Firefighting, Fireground Safety

From the Jumpseat: The Safety/Identity Conflict

By Mark J. Cotter

Outsiders see things that insiders cannot or will not see. We have all heard the usual praise from citizens about how much they appreciate and admire the fire service and its members for the work we do. Often, these statements are made in general terms, somewhat like extolling the virtues of a democratic society and nutritious food. Other times, usually more passionately, they are an outpouring of gratitude and relief in response to a particular incident that firefighters helped to bring under control. We have become accustomed to, though no less appreciative of, those compliments.
On the other hand, I have been repeatedly taken aback when persons who are not firefighters express a belief or opinion regarding the fire service that is either substantially different from my “informed” understanding of our practices and motivations or provide an insight that I had never considered. In both cases, this causes me to reflect on our collective “image” and the perceptions of our “customers.” Sometimes, these divergent perspectives are based on the speaker’s lack of information. Other times, the assessments are quite accurate, usually because they are unbiased by familiarity.
For instance, my wife once stated, with some sincerity, her belief that one of my department’s most common activities was to purchase clothing for our members (“How many T-shirts do you need?”). My son, on the other hand, who apparently did not inherit any of my firefighting genes, generally rolls his eyes when the virtues and honor of the fire service are brought up, the result of his limited experience with coworkers who were also young volunteer firefighters. He could not relate to their seemingly endless discussions about what their activities were at the last fire and believes that such a narrow focus of interest is evidence of limited intellect. Both of these examples of alternative perceptions could be changed by education, although my success in correcting these impressions has thus far been elusive.  

The truly valuable critic is one who provides a view that has not previously been considered, often the most difficult aspect of which is recognizing the difference between uninformed and unbiased opinions. Sometimes, such a perspective comes from an analysis of our craft or its practitioners by people with a nonfire interest. In that vein, a reader from Switzerland (really) forwarded to me a study from a scientific journal because it cited a “fact” about fire behavior that I had debunked as a myth in one of my articles (see Emergency Service Myths #2: A Myth and a Half). Although I appreciated the thought and had my belief in the tenacity of longstanding fire service falsehoods reinforced, what truly intrigued me were the overall findings of the research project that contained the quote and its implications for the fire service.

The article, “Organizational Discourse and the Appraisal of Occupational Hazards: Interpretive Repertoires, Heedful Interrelating, and Identity at Work,”* published in the August 2008 Journal of Applied Communication Research, described an attempt to analyze how “every day organizational discourse”[2] (i.e., conversation among members) “enables amplified appraisals of risk” (i.e., make things seem more dangerous) or “enable attenuated appraisals of risk” (i.e., make things seem less dangerous). The questions were deemed worthy of consideration because prior workplace risk management research and theory attributed greatest importance to corporate culture, training, and policy issues rather than the everyday language and relationships of employees. Although this article would seem to be merely an esoteric, academic discussion with little application to you readers, it caught my attention because of the study subjects: firefighters.

