National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Firefighter Life Safety Summit Report: Part 2 - Cultural Change

J. Gordon Routley continues his series on the unprecedented gathering of the leadership of the American fire service to focus on how to prevent line-of-duty deaths. Part 2 discusses the need to change the culture of accepting the loss of firefighters as a...


Editor’s note: The first-ever Firefighter Life Safety Summit took place on March 10 and 11, 2004, when more than 200 people assembled in Tampa, FL, to focus on preventing firefighter line-of-duty deaths. Every identifiable segment of the U.S. fire service was represented at the summit, which was...


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Editor’s note:

The most fundamental issue that was agreed upon by participants in the Firefighter Life Safety Summit is the need for the fire service in the United States to change the culture of accepting the loss of firefighters as a normal way of doing business. This concept was reflected in several different statements that were produced by the individual discussion groups. The summit participants unanimously declared that the time has come to change our culture and our expectations.

Within the fire service we all feel the pain with the loss of each individual firefighter, but we have come to accept the loss of more than 100 firefighters each year as a standard expectation. As long as we continue to accept this loss, we can avoid or delay making the radical and uncomfortable adjustments that will be necessary to change the outcomes. We have to convince everyone in the fire service that a line-of-duty death is not a standard expectation or an acceptable outcome.

Personal and organizational accountability. The essential cultural change has to begin with accepting personal and organizational accountability for health and safety. Every individual within the fire service has to accept a personal responsibility for health, wellness, fitness for duty, skills development, basic competencies and adherence to safe practices. The leaders and members of every fire department and every fire service organization must be accountable for the safety of their members, collectively and individually. In addition, the members must be accountable to each other.

The most important and fundamental decisions relating to firefighter health and safety are made by individuals, from the top of the organizational chart to the bottom. Irresponsible behavior cannot be tolerated at any level and no external influence can overpower a failure to accept personal responsibility. The managers, supervisors and leaders within the fire service must instill and reinforce these values until they become an integral component of the culture.

Incident management and risk management. This initiative incorporates a range of components that relate to our ability to safely conduct emergency operations in a high-risk environment. There is no question that firefighters are expected to work in an environment that is inherently dangerous; however, the risks and most of the specific dangers are well known. The most common causes of firefighter deaths are widely recognized, along with the situations where they are most likely to occur. We have to recognize and manage the risks that apply to each situation. The essence of professionalism in the fire service is the ability to function safely and effectively within that dangerous environment. We will never be able to eliminate all of the risks, but we can be very well prepared to face most of them.

Firefighters at every level must be properly trained, equipped, organized and directed to perform their duties safely and skillfully. There must be a comprehensive structured system in place to manage incidents and risks. Company officers must be trained to supervise operations and incident commanders must be trained to manage incidents according to standard principles and practices.

Firefighters must be prepared to function competently in a wide range of situations, including critical events that can involve unanticipated dangers and immediate risks to their own survival. Several areas were identified for special emphasis, including Mayday and rapid intervention procedures, air management and preventing disorientation in zero-visibility conditions.

Risk management involves identifying the situations where predictable risks are likely to be encountered and making decisions that will reduce, eliminate or avoid them. Realistic risk management applies at every level within the fire service, from the decisions made by individual firefighters and company officers to the actions of incident commanders and senior officers who have specific responsibilities for evaluating and managing risks. We fail to act professionally when we recognize a risk and choose to do nothing about it.

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