The Only Way to Firefighter Safety Is Through Knowledge

By Stefan Svensson

Over the past few years, there have been a lot of discussions about firefighter safety in the international firefighting community. Everyone seems to be very concerned about how to make firefighting safer and how to reduce injuries and fatalities. This is, of course, very important, and it’s interesting to see how things develop. I believe every measure possible should be taken to protect those who protect. But there is one thing I don’t understand: as soon as someone suggests something radical or something that is a little bit out of the ordinary, a lot of people seem to get very upset. How come so many in this business talk about firefighter safety but so few seem to understand what firefighter safety is about?

Looking at reports on injuries and casualties in the fire service is very interesting. It’s easy to find conclusions such as “rapid change in fire conditions,” “stress,” “exhaustion,” “fell from tower ladder,” or “vehicle crash.” But, and this is actually the crux of the matter, I still haven’t found any reports saying that the reason for injuries and casualties was a lack of knowledge. Isn’t that what they all are, really? It might not be that the individual firefighter has a lack of knowledge but that the fire service community has a lack of knowledge. And this is much worse, since it’s a lot harder to change a system than to change an individual.

Many actions are being taken, many disciplines are studied, and much equipment is being introduced to increase firefighter safety. Such actions and equipment include the following:

  • rapid intervention teams
  • search procedures
  • hose stream management
  • ladder operations
  • roof operations
  • door-entry procedures
  • positive-pressure ventilation and attack
  • air management
  • high-pressure nozzles
  • piercing nozzles
  • thermal imaging cameras
  • pump operations
  • venting procedures
  • suppression procedures.

However, to me such actions and equipment are not actually firefighter safety. Firefighter safety is something else, something that we have to dig a lot deeper to find. It’s not something we find in our hands: safety is something that comes with the combination of hand, heart, and mind.

Firefighter safety is about knowledge and understanding what happens when we take all these actions and use all our equipment. It’s how those things affect our ability to work on the fire scene. We must understand the consequences of our actions and how the equipment works during operations, otherwise we will end up with problems.

Firefighter safety can’t be treated as something “extra” or something we “put on top” of everything else: firefighter safety has to be integrated in everything we do in such a way that we don’t have to talk or think about it. Safety is the baseline, not the add-on! We will never get safety by adding a few more liters per minute, having a rapid intervention team, or cutting a hole in a roof if we don’t understand the consequences of these things. If we don’t have understanding, operations might even become more dangerous.

The only way to achieve actual safety is to have knowledge and understanding about the environment we work in, regardless if it’s at a fire, a car accident, or a hazardous materials call!

Statistics are hard, especially when making comparisons among countries, because we collect the statistics differently. In addition, there are cultural and legislative differences, differences in demographics and the economy, which make comparisons even harder. Differences can be large, but I would argue that they are within the same range. Nevertheless, the statistics on our operations look just about the same as in most countries with some kind of an organized fire service: 10 percent of fires in buildings, 15 percent of fires outside, 20 percent car accidents, and 55 percent everything else (including medical calls, flooding, and cats in trees). The thing is that firefighters do basically the same stuff all over the world, sometimes even with the same type of equipment. So, in the era of the Internet and all the other great tools for sharing knowledge, it should be very easy to share all this knowledge that is so easy to find and make some great improvement in the international fire service community. We have the right to it, we need it, and we deserve it.

I am fully aware that there are so many great people in the fire service trying so hard to make things easier, better, and, above all, safer. But unfortunately, there’s also resistance. There is resistance stemming from politics, prestige, the economy, and a number of other sources. These reasons are often hard for me as a scientist to understand. If we all understand that we need to change a few things to make things safer, why is it so hard to make those changes?

We need to educate every firefighter about the “why,” not only the “how.” And to do that, we have to bring a combination of our minds, hearts, and hands into it. If we want to have professional firefighters (at least in the sense of acting in a professional manner), and I assume we do, we need to educate and teach the fire service community and to help it understand some fundamentals on why things happen, not only how they happen. Firefighter safety is about knowledge and understanding. Once we have this knowledge and understanding, we can start to take actions and use our equipment more effectively and more safely!

I am fully aware that things I say or write sometimes seem very harsh and insulting. Please forgive me: I’m not an evil person, my intentions are good, and I’m actually trying to save some lives. But what if someone with a different perspective or from another country could make any suggestions or come up with some ideas that perhaps would make things better, easier, or safer–wouldn’t that be worth something? If these suggestions and ideas perhaps save the life of a single firefighter–Swedish or American–wouldn’t that be worth it? Are our egos more important than the life of a firefighter?

There are more than 25 million organized firefighters in the world. If one in 100 of these firefighters has an idea, we will get 250,000 ideas. If only one in 100 of these ideas is great, we will have 2,500 great ideas! And if only one of these great ideas can make firefighting safer and more effective, wouldn’t it be worthwhile to cooperate across borders and to share all these great ideas? Wouldn’t it be worthwhile to listen what other people have to say, even if we think of it as insulting at first?

Safety is about knowledge, knowledge that we can get only by working, developing, and sharing ideas together.

We are all on the same side, wherever we are in the world!

Stefan SvenssonStefan Svensson works for the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency and is also an associate professor at Lund University. Dr. Svensson started his career as a firefighter in the Swedish Air Force in 1986. In 1989, he earned a bachelor’s degree in fire protection engineering and in 2002 a Ph.D. at Lund University in Sweden. During the past 18 years, he has been involved in experimental and theoretical investigations of firefighting tactics, including firefighting methods as well as problems of command and control. The safe and effective use of firefighting resources is a particularly important feature of his work. He is the author of several books, scientific articles, and reports. He is a firefighter/crew commander at the local fire brigade.

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