Firefighter Safety: Fire Leaders’ Perspectives


This article discusses how the decisions of chiefs can affect firefighter safety in the fire department. It is based on a research study that included a survey of 10 active fire chiefs from the states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah.


For years, the fire service has been asking why the rate of firefighter line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) in the United States has been so high. LODDs had remained at around 100 a year for decades. During these years, various initiatives were tried to decrease the LODDs, but there was no discernible drop in these fatalities.1

Chief (Ret.) Alan Brunacini of the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department, commenting on the number of LODDs, stated that the fire service was obligated to protect firefighters from the many hazards they encountered every day. This protection, he added, depended on the ability of firefighters to assess the current and future hazards they faced by conforming to proven safety standards.2 The United States Fire Administration (USFA) has been analyzing annually the number of firefighter deaths for the past 32 years to determine how fire safety programs were working. Fire service leaders and observers opined that the programs did not work as well as they could have because fire service leaders did not recognize and accept universal standards for firefighter safety. “Leaders know there are times when firefighters take unnecessary risks,” they pointed out, “but they do not act to change this behavior.”3

Another factor in the LODD issue was the health of the emergency responders. A major cause of LODDs was cardiovascular events. Many firefighters experienced heart attacks while on duty. Some of these attacks resulted from existing heart conditions. Some industry leaders proposed that since responding to fires is a significant trigger for heart attacks, the fire service should no longer accept unfit or unhealthy firefighters so as not to place them, their families, and other team members in danger.4

The lack of an emergency management system was another factor cited as contributing to LODDs. Proponents of the system maintained that it would help eliminate unsafe practices that lead to firefighter injuries and deaths5 and that the on-scene incident commander (IC) would be responsible for managing the incident and the safety of all members involved at the scene.6 The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) had made firefighter safety its primary responsibility. Discussions led to a broader consideration of safe and effective fireground procedures that entailed fully training the on-scene IC in maintaining safety awareness on the fireground.7 The IC, industry leaders held, must receive a sound risk assessment to balance effectiveness and safety, and risk management is essential for fireground operations if firefighter LODDs were to be decreased. (6) The USFA8 and other fire service agencies and publications recognized the validity and importance of the NFPA standards.

In April 2004, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) held a life safety summit at which it introduced its Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives®.9 The 16 Initiatives were launched with a USFA-NFFF goal that the implementation of the Initiatives would decrease LODDs by 25 percent within five years (short term) and 50 percent within 10 years (long term).10

The National Fire Academy (NFA) was offering instruction and training to emergency responders in how to operate within safety guidelines through a national teaching network compromised of state, county, and local agencies.11

Despite all these efforts, it seemed as if the fire service had hit a plateau in some areas when it came to resolving the LODD problem. One area that especially caught my attention was the connection between the decision making of fire service leaders and fire department safety and LODDs. That led me to undertake the following research.


Historically, chiefs’ decisions relative to emergency guidelines had not upheld firefighter safety. (4) According to Brunacini (2), safety guidelines had existed for years, yet there had been no drop in firefighter LODDs. The USFA had worked toward reducing firefighter death rates by supporting the implementation of fire service leadership practices; however, emergency guidelines are only as good as their implementation and enforcement, which depended on the decisions of the chiefs.12


Note: The discussions presented below after each question, result, and implication are based on research literature (designated by a footnote) and the input of the research study survey respondents.

The 10 chief survey participants were invited to answer the following three questions:

1 What are your views and experiences relative to the influence of the political environment (federal governmental agencies) on standard firefighter safety guidelines? (This was a two-part question. The second part related to the influence of fire service decision makers.)

Discussion: For this question, the NFFF, NFPA, USFA, International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), NFA, Arizona Fire Chiefs Association, National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) were some of the association/agency players in the U.S. fire service political setting. Many types of leaders propose policies, procedures, rules, and initiatives. These proposals affect fire departments and their members. The chiefs and other decision makers have to decide whether and how to support the changes. They make this decision by assessing their knowledge and evaluating their forecast about the effect of the proposal’s results and their perception of fairness.13

2 What are your views and experiences on fire union influence on standard firefighter safety guidelines?

Discussion: Concerning firefighter deaths within buildings during firefighting and those associated with health, it was proposed that leaders had to stay aware of new technologies and innovations.14 Fire leaders need to support the International Association of Fire Fighters’ (IAFF) drive for acceptable firefighter staffing, realizing that with enough staffing the ICs can manage fire crews safely by providing satisfactory rehabilitation. Without this opportunity, firefighters will push themselves far beyond normal human limits, increasing the potential for deaths. The fire company officer is responsible for the entire responding assignment and has to manage the emergency. Deaths are still occurring at an unacceptable rate, and a debate continues in the fire service about safety. Although the fire service has been paying more attention to LODDs, firefighter safety has not improved proportionately.

