Why Is Safety Such a Problem?

By Michael S. Terwilliger

I read an editorial the other day concerning safety. It basically addressed the issue of safety and how we seem to have such disregard for the matter in our daily operations, yet it is a topic in our face every minute of every day. At least that is what I got out of it.

Anyhow, it got me thinking about the name of this article, “Why Is Safety Such a Problem?” None of us take safety for granted, every firefighter is concerned about safety, it is part of our daily routine, and nobody ignores an unsafe issue, right? If so, then why do firefighters continue to go into burning buildings after a 20-minute response when the house is in the middle of a field, continue to ignore the effect of vehicle weight under a high-speed turn, fall off vehicles en route to a fire, stand up while putting protective gear on while the camera shows a panoramic view out the windshield of the rescue as it careens down the street, get killed in bunches while returning from a wildfire in a vehicle accident, and place themselves above a wildfire to build a helispot and get overrun?

Now stop coming up with excuses as to why these things happen. I know some of you are saying they ran into the house to save a life. Hogwash! What happened to becoming part of the solution, not part of the problem? Think about the results of the unsafe actions I listed. In the wildfire industry, we have something called the common denominators of near-miss and fatal fires. What is the common denominator here? I will tell you. All of the situations I listed were a choice. There is only one occupation in this country that does not give you a choice as to whether you will be killed or injured, and that is the military—and even then, you don’t have to sign up.

The instances I listed happened, and they were choices. Every negative outcome eventually was the result of the situation going beyond the control of the individuals who were injured or died, but in all cases there was a choice made to place them there in the first place. After fighting fires for 32 years, I have to admit I have done all the dumb stuff also and I am probably capable of doing it again, and I have to wonder why.

I have done no scientific research, just looked at my career and searched my brain for what I have seen, and I have come up with some reasons I think we choose to kill ourselves.


The fastest way to get a firefighter to seek psychiatric help is have him perceive he has failed at his mission. Now this phenomenon is not all bad. It makes us do incredible things to continuously wow the “average citizen.” Think about it. We are action oriented, and we care. If we think we have failed, we are distraught and overwhelmed with guilt. The problem is we will do anything to avoid mission failure or create that perception. So what causes us to run into a burning building? It might be the fear of failure if we don’t.

Here’s a classic example: Years ago, a friend of mine was at the scene of an abandoned structure in a plowed field. The structure was well involved. He directed the others on the fire to let it burn down. The firefighters at the scene were flabbergasted and filed a complaint the next day. Basically, the tone was, “What, we don’t fight fire anymore?” I figure my friend probably did at least two things. One, he minimized his staff’s exposure to fighting a fire that did not need to be fought; and two, he saved the owner money in cleanup. Regardless, we go to the fire, we fight the fire, and if we don’t at least try to enter the structure to search and put out the fire at the seat, we have failed at the sacred mission bestowed upon us. I disagree.


Please don’t confuse this with ignorant. The new firefighter who enters the structure above is ignorant. The experienced firefighters who complained we don’t fight fires anymore are stupid. So many times I have seen and done stupid things.

I know I should not enter a smoky structure without an SCBA, but if I take the time to put one on, the fire will win. That is stupid.

I know a water tender that weighs 60,000 pounds can’t go 45 miles per hour through a crowded intersection safely, but I can see the column, so I will take the chance. Stupid.

You want to know what is really stupid? I have a tendency to point out stupid maneuvers to my personnel this way: “Well, you made it to the call this time, but the way you drove here was stupid.”

What is really stupid is most folks born after 1982 will file a complaint against me for calling them stupid because it hurts their feelings. I just want to save their life. Is that stupid?


This is an odd category, but it was prevalent in our lives before we ever decided to slay the red devil. Peer pressure makes my teenage daughter rationalize that she should be able to drink at 16 years of age. It actually manifests itself by the old adage: “Dad, everyone else is doing it,” and in her mind the social aspect of existence is more important than life and death, so she must do as those important to her do. Good grief, a simple law such as underage drinking is not an obstacle, even if it is a policy, for example. That is the same reason we do unsafe things on the job.