The “Plateau City Fire Department,” a pseudonym for “a large metropolitan fire department in southwestern United States,” allowed the researchers access to members in the stations and on ride-alongs. The actual name of this department doesn’t matter, since the description of its members and their attitudes could apply to virtually any fire department, or at least any with which I have been involved in the past 30-plus years. Information was gathered by observation, unstructured interviews (where questions are informal and are used to educate the researcher and help guide the direction of the data collection), structured interviews (where specific, predesignated questions are posed, the answers to which can be analyzed and compared among respondents), and focus groups (where interactions of the group members tend to bring out additional information beyond that of one-on-one interviews). The results were then categorized and analyzed to determine how discussions among firefighters serve to exaggerate or dismiss risks.
The article itself was, in my assessment, both tedious and fascinating, requiring frequent use of a dictionary to learn the meanings of unfamiliar terms from the language of social research, but well worth the effort. I could mine its results for several columns to come. The most striking finding, though, and which relates to the title of this article, was how important firefighters’ sense of identity is in shaping their conversations about, and therefore assessment of, risks. The researchers noted that this “preferred identity” was “someone who coolly and selflessly accommodates hazards in the course of saving dependent members of the public.” In other words, firefighters see themselves as brave and heroic.
A consistent theme brought out in interviews was the importance of the need to act like a “’real’ firefighter,” often to the detriment of safety. Evidence for this was found in the informal department culture and members’ expectations, as demonstrated by “interpretive repertoires,” the “terms and metaphors drawn upon to characterize and evaluate actions and events” by firefighters. This is where the value of an outside observer was truly demonstrated. The researchers, unconcerned with “fitting in” during in-station conversations, asked pointed questions about typical kitchen table accounts of exploits and sought thorough explanations of the conditions surrounding them. They were thereby able to identify multiple examples of how the perceptions of firefighters conflicted with the reality of the situations described. They repeatedly observed departmental risk management policies being subordinated by members of all ranks because, to a great extent, they did not fit their “preferred sense of identity.” 
“Specifically, discursive attenuation techniques downplayed the dangers of traffic, dismissed vulnerabilities that were invisible but familiar, and relied upon and sustained a valued for speedy intervention that arguably reduced the margins of safety.” In other words, firefighters, through their conversations, showed and reinforced a lack of concern about the hazards of fast driving, the importance of wearing SCBA during overhaul (where hazards–toxic gases–are “invisible but familiar”), and defaulting to offensive fire attacks even on fully involved building fires. This was despite ongoing, formal efforts by that same department to address those very hazards and behaviors.

Several quotes from firefighters, in response to the interviewer’s question about why an offensive attack was still attempted at a fire where it was confirmed that no victims were threatened and the building was already a total loss, were particularly enlightening:

             “Yeah, it’s really what we all have signed up for, you know? We all signed up to make a difference, you know. We didn’t sign up to try to make a difference. We signed up to make an impact on something.” 

“To operate safely and to slow down even a little bit is wrapping yourself in cowardice” (this statement came from a captain!).  The researchers’ interpretation of these conversations was that “the value of speedy intervention served the preferred identity of firefighters as agentic ‘difference makers.’” They observed that “Slowing down might lead to more rational risk assessment and more effective long-term intervention, but this possibility could be resisted, indeed subordinated, through appeals to the value of speedy intervention.” Ready, fire, aim.
The primary result of this research was evidence of the previously unappreciated importance of everyday conversation in shaping risk assessment and safety, with one of the implications being that “increases in the clarity of communication and amount of information flow do not automatically translate into cultural or behavioral change.” That is, safety campaigns and education are inadequate by themselves. What I see as the more important, underlying finding is the strong influence of how firefighters see themselves, which, in turn, shapes our talk and, ultimately, affects how we evaluate and manage hazards.
Besides the obligatory call for more research into these areas, the study writers suggest several practical applications for their findings. For one, “safety training should highlight the significant role that everyday talk plays in ongoing risk management.” If we are serious about safety, we have to talk the talk in all settings–the classroom, fireground, station, and everywhere in between. I have experienced and participated in conversations that highlighted and even celebrated reckless actions in the pursuit of emergency mitigation, with little regard to the effect such talk has on the group’s response to similar circumstances in the future. From here on, I will be more aware of the dangers of such contradictory storytelling. 
Transforming firefighters’ individual sense of self to one that values thoughtful, measured, efficient intervention would be the most obvious method to correct the root disorder identified in this research. No easy task. Since we collectively share and sustain the current cool and heroic “preferred identity” and its roots are so deep in both the fire service and popular cultures, change is not going to come easily. Still, the importance of everyday conversations in shaping this perception and our universal participation in such activities allow us all to be potential change agents for this improvement. We don’t have to change who we are; just how we see ourselves. Real courage will be displayed by those who can oppose the accepted norm of reckless aggression by firefighters in exchange for one involving a still fearless, but careful, model of intervention.


This article is based on the following:

Scott, Clifton Wilson and Trethewey, Angela (2008) ‘Organizational Discourse and the Appraisal of Occupational Hazards: Interpretive Repertoires, Heedful Interrelating, and Identity at Work’, Journal of Applied Communication Research, 36:3, 298-317. All subsequent quotes are from cited article.

Mark J. Cotter has more than 30 years experience in emergency services and is a volunteer Firefighter/EMT-B with the Salisbury (MD) Fire Department. He can be reached at [email protected].