Safety: Looking Forward After Facing Backwards

By Gibby Gorman

A promotion from firefighter to company officer moves a person into the front seat of the truck and changes the view from facing backwards to looking forward—figuratively and literally. The firefighter is no longer able to “relax” on the way to incidents knowing the company officer will make the necessary routing, apparatus placement, and tactical decisions; he is now thrust into a leadership role. One of the primary responsibilities of the company officer is to confirm the safety of his crew as he performs tasks related to the incident’s overall strategy. The company officer must now look forward in many roles; crew safety is just one of them.

As a company officer, you use your crew as collateral every time you put it in harm’s way on the fireground, on the streets, or in any other potentially dangerous situation. This article will examine some of the ways to develop safety within your crew as a new officer and send each member home to his family at the end of each shift.

Following are some of the ways firefighters are injured or killed in the line of duty, as discussed during the 2004 and 2007 Life Safety Summit:

  • Noncompliance of standard operating procedures (SOPs).
  • Deficiency of strong leadership.
  • Lack of preparedness.
  • Absence of personal responsibility.
  • Unpredictable events.
  • Lack of appropriate fireground decisions.


Situational Awareness

A new company officer can reduce the chance of an injury to his crew by increasing its situational awareness, wherein an officer’s perception of fireground events are in sync with reality and based on that, he develops correct task, tactical, or strategic decisions. For example, before vertically ventilating the company officer chooses a vent location on the roof that he believes will provide the best removal of smoke but also keep his crew in a safe position. If perception of the roof’s integrity is wrong and the reality is the roof is weak, the crew can be in danger of falling through.

According to a 2011 report by the National Fire Protection Agency, 70,090 firefighters were injured in the line of duty; approximately 20 percent of these injuries resulted in time lost from work. In 1981, there were more than 67,000 firefighter injuries. As a profession, we are improving, but we still have a ways to go.

Develop situational awareness through the following methods:

  • Hazard recognition. Improve risk assessment identification on incidents by refining training techniques, preplanning of first-due companies, paying attention to “lessons learned,” further education by attending school or firefighter conferences, and creating a personal “mental rolodex” of actions that worked favorably or were unsuccessful.
  • Scenario-based training. Use a combination of training provided by the department and tasks the crew considers important. Discuss the crew’s strong and weak performance areas and have it create an idea for a drill or look at the hazards in your first-due and create an exercise that will duplicate the challenges you will likely face. Stimulate your crew to perform with challenging new drills that will reinforce perishable skills. Make the training real, and give honest feedback regarding the crew’s performance.
  • Provide appropriate information. The sector/group/division officer who provides relevant and accurate updates to the incident commander supports effective tactical decision making and, in turn, results in a stronger command that can efficiently evaluate risks.
  • Postincident critiques. Reviewing the positive aspects and lessons learned with all crews involved during an incident is a helpful way to critique decisions that were made and evaluate the actions taken. Thus, crews are given the opportunity to discuss their assignments and results of the tasks accomplished. It is suggested that those participating “wear their big boy pants” and expect to be honestly critiqued.


Accident Prevention

The company officer has the most powerful position in the department regarding limiting liability and preventing accidents because of his daily hands-on contact with and responsibility for the crew. When facing forward, the promotion to officer carries with it great obligation and accountability in maintaining crew safety. As Aristotle once said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.”

Accidents can be broken into two categories: operational and behavioral. Both are usually the outcome of an error chain resulting from a sequence of events or actions that culminate in an accident. It takes a minimum of four, but an average of seven successive error chain events or actions will cause injury or death according to a recent study involving more than 50 fireground incidents. The study discovered that if one error was recognized and corrected, it kept the accident from occurring. Company officers can help prevent unsafe acts by maintaining control through risk management and reducing unsafe conditions and/or behaviors. This can be learned by understanding how to apply situational awareness, following SOPs, using proper training, and developing strong leadership.


