When Safety Shortcuts Backfire

A story that came across the wires the other day caught my eye.

It seems that a relatively routine auto fire in Friday Harbor, WA turned into a major event in which the chief of the department was suspended after some of the department’s members sent a letter of no confidence to the town administrators, and then abruptly resigned. The primary reason? The chief allowed safety shortcuts to exist in the department.

While some in the fire service argue that the myriad of safety regulations, protocols and guidelines that we now commonly work under are hampering their ability to function to their upmost at emergency scenes, the majority of us realize that we have to make friends with safety initiatives and incorporate them into our way of doing business.

I remember that not so many years ago, some folks were advocating the return to ¾ boots and long coats, saying that bunker pants “slowed us down” and that “you will have a heart attack from exhaustion before you are in danger of getting burned.” However, their arguments would have a very hollow ring just as soon as someone ends up being seriously burned between the waist and knees.

Can you imagine walking into your fire station nowadays and lobbying for the return of hip boots? Or not wearing your SCBA on every fire call, even car fires? But, human nature being what it is, sometimes officers let little things slip, like not fastening the waist band on your SCBA, or not requiring everyone to be belted in before leaving the station, or not bringing in the thermal imaging camera in on a smoke investigation. And sometimes the culture of the department allows a number of safety shortcuts to exist and fester until someone gets seriously injured or killed.

The answer is that we as officers need to set the tone and make sure that we’ve set the bar high enough so that the little shortcuts are not allowed to develop into “business as usual.”

Getting back to the Friday Harbor auto fire story, it seems that after photos of the incident appeared in the local newspaper showing a firefighter on the attack line operating without an SCBA or even eye protection, and then showing the chief helping on the line with no gear on at all, four officers and a firefighter took matters into their own hands and submitted a letter of no confidence in the chief, outlined the department’s problems, and asked that he be replaced. Sure, we all want to do our jobs, but there is absolutely no excuse for not doing it safely. If this is a case of the person in charge not knowing any better, then the folks who hired him should be replaced as well.

I’m sure there are a few more sides to this story, but the point is, that it’s false for those in charge to assume that allowing a culture of looking the other way when safety shortcuts exist on the fire ground will endear the person responsible to the troops. In this case it was quite the opposite—the officers and firefighters did what they thought they needed to do to get the problem taken care of, including resigning their positions.

In this day and age, there is no excuse for letting matters get that far out of hand, especially when it comes to violating basic safety practices. Shame on those who let a culture like that fester.

Read the full story here: http://www.firehouse.com/stateprovince/new-york/wash-chief-suspended-unsafe-photo