Safety Leadership: The Company Officer’s Chief Concern

Ron Kanterman

Training is the basis of any fire department’s safety program. Good, solid training that is conducted to a quality set of standard operating procedures (SOPs) represents the very foundation of safety.

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Orientation for Officership

I’ve been a firefighter safety advocate for a long time, going as far back as my time as an industrial chief, where everything in large industry centered around safety. Today, much attention is being paid to the company officer. In addition, it took chiefs a long time (maybe 280 years) to truly understand that everything starts with direct first-line supervision. In other words, as the officer goes, so goes the crew.

For example, I lectured for a mid-size career fire department many years ago, speaking four times to four shifts. On the first shift, the on-duty deputy chief showed up late and was wearing a white T-shirt; a pair of blue, heavily washed work pants; white socks; and black sneakers. He looked as if he were dressed for a barbecue. The rest of the shift, comprising six companies and about 25 members, showed up shortly thereafter. I could only think to myself that this was going to be a long night (and it was). Fortunately, the next three nights proved much better—members wore crisp uniforms and were more attentive to the lecture as their deputies emphasized my main points. As stated, as goes the officer, so go the personnel under his command.

Your Responsibility

It is up to you to become a safety advocate. The old “lead by example” adage still applies here. For instance, it is bad practice not to wear the same personal protective equipment (PPE) that you instruct your personnel to wear. You also need to set the tone and the boundaries; “walk the walk” and “talk the talk” at all times and at all levels of the organization. Sometimes, you are simply “coaching.” You don’t have to make a formal announcement to have someone put on his gloves; a subtle reminder works well most of the time. Remember, unless there’s imminent danger, admonish/remind a member in private. Keep this in mind not just for safety but for everything you do and what’s done around you for the rest of your career. If you don’t stop bad habits or behavior, then, by default, you are telling others that it’s okay with you, and it becomes your standard.

The Foundations of Safety

I use several essential program documents to teach and discuss with students at the company level. They include the 16 Life Safety Initiatives from the Everyone Goes Home® program and the International Association of Fire Chiefs Rules of Engagement for Firefighter Survival and The Incident Commander’s Rules of Engagement for Firefighter Safety. As a firefighter, you must get them, read them, and implement them.

Also, consider National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety, Health, and Wellness Program. When it was first published, many in the fire service said, “No way we’ll ever pull this off!” However, fire service leaders such as the late Chief (Ret.) Alan Brunacini from the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department took heed; and most, if not all, of us are now practicing the standard.

Training is the very foundation of safety. Career and volunteer members should train on SOPs regularly on every work shift, doing so in the same manner as they would work at every call. As the Fire Department of New York says, “Let no man’s ghost come back to say his training let him down.” Review your SOPs annually so that your members get the changes and that your annual training program reflects those changes to create a “blueprint” for operations.

Can we run into unpredictable things at incidents even though we talk about expecting the unexpected? Of course. However, if we’re working within some semblance of an SOP, we will be more likely to experience success and favorable outcomes.

Situational Awareness

Situational Awareness (SA) is a universal thought process that assists the human brain with decision making—e.g., the “fight or flight” response. For us, it starts when the tones drop or when the pager goes off. It continues to the apparatus floor or your personal privately owned vehicle, listening to the radio, making a mental size-up of the event while driving (and wearing your seat belt and checking for speed and intersections), sizing up the scene on arrival, and making tactical decisions.

Knowing what’s going on around you and what can happen next are key thoughts that will help you tactically and add greatly to your safety as well as the safety of your crew. Although every on-scene officer and firefighter should do this constantly and consistently, it’s more important for the officer.

Those who have studied SA and written papers and research dissertations have concluded that (a) the loss of SA increases human error; (b) human error is the most common cause of accidental death; and (c) improvements in SA can reduce the number of firefighter injuries, near misses, and deaths.

Some tools for improving SA and preventing line-of-duty deaths include the following:

  • Preemergency and prefire planning.
  • Battle plans for target hazards.
  • Building reconnaissance.
  • Inspections.
  • Familiarization tours.
  • Training.
  • SOPs.
Being a Health and Safety Champion

Start thinking globally. Hop off the rig for one moment and consider this checklist for improving the following aspects of your department:

The firehouse and general quarters:

  • Are your floors skidproof?
    • How many fire departments applied epoxy to the apparatus floor only to find that the floor became slippery when it got wet?
  • Do you have a PPE cleaning program?
  • How are your living and sleeping quarters?
  • Do you have an exhaust system for your rigs? If so, do you use it?
  • Do you have a decon room for emergency medical services?
  • Are your walkways, stairwells, basement areas, and so on well-lit?
  • Are you storing hazardous materials as per the fire code?

Wellness and fitness:

  • Have you gone “light” for meals?
  • Are your members working out and taking the time to exercise?
  • Are you using stairs or elevators?
  • Are you doing group exercises?
  • Do you have a peer fitness trainer in the house?
  • Do you have a health and safety committee?
  • Are you paying attention to nutrition?
  • Are you performing medical evaluations and screenings annually?
  • Are you doing long-term follow-ups for injuries and work-related illnesses?
  • Are you doing gross decon after a structure fire?
  • Are you taking cancer prevention measures after calls?
Resources

Check out the following resources to help you develop your safety program:


RONALD E. KANTERMAN is the principal of Gold Horn Associates. He is a 44-year fire service veteran and the former chief of the Wilton (CT) Fire Department. Kanterman has a B.A. degree in fire administration and two master’s degrees. He is a contributing author to Fire Engineering and its Web site, Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II, and the 7th edition of The Fire Chief’s Handbook as well as the author of The Fire Officer’s Guide to Occupational Safety and Health (Fire Engineering, 2019).

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