Operational Factors

Following are some of the operational circumstances that cause accidents:

  • Incomplete bench marks. Mistakes include a failure to request personnel accountability reports (PARS) on the fireground at specific timelines or tactical events such as “Maydays,” errors in addressing utilities, or not calling for additional resources.
  • Not following SOPs. Each department has developed its own set of procedures and policies designed to standardize the execution of tasks on incidents and reduce freelancing. Crews need to refrain from actions inconsistent with SOPs such as a ladder company operating a handline through an opening on the roof with interior crews operating inside; this would conflict with most SOPs.
  • Tactical differences. Crews may have different expectations on calls potentially reducing positive outcomes. For instance, if the first-in engine passes a hydrant and an opportunity to establish a water supply, the second-in engine may have other expectations, leading to a delay in establishing a supply line to the fireground.
  • Violating limits. Exceeding the speed limit enroute to a call or overloading the tip of an aerial at long extensions can lead to dangerous outcomes.
  • Ambiguity. When two or more independent sources (sectors/groups/divisions) fail to communicate similar radio reports, it can create conflict and delay performing the correct task. If “interior” reports state that they will have fire control in a minute, and a safety officer observes the fire growing and breeching the roof, it places incident command in a tough situation to plan the next assignment.
  • Training. There’s an old saying: “You play like you practice.” Failure to wear full personal protective equipment (PPE) including firefighting gloves and a mask when “flying the bucket” during training can lead to struggles during an actual fire. Night training will prepare you for situations that arise in the dark compared to issues that only occur during the daytime.


Human Behavior

Following are a few of the behavioral traits that may lead to firefighter injuries:

  • Experience. Experience can be described as something you learned right after you needed it. The amount of responding structural fires departments is declining. Therefore, it is more difficult to get true firefighting experience.
  • Complacency. Crews that do not sustain any injuries while repeatedly playing a part in incidents that are high-risk/low-frequency operations can conjure a false sense of security.
  • Health. Keeping oneself physically and mentally healthy is important for a long and successful career. A crew will often follow a captain’s lead regarding working out at the station. Part of leading by example is to establish an environment with focus on the importance of health and wellness. This includes mental health, physical fitness, stress reduction, and proper nutrition at the station.
  • Peer pressure. An aggressive behavior of firefighters on the fireground may create a brave reputation as viewed by their peers, but in actuality it may instigate unsafe actions just to enhance their bravado.
  • Confusion.  When a company officer or firefighter is given an order beyond his scope of experience, this puts him in a potentially risky situation, causing “tunnel vision,” incorrect decisions, or hesitation on how to perform a task correctly.
  • Belief in invulnerability. Firefighters, by nature, are tough people who are used to taking risks in fires while wearing some of the best PPE available. This state-of-the-art gear combined with bravado leads firefighters to believe that they are never going to get injured. This false sense of security can lead to staying in the fire fight longer, going deeper inside a structure and being aggressive to a fault.

By understanding the causes of firefighter injuries occurring because of operational and behavioral factors, a company officer can develop a leadership style that will play a pivotal role in reducing injuries in your department. Increasing your situational awareness through scenario-based training will help you make wiser incident decisions. Remember, in regards to training, in the heat of battle you will not rise to the occasion but default to the level of your training.

Keeping firefighters healthy and on the trucks will reduce the amount of money your department spends on rehabilitation and proper staffing. As a company officer now “facing forward” you will lead those who sit behind you where you once sat. Your crew will listen to what you say and watch what you do and make their own assumptions about your leadership capabilities. You will gain their trust and respect by keeping them safe to return home at the end of the shift.

Thumbnail photo found on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Fir0002.


Gibby Gorman is a recently retired captain with more than 26 years of service with the City of Tempe (AZ) Fire Department (TFD). He spent 14 years on a busy downtown ladder company and was a member of the Technical Rescue Team (TRT) and a Regional TRT Coordinator. Gorman was also a rescue diver for the department’s SCUBA team. During his career, he was involved in the TFD’s ladder and probational firefighter training and helped developed its regional ladder training programs. He has taught fire science courses for several local community colleges in the Phoenix metro area and written several ladder tactical articles. Gorman is owner of Southwest Firefighting Concepts, providing classroom and hands-on workshops in ladder tactical training and leadership development to fire departments. Gorman can be reached at (480) 326-8325 or [email protected].