3 What are your views and experiences relative to putting into action standard guidelines for firefighter safety?

Discussion: More attention has to be paid to firefighters’ physical fitness, because about 50 percent of firefighter LODDs involved cardiovascular events. Chiefs must identify symptoms of heart problems in the early stages of an event because the problem worsens as the emergency incident winds down with the strenuous functions of salvage and overhaul.15-16

Leaders need to support the National Volunteer Fire Council and USFA Heart Healthy programs and their recommendations. (14) Fire service leaders need to promote NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, which ensures that fire workers meet physical fitness standards before being hired and then be evaluated annually. Leaders must recognize the importance of setting up initiatives of fitness and wellness throughout the industry.


There were five primary results of the study. Two were associated with Question 1, one with Question 2, and two with Question 3.

1 Focus on stressing firefighter safety.

Discussion: Decision makers that focus on firefighter safety may directly or indirectly influence the safety of firefighters. According to one survey participant, “The nuts and bolts of what most firefighters gain in this world are typically [from] the captains they work for; I say that based on the really good captains I have seen.” Another participant noted: “I believe that a company officer may be the best and most impactful opportunity for influencing firefighter safety.”

Firefighter supervisors could directly influence firefighter safety as they lead their fire crews throughout any given shift. Chiefs are the decision makers who lead the entire fire department and may influence firefighter safety through policy and procedure. Decision makers lead by example and provide direction for those in their charge.

Research has shown that if no penalties existed for violating safety standards, infractions would continue. “Executive fire officers/leaders need strong abilities and skills to initiate change in their organizations. If leaders do not emphasize firefighter safety, their subordinates may lose their lives.”17

The NFPA has developed more than 300 firefighter safety standards. There are no penalties if firefighters ignore them. Federal researchers for NIOSH recommended that decision makers enforce standard working procedures.18-19

2 Adopt a risk-management philosophy.

Discussion: Fire agencies can use the risk-management philosophy advocated by Brunacini for emergent and nonemergent conditions: “The fire service will risk much to save a life but will risk little to save property and will risk nothing to save what it has already lost.” (2)

“I think before we jump out and make a lot of decisions, we have to take time to get input from all sides and see the potential impacts,” said one participant. On the other hand, another participant noted: “I think administratively there’s a lot more we can do to hold people accountable. I think a lot more needs to take place in risk management.”

The influence of the political setting on a standard fire service risk-management philosophy is reflected in firefighters’ actions. This philosophy may influence firefighter safety throughout a firefighter’s assigned shift. Firefighters should think about the ramifications of their actions before they act. “There should be a national commitment to improving fire departments’ risk-management abilities by understanding the reasons for firefighter deaths and making an effort to control, change, or disrupt the known reasons.”20

This question brought up also the factors of customer services and staffing levels, which, participants noted, are strongly influenced by today’s economic constraints. One opinion was that agencies that strive for quality programs that meet 100 percent of the customers’ expectations should make a positive influence in the political environment and officials could respond by ensuring that these programs remain intact. Agencies should periodically review and update quality programs to ensure they are meeting customers’ needs. One respondent asserted: “The level of fire protection that a community is afforded needs to be expressed by the wishes of the voters.”

Regarding staffing levels, participants noted that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the NFPA recommend firefighter staffing levels in some instances, mandating the number of firefighters that should be assigned to fire transport equipment and how many firefighters should be on the scene before firefighters enter the burning building, for example. The NFPA maintains that four firefighters on a fire truck allows for maximum firefighter safety. These mandates may increase firefighter safety, but not all communities can afford the expense of more firefighters. “We always say that the city council determines the staffing level of your department,” noted one respondent. “I see some governmental agencies putting their nose probably where it doesn’t belong … because of funding issues,” said another. “That has a big impact on safety issues.”

Respondents noted also that federal guidelines are not always “well defined.” Sometimes, new standards necessitate that fire departments purchase more equipment, obtain more training, or add more personnel to be in compliance. Many jurisdictions do not have the funds to appropriate for these needs.

3 Strive for a safe environment; focus on safety.

Discussion: The fire union has represented safety throughout America’s fire service for generations. One participant noted: “I think the firefighters’ unions have been a positive in firefighter safety over my career. In the 1970s, there wasn’t a whole lot of emphasis on firefighter safety.” Other participants agreed. They pointed to the IAFF’s research on firefighter injuries and LODDs; the fact that some of the money collected from union members has funded equipment testing, training, and firefighter staffing models that improve safety; and the union’s joining with government organizational committees to develop national safety standards.

However, some participants observed: “The fire union has lost the focus on safety and has gone away from its original purpose, which included safety and working conditions.” Another participant added: “We have gotten comfortable with what we’ve done. I think labor is more focused on the sustainability of incomes.” The fire unions, some said, concern themselves more with the pay and benefits of its members instead of firefighter safety and “have become more political by focusing more on running fire agencies and not working with them.”

The consensus was that unions must continue to preserve a safe environment for the members. “Fire unions should not accept or tolerate conduct that results in firefighter injury or death. They must focus on the reasons fundamental to the problem and stress safety through innovation.” (14) The mindset, beliefs, and behaviors of firefighters carrying out safety programs and practices have not changed, noted others. “Firefighters fail to stick to safety procedures, departmental training policy, or national standards. They refuse to wear safety equipment assigned to them for protection.” (20)

The issue of economics was prominent in the discussion of this result as well. Respondents noted that the budgets of some fire departments rely solely on the property tax to provide a safe and efficient fire service. Under the current economic conditions, in which property values have declined, fire departments have to cut budgeted money, which possibly can negatively affect firefighter safety. “If you ding them [citizens] with reduced property values, and tax [revenues] have [also] decreased, then, of course, your budget will [contract] in that regard, too.” Exclaimed another participant: “Yes, we want our firefighters to be safe, but when you turn that into the real world numbers … nobody has enough money in this economic climate.”

It was noted that federal mandates often are not funded. One participant suggested that the fire service have representatives on county- and state-level advisory committees. The respondents acknowledged that “competition for limited funds has created inconsistencies.” In this economic climate, they explain, local governments could choose to provide a lower level of service because of the lower budgets.

4 Support and recognize standards of practice.

Discussion: “I think that having standards of practice that are more universal could certainly help safety issues in the fire service,” asserted one survey participant. “We can develop better comprehensive standards as we gain more information.” Another respondent noted that standards “give us legally tested policies and provide accountability for your employees.” Many professionals make up these national committees that bring value through experience, technology, and education. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) continually performs tests looking for the scientific evidence that can influence firefighter safety. These organizations design tests to prove and support a standard of practice.

Fire service leaders need to support standards of practice with relevant research to ensure firefighters’ confidence and trust. Verifying these standards will influence compliance with them and enhance firefighter safety. NIOSH researches and provides recommendations that affect firefighter safety. Studies that compare and contrast standards provide for continual safety updates. The Emergency Management Institute (EMI) was developed specifically to research and develop curriculum related to firefighter safety. It promotes emergency standards of practice through gained research studies.21

5 Adopt the NFFF 16 Life Safety Initiatives®.

Discussion: The NFFF expects that its 16 Life Safety Initiatives® will result in standards for fire agencies. One respondent remarked, “… to enforce the changes, it comes back on my chief officer side; it is my role to enforce the changes and make them what the guidelines actually say or intend.” Another participant observed: “If we were to focus on meeting each initiative, we would have a pretty darn strong argument that we are doing the best we can.”

The chief is expected to bring these 16 Life Safety Initiatives® to the firefighters and enforce each one to the fullest extent. The fire departments and districts have many policies and procedures based on traditional habits, good and bad. The 16 Life Safety Initiatives® involve changing firefighter traditions and cultures to reflect safe standards of practice. Sometimes chiefs have to help firefighters who do not want the help. The 16 Life Safety Initiatives® achieve this.


This section presents various implications based on the body of research used for this study and respondents’ comments.

1 The consensus among the respondents was that governmental organizations such as NIOSH should levy penalties for violating safety standards. Fire agencies follow federal laws because the fire agencies cannot afford to pay these penalties. Such laws and mandates have influenced the workplace and firefighter safety.

Federal investigators from NIOSH recommended that the fire service adopt NFPA 1582, Comprehensive Medical Program for Firefighters, which identified the need for measurable, consistent, and specific medical evaluations for firefighters.22-24

NFPA 1451, Standard for a Fire Service Vehicle Operations Training Program, mandates that all firefighters riding in fire trucks must wear seat belts always and that chiefs must ensure that a driver training program is in place. Decision makers were urged to enforce standard working procedures for seat belt use. Unfortunately, no penalties exist for not complying. (18, 19)

2 If governmental entities can document the efficacy of firefighter safety studies, the likelihood exists that fire agencies will have more trust and confidence in emergency standards. Eight out of the 10 participants agreed that government entities should document studies to prove and support the emergency standards developed. NIOSH’s study of firefighter LODDs points out when failure to follow an NFPA standard is a contributing factor.

FEMA developed the EMI to research, develop, and provide curriculum focusing on firefighter safety. The Institute’s Learning Resource Center (2009) is a repository for more than 160,000 books, reports, journals, and audiovisual materials used to develop and increase firefighter safety. This collection is available for the public, fire agencies, and firefighters. The EMI makes its research available to the fire service.25

3 Local decision makers such as city managers, county supervisors, fire district boards, chiefs, and chief fire officers should continually stress firefighter safety and pass measures to ensure their success. They should educate their superiors and firefighters on documented safety studies that result in best practices of emergency standards.

The incident command system organizes fireground procedures through chief fire officers, ensuring an effective chain of command.26 The IC creates the incident action plan that he continually adjusts as firefighting actions are underway. The commander repeatedly measures the risks vs. the benefits and promotes routine size-ups to ensure enough resources are available.

4 Chiefs should adopt a risk-management philosophy and promote a risk-benefit profile to educate firefighters on making decisions that positively influence firefighter safety.

Decision makers must continually work through their risk-benefit profile. The chief should ensure the IC does an early risk appraisal and size-up of the emergency fireground before beginning firefighting actions. The IC should constantly go over the emergency fireground and become involved with risk-management choices. The chief should ensure that ICs have enough knowledge and training to keep effective risk-benefit profiles.27 (4)

5 Decision makers such as chiefs, chief fire officers, and captains should recognize and work on reinforcing positive safety habits and correcting negative risk habits. Decision makers need to create a culture that stresses improving safety. In some departments, a culture of traditional aggressiveness can make it difficult to make adjustments. Decision makers should reinforce good safety habits every moment of the firefighter’s assigned shift. One example is how captains influence every part of the firefighter’s day-to-day culture.

A leader should increase contact between management and labor and give extra rewards to groups that work well together. The hope is that a group will accept the available data and gain an optimistic attitude toward the wanted change. Group involvement supports group commitment toward the ideal behavior. Informal and formal leaders recognize and promote motivating other individuals to pattern behavior after the people they see and respect. Chiefs, chief officers, and captains must lead by example to effect a culture of safety in the fire service.28

One reason offered for firefighters’ reluctance to a change in procedure is that it “directly shapes the existing setting.” Change entailing unfamiliar conditions may bring worry about new skills needed. When firefighters may already feel overloaded and overwhelmed, forcing change might cause hostility. Fire service employees are skeptical about any change they need to accept and may not believe the change is reasonable.29

The NFFF’s first initiative addresses the need for a cultural change and asks firefighters not to accept the loss of firefighters as a normal result of doing business.

6 “Standards of Practice” should be supported and integrated into the fire department’s policies and procedures. When this is done, there are ramifications for not conforming to them. Standards of practice allow firefighters to practice their profession with full confidence that their practices are safe. The fire service trusts supported and proven standards of practice that are part of policy and procedure documents.

7 The NFFF’s 16 Life Safety Initiatives® should be made the core of the fire agency’s mission and vision statements.

8 There are three implications for leadership, which follow:

  • Leaders with limited or no authority to dismiss or reprimand employees who violate organizational policies and procedures are likely to be ineffective.
  • Leaders who document the efficacy of studies used to support policies and procedures improve employees’ trust and confidence, influencing the culture of the organization and employees’ values. These leaders have the opportunity to integrate supported standards into the agencies’ policies and procedures.
  • Leaders of labor organizations should stress a safety environment for all employees who meet the union’s primary goal of workplace safety.


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Research has shown that if no penalties existed for violating safety standards,infractions would continue.

SCOTT M. ROUNDS, DM, MAOM, EFO, CFO, served for 21 years with the Chandler (AZ) Fire Department; he retired as shift commander, battalion chief. In 2003, he joined the Buckeye (AZ) Fire Department as a battalion chief and was named chief in 2004. From 2007-2009, he served as Buckeye’s assistant town manager and public safety director. In this position, he formed the Public Safety Executive Partnership (PSEP), which combined fire, police, and public works into one team. The concept was presented to the American Public Works Association in 2008 and was published in the 2009 Congressional Quarterly. He is the CEO of Rounds Group International, LLC, which focuses on homeland security, public safety effectiveness, and strategic planning. He is the Lead Faculty: Fire Science and Emergency Services for Columbia Southern University, Alabama, and San Juan (NM) College. Rounds has a doctorate degree of management in organizational leadership and a master’s degree in organizational management.

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