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

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.

The willingness of firefighters to risk their own lives to save others must never be used as an excuse to take unnecessary risks. Firefighters are highly respected for being willing to risk their own lives to save others, but that cannot justify taking unnecessary risks in situations where there is no one to save and nothing to be gained. In too many cases, firefighters lose their lives while trying to save property that is already lost or to rescue victims who are already dead. While these efforts are valiant, they are also futile. Individual firefighters who take unnecessary risks or fail to follow standard safety practices endanger their own lives as well as the lives of other firefighters who are depending on them or who might have to try to rescue them.

Right to stop unsafe procedures. The summit participants identified the fundamental right and responsibility of firefighters to stop unsafe procedures as a key issue. To many members of the fire service, who have been indoctrinated with a traditional sense of unquestioning discipline, this could be an uncomfortable concept. The underlying principle is that an individual who recognizes an unsafe situation must take action to prevent an accident from occurring. Under this operational concept, any firefighter who believes that a situation is unsafe, or could be unsafe, has both the right and the responsibility to stop the action while an evaluation is made.

The justification for this policy in non-emergency activities, particularly training situations, is easily understood. The application of the same concept to emergency operations could be more difficult for some individuals to accept. In too many cases, the investigation of a fatal accident determines that an unsafe situation was recognized, but no action was taken to change or reconsider the plan. There are very few situations, even during emergency operations, where a brief hesitation to re-evaluate a potentially dangerous plan of action would have serious negative consequences. On the contrary, experience has shown that many lives could have been saved by taking a few extra seconds to stop and think.

This policy does not mean that no action can be taken at an emergency scene that exceeds the comfort level of any individual. The obligation attached to the policy is to pause long enough to determine if it is reasonably safe to continue. In many cases, an officer will have to make a very rapid assessment of the situation and decide whether to continue or change the plan.

During emergency incidents, there is one key question that we need to ask ourselves at regular intervals: “Are the results we are trying to accomplish worth the risks we are taking with our people?” The answer to this question should dictate actions by commanders and firefighters.

Mandatory national standards for training and qualifications. The summit participants reached the conclusion that the time has come to apply a mandatory national uniform system of training and qualification standards for all firefighters. This system would establish mandatory training, education and performance requirements, based on the duties an individual is expected to perform, regardless of his or her status within the fire service or the type of organization. The roles and responsibilities of firefighters at different levels and in different operating environments would be clearly defined.

The basic system of professional qualifications standards already exists; however, their current applicability depends on state and local jurisdictions, individual organizations, seniority, whether a firefighter is a career, part-time or volunteer member of the fire service, and many other factors. The summit delegates agreed that we must move toward a system where the same standards would be applied to anyone who performs a given role within the fire service. The applicable standards must be appropriate and realistic for the functions the individual is expected to perform, but there should not be standards that apply to some individuals and not to others.

In reference to the existing professional qualification and certification systems, the need for periodic recertification was identified as a priority. Today, in many cases, an individual can be certified at a particular level and retain that certification for life, with no requirements for continuing education, refresher classes, performance testing or skills evaluation. The established systems for emergency medical practitioner certification were suggested as a model.

Mandatory medical and physical fitness standards. Man-datory requirements for medical examinations and physical fitness standards should also be implemented for all firefighters, based on the duties and functions they are expected to perform. Medical surveillance should be increased before strenuous physical activity and during activities where firefighters are expected to operate at extreme levels of exertion and endurance.

An increased emphasis on health, wellness and fitness is essential to reduce the number of deaths resulting from heart attacks and other cardiovascular causes. Statistics suggest that the most significant reductions in line-of-duty deaths are likely to be achieved through increased medical surveillance and physical fitness programs. The need for improvements in this area is most pronounced in the volunteer fire service, where the rate of fatalities due to heart attacks and other cardiovascular causes is now much higher than within the career service. This is a reversal of the situation that existed 20 years ago, when there were more cardiovascular deaths among career firefighters than volunteers.

National research agenda and data collection. The discussion of ongoing research efforts as well as priorities for additional research projects pointed to the need for a national research agenda and budget for the fire service. Several different areas were listed as operational research priorities, from building construction to communications systems, leadership, management practices and decision making. A separate research agenda relating to the full spectrum of health, wellness and physical fitness issues was also identified, including psychological and physiological stress, cardiovascular function, oncology and biofeedback. The need for more comprehensive data collection and sharing to identify problem areas and support research was also recognized.

The researchers who were present described their current projects and asked for guidance on the most pressing areas to explore. Several research projects are being conducted by different organizations on a variety of subjects relating to health and safety; however, most of their funding and support come from sources outside the fire service and the projects are often influenced by other priorities and agendas. The fire service needs a process to identify its own research priorities and coordinate efforts, as well as a dedicated source of funding that can be allocated to the most important research projects. The delegates also recognized the challenge of applying many of the current research findings to real world situations.

The fire service is benefiting from crossover adaptations of technologies that were developed for other purposes; however, only limited funding is available to develop new technology specifically for fire service applications. The delegates emphasized the need to make the most use of technological advancements that are available to reduce the risks of emergency operations and training exercises. Cost is often mentioned as a barrier that keeps fire departments from adopting technological improvements that could improve the safety of operations. If a technological solution is available to eliminate a known risk, the cost must be considered in relation to the consequences of not making the investment to protect the lives of firefighters.

