinking that injuries and deaths are simply part of the job.

To be clear, embracing the culture of firefighting, as we’ve always done, and at the same time giving it our best to ensure everyone goes home are not mutually exclusive ideas. In fact, just the opposite is true.

Fires should be fought by intelligent men and women that value lives over property and who do it in such a manner that draws admiration from their community. At the end of each shift, everyone should go home to their other valued roles as family members and friends.

As we look to the future, we must embrace a new culture of firefighting so that we safely do our jobs to the best of our abilities while protecting the people we’ve promised to serve.

RONALD J. SIARNICKI is the Executive Director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He is also the former fire chief of Prince George’s County, MD, served as a volunteer firefighter in his hometown of Monessen, PA, and currently serves with United Communities VFD in Queen Anne’s County, MD. He holds a Bachelor's Degree in Fire Science and a Master's Degree in Technology Management from the University of Maryland University College (UMUC).