Firefighter Health and Safety: Turning Around an Aircraft Carrier

Chief Kanterman’s Journal Entry 53

The inventor, thinker, genius, mathematician and all-around smart guy Albert Einstein once said: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” I think he was right. We worked the same way for a long time (the first 270 years or so) and injuries and LODDs became part and parcel to our service. We thought that simply doing it “over and over again” the same way and thinking it would change all by itself, would work. It didn’t. However we’re making progress because we actually have changed the way we are delivering services and behaving on and off the fire ground. There is lots of discussion on how and when to work safely and to when to be cautious and when it’s “not necessary to be safe all the time” to quote of few of our peers however it still seems that things are getting better. Battalion Chief (Ret.) Dave Dodson said, “We need to be intellectually aggressive, not arbitrarily aggressive.” Wow! This should be the watch phrase of the current day. Is changing the way 1 million firefighters think and behave an easy task? Of course not. It’s like turning around an aircraft carrier. What most of us who have been around longer than 20 minutes talk about are the actual components of the “safety system” that make up the whole. For me, a robust training program and a solid set of SOPs/SOGs that you train to, create the very foundation of safety. Again, they’re only two components of the “safety system” along with risk management, culture (attitude/climate) change, engineering controls, command and control, communications, leadership, advocacy, the built environment, wellness, prevention (illness, injury and fire) and much more.   

A lot of attention has been paid, especially lately to the role(s) of the company officer and rightfully so. It took us chief officers a long time to understand that everything starts and stops with first line supervision. How goes the officer, so goes the crew or the company. Look sharp, be sharp, act sharp, think sharp. (Tom Galvin, FDNY Fire Academy) While safety starts with each individual firefighter, it rests squarely on the shoulders of first line supervision so it is expected that our line officers will become safety advocates. The “lead by example” mantra applies here tenfold. Telling firefighters to wear any piece of PPE and the officer not wearing the same piece is simply a bad thing. There are far too many photos of chiefs in front of fire buildings wearing a button down shirt and a radio. Officers (all of us) need to set the tone and the boundaries, walk the talk at all times and at all levels. For our people, at times it’s simply a coaching job. (Hey Tom, put your goggles on.) A subtle reminder in a person’s ear works well. Remember that unless it’s imminent danger, admonish/remind in private. Also remember that “what you allow to happen without your intervention becomes your standard.” I heard that a long time ago from North Attleboro (MA) Chief (Ret.) Peter Lamb. If you don’t stop bad habits or bad behavior, then by default, you own it.

Remember that we thought the NFPA 1500 committee was way out of the box and out of their minds all those years ago however here we are many years later and in fact, most of us are doing most of it, if not all of it now. It just takes time. Be patient but stay with it. Turning that carrier around takes time and deliberate, consistent action.

Be well, Be safe.

Ronnie K

This commentary reflects the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Fire Engineering. It has not undergone Fire Engineering‘s peer-review process.

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