FIREGROUND SAFETY AS A BEHAVIORAL PROBLEM
SPEAKING OF SAFETY
The safety officer of a fairly large fire department while being interviewed on television proclaimed that they had very strict safety rules—for example, every coat buckle must be fastened. Then the next scene showed a firefighter riding the fly of an aerial ladder as it was being extended, a practice of little value and great risk. (Some very serious injuries have resulted from it.)
It is much easier to buy expensive protective equipment than to develop a safety program based on the recognition of dangerous conditions and the elimination of unsafe acts. The causes of injuries should be analyzed and recorded so that repetition can be prevented. A study of injury records probably would reveal that most of the injured were properly dressed at the time but the in jury was caused by some sort of behavior.
Safety programs can be based on understanding four kinds of behavior: fire behavior. structural behavior, equipment behavior. and firefighter behavior.
Fire behavior: Includes the characteristics of the fuel involved; the potential for explosion, backdraft. flashover, and fire travel; and the effects of ventilation and water application. What the fire has done is not as important as what it is going to do. Anticipation is the key to injury prevention.
Structural behavior: Includes the potential for the collapse of structural members and the assistance or resistance to the travel of fire. Recognizing indications of structural vulnerability is a “must.” How old is the building? Was it built when open stairways and shafts were common? Are the floors supported by wood joists which may burn through? A look at the window lintels can give an immediate answer, if you know what to look for.1 And a look at the roof from a good perspective will show if it is of truss construction and therefore prone to early collapse. It also helps to know that such a collapse will push out sidewalls and endanger people on the ground as well as those on the roof or inside the structure. Not only truss roofs but other types should be evaluated and so should entry points and means of egress on the fire floor and above.
Equipment behavior: A primary example of the importance of equipment behavior involves breathing apparatus and what the wearer can expect from it. Not just what it says on the label, but what it will do for him. How long will the air supply last? How much time w ill he have left for escape after the lowair alarm sounds? All this can be determined on an individual basis through live fire training. This training should also include what to do if air supply fails. Today’s firefighters who have never smelled real smoke would be like a fish out of water when that happens to them. Safety regulations that rule out training in real smoke will not help a firefighter who suddenly finds he is out of air in a smokeladen atmosphere, a cause of firefighter fatalities. Years ago. they died because they didn’t have breathing apparatus; now they are dying because they rely on it too much.
Firefighter behavior: This behavior is the most important. Most injuries are caused by it (I’ve had my share), and it is an area readily subject to improvement if intelligently approached. Far more injuries are caused by adrenaline and testosterone than by structural failure.
Let us admit that fire is an exciting situation and that anyone who is not somewhat excited by it has an emotional level quite different from the average. But when professionalism includes the control of emotions, the damage of excitement can be lowered.
Statistics show’ that young firefighters are more prone to serious injuries than older ones. This may be due to the older ones having more experience, but it is most probably due to the younger ones having more energy and a desire to prove themselves. These characteristics are great assets, if controlled. It is here where the officers—of each rank— must use their knowledge and assert their authority.
The most important aspect of firefighter behavior is that of those in command, at all levels. They must keep their own emotions as well as the emotions of their subordinates under control. A leader who shows his excitement is a poor leader. A leader who conceals his excitement is a better leader. Excitement is contagious as well as dangerous. Firefighters react to the emotions of their supervisors. People look for leadership in emergency situations, and they respond to a cool and calm leader with more confidence and respect than an obviously excited one. Controlled fear based on knowledge is healthy. Panic can be fatal.
The proper behavior orientation of personnel can be obtained through training and maintained by discipline. Unfortunately, discipline is often thought to connote punishment. That is negative discipline; positive discipline motivates and controls actions for the benefit of the group. It means instant response to commands. Acute emergencies require autocratic leadership, but it can be made palatable through training that emphasizes its value in ensuring safety.
The practical solution for most fire departments is to develop all officers as safety officers. One safety officer cannot be in all places at all times, but company officers are there; and if they know their business, they can control safety in their sections of the fire scene.
Firefighting is an inherently dangerous occupation and requires a certain amount of risk acceptance. We can’t have a fireproof fire department any more than we can have a bulletproof army. However, the injury reduction effects of training and supervision probably would give the best return, even though they may require more effort than the mechanical fix. Seat belts may save lives in car accidents, but they don’t eliminate the need for safe driving habits. Safety consciousness can be developed and could give meaning to the currently popular but meaningless cliche. “He has an attitude.”
- I. W. E. Clark, Firefighting Principles and Practices, second ed. (Saddle Brook. N.J.. Fire Engineering Books. 1991), 212.