Safety 101 - Lesson 20

Feb. 7, 2008
The real "trick" to managing safety behavior is to change the mindset and culture of all personnel to not behave in unsafe or inappropriate ways.

Managing safe behavior of emergency responders is no longer just a nicety, it is a critical job of any officer. In the last century, it may have been acceptable to:

  • enter burning buildings heavily involved in fire when there was nothing to really save;
  • look the other way when a young member is being "hazed";
  • allow drivers of emergency vehicles to operate them at unsafe speeds or "run" a stop sign or light;
  • ignore a sexual harassment event;

Today this in unacceptable!

Today, the need to manage these negative behaviors is driven by:
  • accident claim costs,
  • lost workdays of members,
  • equipment lost in accidents,
  • lawsuit related costs (financial, image, and members),
  • personnel morale and respect for peers/subordinates,
  • emphasis on firefighter line of duty death reduction campaigns, and more...

The real "trick" to managing safety behavior is to change the mindset and culture of all personnel to not behave in unsafe or inappropriate ways (change the culture and modify the behvaior).

This is not an easy accomplishment. In fact, the business world has been attempting behavior modification and behavior management for a number of years - and with limited success. The reason has become clear: Critical to successful behavior change is the acceptance of members to change the culture of the organization. If the resistsance to change is so strong, the time to change may be lenghty or people may have to be removed, to effect a behavior change.

As stated earlier, there are a number of "behavior modification gurus" today. Typically, they all advocate a process that involves

  • determining the readiness (willingness) of employees/members to change
  • determine what needs to be changed
  • train the employees/members and make changes
  • monitor the effectiveness
  • re-train/ re-analyze as needed.

Speaking from personal experience in the business world, it does not ALWAYS work, and sometimes drastic changes (e.g. elimination of managers or entire operations may be necessary to effect a positive change in behaviors and resultant performance).

You might ask, when should behavior modification be used and what techniques can be used? Clearly you may not be conversant with all techniques to use and may have to obtain experts, but one such expert (Huitt) has classified the type of behavior change to specific principles that best effect that change. While each type of behavior modification can't be described in this article, they can be found at

This approach involves:

  • to develop a new behavior, you can use
  • Successive Approximation Principle

    Continuous Reinforcement Principle

    Negative Reinforcement Principle

    Modeling Principle

    Cueing Principle

    Discrimination Principle

to strengthen a new behavior, you can use

Decreasing Reinforcement Principle

Variable Reinforcement Principle

to maintain an established behavior, you can use
  • Substitution Principle
  • to stop inappropriate behavior, you can use

    Satiation Principle

    Extinction Principle

    Incompatible Alternative Principle

    Punishment Principle

to modify emotional behavior, you can use

Avoidance Principle

Fear Reduction Principle

For those not skilled in behavior change but wanting to take a first step, a five-step process is advocated. Inherent in this process is the fact that top management wants to make changes and is ready to accept the challenge.

The five steps are really no different than a typical decision-making model, applied to behavior.

  1. Determine what is causing the problems (supervision, understanding rules, lack or procedures, lack of enforcement, etc.) and define needed changes.
  2. Determine how the person(s) performing improperly should be coached or counseled.
  3. Define how you will manage the process (discipline or incentive)
  4. Determine what structural changes you need to make and implement them (standard operating guidelines, training, etc.)
  5. Monitor the outcomes and make changes as necessary.

Behavior modification is not easy to properly effect, but must be attempted when changes in performance are necessary.

References Behavior Modification Flowchart, St. Joseph's University, Risk Analysis Class. "How to Deal With Unacceptable Employee Behavior", Fred Pryor Seminars. Huitt, W., "Principles for using behavior modification", Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University, 1994.

Lesson #20

"Best Practices" establish performance expectations, serve as benchmarks, and define quality improvement initiatives for your emergency service organization.

Safety 101 - A new series from the technical and administrative perspective, designed to help you reduce emergency responder injuries, illnesses, property loss and death!

Related Safety 101 Articles:

DR. WILLIAM F. JENEWAY, CSP, CFO, CFPS, a Contributing Editor, is Executive Vice President of VFIS and has over 30 years experience in safety and risk management in the insurance industry. He was named "Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year" as Chief of the King of Prussia, PA, Volunteer Fire Company, and is the author the text Emergency Service Risk Management. To read XXX's complete biography and view their archived articles, click here.

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