By Ronald E. Kanterman
The inventor, thinker, genius, mathematician, and all-around smart guy Albert Einstein once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” I think he was right. We worked the same way for a long time (280 years or so), and our injuries and line-of-duty deaths became part of the game. However, it seems we’re on our way to better days. Keep in mind that there has been lots of discussion on how and when to work safely, when to be cautious, and when it’s “not necessary to be safe all the time” to quote of few of our peers. However, it still seems to me that things are getting better. Is changing the way one million firefighters think and behave easy? Of course not. It’s like turning around an aircraft carrier. (Think about that.)
One component of the “new thinking” is the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s Courage to Be Safe and Everyone Goes Home Program. Is it the be-all end-all? No program is. My esteemed colleague Battalion Chief (Ret.) John Salka wrote an editorial a while back that discussed that the safety culture is made of up numerous programs, ideas, and ways of thinking. It’s not just one thought, program, or issue. I agree. the components of the safety system make up the whole. For me, training is the very basis of a fire department’s safety program. Good solid training and a good set of standard operating procedures/guidelines that you train to are the foundation of safety.
So what about the title of this latest note to the fire world? I’ve been a firefighter safety advocate for a long time, maybe even before it became chic to do so. I’m not taking credit for it. It’s just that I’ve been doing it and preaching for quite a while. It may have been the time I spent as a chief in industry, where everything is safety. In industry if you trip and fall, the big bad Occupational Safety and Health Administration will be at the gate in 10 minutes. A lot of attention has been paid lately to the role(s) of the company officer.
It took the chiefs a long time (again about 280 years) to really understand that everything starts with direct first line supervision. As goes the officer, so goes the crew or the company. I’ve seen it firsthand even with simple mundane things. Example: I gave a lecture for a mid-size career fire department many years ago, four times for four shifts. The first of the four hot summer nights, the on-duty deputy chief showed up late. He had on a white T-shirt and a pair of blue work pants that were washed 1,400 times and were now purple. He finished off this spectacular fashion statement with white socks and black sneakers. Got this picture in your head? The rest of the shift showed shortly after. Six companies, about 25 guys. Without my telling you the rest, can you picture what they looked like? All I could say to myself was “Oh no, this is going to be a long night”--and it was. Thank goodness, the next three nights proved to be much better with all in crisp uniforms and attentive to the lecture with the deputies emphasizing my main points as I took a breath or a sip of water between sentences. As goes the officer, so go the men and women under his command.
Now that we have established that it starts with you, become a safety advocate. The old “lead by example” applies here. Telling guys to wear any piece of personal protective equipment while you are not wearing the same piece is a bad practice. You need to set the tone and the boundaries, walk the talk at all times and at all levels of the organization. Sometimes, it’s simply a “coaching job.” “Hey Frank, put your gloves on.” It doesn’t have to be a formal announcement; a subtle reminder will work. Remember that unless there is imminent danger, admonish/remind in private. My good friend and associate Chief Peter Lamb (Ret.) once said at a lecture, “What you allow to happen without your intervention becomes your standard.” Keep this one handy not just for safety but for everything that you do and that’s done around you for the rest of your career. If you don’t stop bad habits or bad behavior, then, by default, it’s OK with you, and it becomes your standard.
I have found that the two down-and-dirty program documents that can be taught and discussed with ease at the company level are the “16 Life Safety Initiatives” attached to the Everyone Goes Home program and the International Association of Fire Chief’s “Rules of Engagement for Firefighter Survival and the Incident Commander’s Rules of Engagement for Firefighter Safety.” If you haven’t seen them, get them, read them, and implement them as much as you can. (Additional resources are at the end of this article.) Have you looked at NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety, Health, and Wellness Program lately? When it was first published, we collectively said, “No way. We’ll never pull this off.” Well, I hate to say it (I don’t really hate to say it, but no one writes “I love to say this …”), but Alan Brunacini and his buddies were right again. We thought the 1500 committee lost their minds. In fact, most of us are doing most, if not all, of it now.
Foundations of Safety
As previously mentioned, training is the foundation for safety. The career folks should be training every workshift and the volunteers on a regular basis, whatever you think regular means. Train to your procedures and guidelines, and remember to work the way you train and train the way you work. Here’s a few more of those sayings: Fight the way you train, and train the way you fight.” “Train for life.” I’m sure the firefighters in New York City wouldn’t mind it if you took their quote and hung it in your house: “Let no firefighter’s ghost come back to say his training let him down.”
Ensure that your SOPs/SOGs are reviewed annually, that your members get the changes, and that the annual training program reflects those changes. This is an imperative step in having one blue print for operations. Do we run into unpredictable things at incidents even though we talk about expecting the unexpected? Of course, but if you’re working within some semblance of a guideline or procedure, you will be more likely to experience success and a favorable outcome.
Situational Awareness (SA)
Situational awareness is a universal thought process that assists the human brain with decision making--e.g., fight or flight. For us, it starts when the tones drop or when the pager goes off. It continues to the apparatus floor or your vehicle, listening to the radio, making a mental size-up of the event while driving (remember; seat belts, speed and intersections), size-up at the scene, and making tactical decisions. Knowing what’s going on around you and what can happen next are key thoughts that will help you tactically and add greatly to your safety and the safety of your crew. While every officer and firefighter on the scene should be doing this constantly and consistently, it’s more important for the officer to do it. The “experts” who have studied SA have written papers and research dissertations and concluded the following: A loss of SA increases human error; human error is the most common cause of accidental death; improvements in SA can reduce the number of firefighter injuries, near misses, and deaths.
Some tools for improving situational awareness and preventing LODDs include the following: pre-emergency and prefire planning, building reconnaissance, inspections, familiarization tours. Training, and SOPs/SOGs.
Be a Health and Safety Champion
Start thinking globally. Hop off the rig for one moment. Consider the following checklist.
Firehouse and general quarters:
• Are your floors skid-proof? How many fire departments have had epoxy applied to the apparatus floor only to find they became a skating rink when they got wet, which is most of the time?
• Do you have a PPE cleaning program?
• How are your living and sleeping quarters?
• Do you have an exhaust system for your rigs? Do you use it?
• Do you have a decon room for emergency medical services?
• Are your walkways, stairwells, and basement areas well lit?
• Are you storing hazardous materials in accordance with the fire code?
Wellness and fitness:
• Have you gone “light” for meals?
• Are your members working out and taking the time to exercise?
• Are you using stairs vs. elevators?
• Are you doing group exercise?
• Do you have a Peer Fitness Trainer?
• Do you have a Health and Safety committee?
• Are you paying attention to nutrition?
• Are you performing medical evaluations and screenings annually?
• Are you doing long term follow-up for injuries and work-related illnesses?
• Are you doing gross decon after a structure fire?
• Are you taking cancer prevention measures after calls?
Check out these resources to help you develop your safety program:
National Fallen Firefighters Foundation:
· 1581, Standard on Infection Control Program
· 158, Standard on Comprehensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments
· 1583, Standard on Health-Related Fitness Programs for Fire Department Members
· 1584, Standard on the Rehabilitation Process for Members During Emergency Operations and Training Exercises, 2015 edition
RON KANTERMAN is the chief of the Wilton (CT) Fire Department and a 42-year veteran of the fire service. He has a B.A. degree in fire administration and two master's degrees. He is a contributing author to Fire Engineering and FireEngineering.com and a coauthor for Fire Engineering Handbook for Firefighter I and II and the 7th edition of the Fire Chief’s Handbook.