Fatality investigations. The need for more consistent and comprehensive investigations and data collection to analyze the causes of firefighter fatalities was also identified as an important priority. The delegates noted that the existing National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) fatality investigation program needs to be expanded and that every fatality should be thoroughly investigated and documented by a team of investigators who are qualified to examine all of the pertinent factors. The same type of investigation should be conducted for serious injuries and near-miss incidents to focus on preventing future occurrences. The need for autopsy results based on a standard protocol for every line-of-duty death was reinforced.

Safety in apparatus and equipment design. Improvements in the design and construction of apparatus and equipment are needed to address a long list of concerns. The areas discussed ranged from breathing apparatus improvements to reducing the risk of rollover accidents involving tanker apparatus. Several ongoing research and development projects were described and the manufacturers and suppliers who were present noted numerous suggestions for potential improvements.

Several safety issues relating to the danger of firefighters being struck by vehicles while operating on roadways were discussed. A comprehensive approach involving apparatus positioning, emergency lighting, warning signs and traffic-control devices, high visibility protective clothing, coordination with police agencies and public education was identified as a high priority for nationwide training and implementation.

Incentives and grants tied to safe practices. Several discussion groups identified the need to create a direct link between reinforcing appropriate safety policies and practices and the availability of state and federal grant funds for fire departments. There was unanimous support for the basic concept of using grant funds to leverage improvements in heath and safety programs. The suggestions ranged from making special incentive grants to fire departments to implement safe practices to making compliance with health and safety standards a condition for receiving funds under existing grant programs.

The summit participants also supported the idea of officially recognizing achievements and significant improvements in health and safety. Several individual projects and organizations were suggested as already deserving recognition.

Response policies. Another need for cultural change was identified in relation to emergency vehicle operations and response policies. The group that examined this area noted that an average of 10 firefighters are killed each year in vehicle accidents while responding to emergency incidents and an even greater number of civilians die in collisions involving responding emergency vehicles.

Many of the emergency response deaths result from excessive speed and unsafe driving, which can be related to the perception that the urgency of the mission justifies an elevated level of risk to the emergency responders and everyone else on the streets. In too many cases, the risks that are created enroute are greater than the dangers of the situation itself. The cultural change must be based on recognizing that firefighters cannot save lives or property at the scene of an emergency incident unless they arrive safely and there is no justification for causing more harm enroute than they can prevent when they arrive.

The need for standard policies governing emergency response was identified, possibly through the development of a new National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standard or by adding to the scope of an existing standard. These policies should determine when emergency response is and is not appropriate and include specific policies relating to responding in privately owned vehicles.

This cultural change has to begin with the enforcement of existing safe-driving protocols by leaders and supervisors, as well as the mandatory use of seatbelts by all firefighters. The delegates noted that in many cases, firefighters do not use seatbelts that are provided in their vehicles, in spite of NFPA standards, departmental regulations and state laws. The failure to enforce and to follow these existing and basic safety procedures was highlighted as evidence of the urgent need for cultural change.

The delegates recommended the adoption of a special classification of driver’s license for emergency vehicle operators, similar to the existing commercial driver’s license program. Instead of providing special exemptions for emergency vehicle operators, regulatory authorities should establish strict training and testing requirements, including medical clearances and periodic review of driving records. The highest standards should be applied to emergency vehicle operators.

Protocol for violent incidents. The summit delegates identified the need for special protocols and policies in several areas, including a protocol for responding to violent incidents. This recognized the increasing exposure of firefighters to violent crimes and situations, up to and including terrorist attacks.

Counseling and psychological support. Based largely on experiences related to 9/11 and FDNY, counseling and psychological support programs were identified as high priorities for increased attention. Some of the accepted concepts and programs have been found to be inadequate or counterproductive. A combination of research efforts and large-scale practical experience will be required to make the necessary changes and improvements to these programs.

Public education. The potential impact of public education on firefighter safety was addressed in a variety of contexts. Public fire and life-safety education was identified as a strategy to reduce fires and the resulting level of risk to firefighters. In a similar manner, programs that are designed to prevent injuries and teach citizen CPR will reduce the risks encountered when responding to emergency medical and rescue incidents. Teaching drivers how to react appropriately when they encounter an emergency vehicle or when approaching an incident on a roadway will reduce another component of risk to firefighters.

Fire prevention codes and residential sprinklers. One of the most productive strategies for reducing the risk of firefighter fatalities is to reduce the frequency of fires and emergency incidents. A comprehensive effort to increase fire service activism in fire prevention, code development and code enforcement should have a direct impact on reducing the exposure of firefighters to dangerous situations. Efforts to promote the installation of automatic sprinkler systems in all new residential construction will have a profound impact on future fire rates. Addressing the problem of juvenile fire setters will have a positive impact on firefighter safety as well as general public safety. The delegates endorsed placing an increased emphasis on prevention as a long-term strategy to reduce firefighter fatalities.

J. Gordon Routley will present “Report on NFFF Firefighter Life Safety Summit” and “Fire Department Consolidation: Is Bigger Really Better?” at Firehouse Expo 2004 in Baltimore, July 13-18.

J. Gordon Routley, MIFireE, is the program developer for the Firefighter Life Safety Project for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. He has served as fire chief in Shreveport, LA; assistant to the fire chief in Phoenix, AZ; and safety officer in Prince George’s County, MD. Routley is also a member of the Health and Safety Committee of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC).