Saving Firefighter Lives One Initiative at a Time: A Gloves-Off Approach

By Brian Ward

Since the 2009 International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Safety, Health and Survival Week is almost upon us, I have one question for you: What are you doing to make sure everyone is going home the same way they reported to work? Better yet, what are you doing to make sure everyone is retiring with the same quality of health with which they came on the job? It’s a tough assignment, but one that can be achieved with a little help. There are no more excuses. Let’s take a gloves-off, practical approach to implementing the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives. It doesn’t require money or any political, bureaucratic nonsense; we don’t need permission to be better at our job from anyone up the ladder. This is about company officers and firefighters taking care of each other and working together toward a common goal so that we all go home in the morning. This is about a brotherhood and taking care of each other.

As we go through these initiatives, there are some items that must be made clear. There is no “us” and “them”; firefighters are just as responsible for and capable of being safety-conscious and implementing these initiatives as company officers. If we can get buy-in from the higher-ups on the administrative ladder, the job becomes that much easier, but it is not necessary for implementation.

Don’t look at all 16 initiatives and think they will appear tomorrow at your station. Pick the one or two that can create the biggest impact, and focus on them. As you accomplish them, move on to the next priority. Think about what a line-of-duty death (LODD) would do to your department and your family, and get fired up about health and safety to prevent one from occurring.

Initiative #1: Define and advocate the need for a cultural change within the fire service relating to safety, incorporating leadership, management, supervision, accountability and personal responsibility.

It’s easy to gripe about “those kids” or talk about the “smoke eaters” from the good old days, but what can we do to break the mold of these terms? Bridge the gap, and start an informal mentoring program–nothing on paper or written down. If you’re a firefighter, find the individual who is always putting his hands on the tools, even when it’s not truck day. That person will be the one who always seems to be in control and to whom everyone looks when times are tough. Get in his back pocket, and suck up as much information as he will give you. If you are the veteran or company officer, find the new firefighter sitting around staring the paint off the wall, and make him put his hands on the tools with you. Talk to him about what is expected of him and how he can be a great asset to and positive impact on the organization. A great example comes from Chief Rick Lasky, of the Lewisville (TX) Fire Department, which has an outstanding mentoring program in which every person in the organization, from firefighter to chief, has three people to mentor.

Initiative #2: Enhance the personal and organizational accountability for health and safety throughout the fire service.

Give your firefighters an hour or two to work out between the 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. work schedules. This accomplishes several things. It allows the individuals that want to exercise but never have the time to exercise. It’s contagious; once one starts, others will start. If not, there are ways to prod them into the gym or to get them to just walk around the station for an hour. If you’re the company officer, lead by example. Exercise at the same time; don’t just sit behind the desk. This will do wonders for building your crew’s camaraderie. If you’re the firefighter and none of the above works for your company officer, come into work early, get others to arrive a little early, and work out as a crew, or wait until the evening and work out. The big point is to show you’re committed to firefighter well-being. Ask your company officer to join you; he just may. Last, give everyone in the station the tools to be a safety officer on-scene–teach them what to look for.

Initiative #3: Focus greater attention on the integration of risk management with incident management at all levels, including strategic, tactical, and planning responsibilities.

Poll your crew members to see how many understand or even know what risk vs. benefit analysis is. Most will be surprised that a lot of people have either forgotten or were never taught: “Risk a lot to save a lot, risk a little to save a little, and risk nothing to save what is already lost.” The easiest way to start learning is to sit down at your shift meeting and review the IAFC “10 Rules of Engagement.” To get more in-depth, look for an Incident Safety Officer program from the National Fire Academy (NFA) or FireServiceSLT.com. Both programs have a module on risk management. Make it your daily training. Risk management is something that we firefighters do every day, even if we don’t think about it. Bring the components of risk management to the front of our brains so we can make the most effective decisions during the incident. Review the components, and learn how to use risk identification, evaluation, prioritization, control methods, and monitoring.

Initiative #4: All firefighters must be empowered to stop unsafe practices.

We have reviewed some of this already in regard to giving everyone the tools to be a safety officer on-scene. As a company officer, it is important that you show your firefighters that their opinion is valued. You may not always go with their decision, but you should not criticize it, either. If you’re the firefighter, don’t wait until it’s too late and something happens.

One of my colleagues was at his first fire as a firefighter, right out of recruit school. He remembered talking about fire behavior, backdrafts, and flashovers in recruit school but wasn’t sure if he would recognize these phenomena when he encountered them. On that call, he recognized the signs and encountered a backdraft but chose not to say anything because he was the junior firefighter on-scene; there were company and chief officers arriving on-scene. He thought he was inferior to everyone else on-scene. Luckily; crews finished evacuating the fire structure just seconds before the backdraft occurred. In short, speak up and say something. A good program for helping implement this is crew resource management, which can be found on FireServiceSLT.com under the training page.

Initiative #5: Develop and implement national standards for training, qualifications, and certification (including regular recertification) that are equally applicable to all firefighters based on the duties they are expected to perform.

Although we advocate for what goes on at the national level, we must focus on what goes on at the station level. Last year I spent about $2,000 to attend a national conference, the theme of which was “Back to the Basics”–$2,000 to go back to the basics, sad but true. We are missing the boat in a lot of areas. Many firefighters don’t understand the importance of training on personal protective equipment, SCBA, building construction, and fire behavior. Pull out the recruit manual and start reviewing all these items. Make it fun, but help everyone remember what to do in case of an emergency, how to operate the bypass, and what it feels like when the mask is sucked into their face so that they won’t rip it off in a fire. This is just one item, though; there are endless sources of information for everyone to use to train in different subjects. Find something to train about every shift. Read something fire-related every day for 15 to 20 minutes. Find a fire service magazine, throw it on the kitchen table, and dissect the incidents described in it.

Initiative #6: Develop and implement national medical and physical fitness standards that are equally applicable to all firefighters, based on the duties they are expected to perform.

Until every fire department’s administration understands how important it is to focus on our health, we must do it on our own. First, check your insurance policy; most give you one free checkup a year. Go get it now. Second, if you don’t have fitness equipment in your station, that’s fine–you don’t need it for cardio anyway. Grab a radio, and take laps around the station. One of the new trends in the Metro Atlanta area is cross-fit exercises. You can visit CrossFit.com to find information and new exercises every day. Gwinnett County (GA) Fire Department has fully implemented this program in recruit school, and most stations are using some form of it. Firefighters look at the exercises that are posted and then modify them by adding fire service equipment to the exercise. Another option is to complete your department’s physical agility test annually. We all have a responsibility to ensure that everyone can still do the job.

Initiative # 7: Create a national research agenda and data collection system that relates to the initiatives.

Start researching the needs within your stations and departments. Focus on what your crews and firefighters must be able to do to safely perform the job. Once you find out what your needs are, review them, referencing the Everyone Goes Home Research Database. The database has a vast amount of information about covering all of the initiatives. If you have trouble deciding how or what initiative to implement, this database should be able to help you. If you find something that works for you, add it to the database to help other departments. The second part to this initiative involves starting to document a structure fire as a structure fire. If the house burns down, it’s not a smoke scare anymore. We cannot justify getting the equipment and personnel we need if we shoot ourselves in the foot. This will also help recognize if we are living the initiatives and making a difference in LODDs.

Initiative #8: Use available technology wherever it can produce higher levels of health and safety.

Most of us have cutting-edge technology, and even if it is a few years old, it’s probably still in good condition, if you took good care of it. The problem is that we are failing to use it or we are not using it as it was designed to be used. We have gear that keeps a lot of the heat off us, but we fail to wear it properly, simply by buckling the snap on our helmets to prevent burning our heads. Most departments have thermal imaging cameras, but we either don’t take it off the truck or don’t train on how to interpret images with it; there’s more to it than just point and shoot. Apparatus now comes with seat belt extensions for firefighters wearing their gear; we have mobile data terminals or laptops and fancy reflective vests for each of us to wear. Learn how these technologies work. Train in using them–and use them.

Initiative #9: Thoroughly investigate all firefighter fatalities, injuries, and near misses.

If we don’t learn from the tragedies that have happened in the past, then fallen firefighters have died in vain. That is unacceptable. It has been proven that one LODD equals 10,000 unsafe acts. We must do better at catching each other’s mistakes and learning from them. One of the battalion chiefs in my department has started requiring a review of at least one LODD report every Sunday. Firefigternearmiss.com, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Honortheirsacrifices.com are three excellent sites for information pertaining to injuries and fatalities.

Initiative #10: Grant programs should support the implementation of safe practices and/or mandate safe practices as an eligibility requirement.

Initiative #10 addresses primarily company officers and chief officers, but firefighters can help them to achieve this goal. We need to advocate the need for funding, specifically to firefighters and fire departments that want to increase firefighter safety and make a difference. If they can do something with nothing, imagine what they could do with a little money. Firefighters and departments that consider enforcing policies such as wearing your seat belt or stopping at a stop sign or red light beneath them don’t deserve anything. If you don’t have standard operating procedures (SOPs) or safe practices in place before you spend thousands of dollars for new equipment, why would you develop them after the grant?

Initiative #11: National standards for emergency response policies and procedures should be developed and championed.

Departments must develop policies and procedures for emergency responses that will mandate safe practices. Even without a policy, firefighters and company officers need to use the common sense we were born with (or that was beat into some of us by our parents) and drive the speed limit, stop at all lights, stop at stop signs, and wear your seat belts. You must remember your commitment to keeping the citizens safe. Firefighters are serving jail sentences because they missed following one of these items. Will you be next?

Initiative #12: National protocols for response to violent incidents should be developed and championed.

Simply put, we don’t carry guns or vests–as least not yet. Use your common sense and stage so that the police can get in and do what they need to do. We should be staging at all domestic-violence, drug-related, weapons-related, and suicide-attempt incidents. Stop for a second and consider the whole picture. There are the rare situations, such as in Alabama recently and in Kentucky a few years back, that we cannot change, but we can help to create policies that will keep us safe in most of these events.

Initiative #13: Firefighters and their families must have access to counseling and psychological support.

Develop an Employee Assistance program and a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) program, or join an existing regional program. My department has both, and our CISD team is available to travel throughout the state to another department, if necessary. But this program shouldn’t stop at that. Our families deal with a lot, and we need to take care of them as well. Create support groups within your department: one for the firefighters and one for families, much like an auxiliary group. Another option would be to create a Fraternal Order of Leatherheads (FOOLs) chapter, which gives you access to resources all across the United States and a brotherhood to help you. At the very least, work on building your crew’s camaraderie–this is your support group.

Initiative #14: Public education must receive more resources and be championed as a critical fire and life safety program.

How many public education personnel does your department have? The correct answer: Everyone in your department is involved in public education. Two or three people are not enough to touch everyone, but with the help of the field personnel, we can accomplish some things. Don’t wait for the opportunity to come to you, however. Every time you’re out in public, make it a point to bring some stickers or a helmet and invite the public to your firehouse so that you can talk about fire safety. State Farm Insurance will give you materials for free if you ask for them. The Georgia Firefighters Burn Foundation will give back 10 percent of our departments annual Boot Drive in the form of prevention materials and smoke detectors. Find out what your area’s burn foundation will do.

The promotion of fire safety shouldn’t be confined to a week in October. My department has devoted the entire month of October to this issue. We also had 116 confirmed saves in 2008, specifically because of one fire drill. One of our day care centers had a fairly extensive electrical fire and had to evacuate 116 children and staff members. They had practiced the evacuation drill all week, as the firefighters were coming back the next day to watch. They cleared the center in 90 seconds with no injuries. How huge is that?

Initiative #15: Advocacy must be strengthened for the enforcement of codes and the installation of home fire sprinklers.

The fire service won a big battle last September–at least until the Homebuilders Association tried suing the International Code Council because it wants to save a dollar. We must do what former Morrow (GA) Fire Chief David Wall did: Show the benefits to the people that matter, not just talk about them. Chief Wall set up a demonstration for the city council members and the public. One demo room was equipped with sprinklers; the other was not. Once the council members and public saw how effective the sprinklers were in extinguishing fires, there were no more questions. Before we can make any progress, we must quit complaining about sprinklers taking away our jobs. You have to worry about that only if you’re not doing your job or if the administration is trying to save a dollar. Next, we have to inform the public about sprinklers. Sprinklers are not terribly expensive, and they will cause less water damage than if the fire progresses and we have to stretch a hoseline in. Additionally, if firefighters don’t have to go into every fire, their chances of going home go up.

Initiative # 16: Safety must be a primary consideration in the design of apparatus and equipment.

This one can be easy or difficult to achieve. If you are purchasing a new apparatus, make sure it meets the current National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standard. Set up a committee to write the specifications, but order four things: seat belt extensions, chevron striping everywhere it can be applied, orange cones, and a traffic vest for every seat. Remember, if you don’t spec it to the standard, the manufacturer does not have to make it to the standard.

If you already have an apparatus, there are a couple of things you can do to bring it up to speed with the initiative. Try to bring it up to the current code, if money allows, or redesign it. Look for heavy equipment in the higher cabinets, and bring them lower. Think about saving your back because of apparatus design. If your department still has an open cab, don’t let anyone ride back there, and do not ride on the tailboard, either. If your department can’t afford cones or vests, take your extra house dues and go buy some for the station. Sometimes we may have to adapt and overcome, but nothing is impossible.

Brian Ward is a training officer for Gwinnett County (GA) Fire Department and the vice chairman of the Metro Atlanta Training Officers. Brian is an advocate for the State of Georgia Everyone Goes Home program. He holds an associate’s degree in fire science and is pursuing his bachelor’s degree. He is also the founder of FireServiceSLT.com and can be reached at fireserviceslt@yahoo.com.



Subjects: Firefighter safety

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