If you go to work for a busy rescue company after years of waiting for the invite, are you going to sit and place your gear on while safely seat-belted in while all other members are doing the crab boat deck drift? Better yet, are you going to tell them to wait until you are dressed before getting on the rig? No to both cases unless you are the chief on a ride-along. Why not? Well, in the first case, everyone gets dressed while en route, so why would you do something different? You do as they do, or you will get some grief. The second scenario is when you are talking about it at lunch. You suggest that following policy and getting dressed before getting on the rig is a good idea. The reality of the issue is you will at best miss the call or, worst case, you will have exhaust burns and flat toes. Either way, you will be ostracized by the crew for trying to follow commonsense safety measures.

Sometimes we are our own worst enemy. I would tell my daughter her argument was stupid, and she would roll her eyes and stomp out of the room screaming, “I can’t wait to get out of this place.” I suppose you would never do that when you finally got a slot on that rescue company!


Remember, ignorant is not the same as stupid. Stupid is a permanent condition; ignorant is a temporary situation that can be rectified with information. So many folks are getting hurt from ignorance. They do not know the things they are choosing to do will hurt them. Firefighters barely past their 18th birthday who are overrun while cutting a helispot above a fire are ignorant to the danger. They have not been around long enough to develop a knowledge base that will help them in the decision-making process.

We have a system in place that is supposed to eliminate this aspect of the job. The fire service is a paramilitary organization, and with that comes rank. In theory, the higher the rank, the more experience. You’d think that as you gain time and experience, your ignorance about the situations you face would become less prevalent. In many cases, it works very well and certified, experienced company and chief officers are paid good money to help those of us who are more ignorant about the situation. I think it works.

Take the Fire Department of New York as an example. It goes to a ton of fires and crazy calls wrought with danger. The exposure rate of the staff compared with accidents of consequence is pretty good. They probably strive to place qualified officers where they need them and try to train the ignorance right out of the city, and they have lots of on-the-job training. It works most of the time for most of us. But what are the limiting factors here?

Well, not all fire departments have incidents all the time to develop an experience base. Many have officers elected by a popularity contest, the least employed, or most available—but not skilled. Either way, the level of ignorance about a situation goes up, and guess what? Mission Failure, Just Stupid, and Peer Pressure become overwhelming forces that drive the ignorant firefighter into the stupid category.


The boss can be the board of directors; the city council; the next in command; or, in my case, my wife. Either way, I have made decisions based on what my boss would want to see, and it catapulted me into the stupid category instantly. Sometimes you and I might takes chances based purely on what we think the next in line would expect to see, and safety is not always number one.

What is really terrible is that I have asked my staff to do things that are unsafe because I am “the boss,” and I will have to deal with that forever. So maybe I was really good and it was a solid decision, or I was really lucky and they won, or they were better than I thought and operated safely regardless of my plan. I suppose it was all of the above.

The message here is this: If you find it unbearable to resist the urge to promote and get a red helmet, a white shirt, or the handle of chief, you had better be willing to accept completely the responsibility you inherit. Remember, the reason so many of us want to be promoted is to get the authority to effect the changes we want, reap the benefits of salary, and bask in the admiration of our peers. There they are again—peer pressure and recognition. The title of chief or company officer comes with tremendous responsibilities, and you have to make sure you do not create an environment that causes people harm while doing their jobs.


This is subtler than the other categories. You may be able to overcome all the other obstacles, but you just don’t recognize a bad situation that is getting worse. It seems our first response to a situation getting worse is to continue to do more of what caused the problem, or we experience a time lag in scene recognition. Either way, we get farther behind the eight ball each time. For wildland firefighters, it might be lighting a backfire under conditions exhibiting more fire than we can handle. We do not recognize a bad situation and, more importantly, we do not use the information sources around us to get that information. There is no study I know of that indicates a correlation between the title on a badge and the ability to use more of your brain. Belief otherwise results in officers who are not as willing to talk strategy and tactics with subordinates (when appropriate) who oddly enough were our peers last week.

On every oral interview, we seem to ask one question every time: “If you give a firefighter an order to complete a task and he tells you he thinks there is another way to do it, what will you do?” The answer we look for is this: “I will determine from the firefighter if he sees some safety issue I was not aware of. If not, I will direct him to do the job again.” In reality, the response we keep the lid on is this: “The firefighter in question better do what I say, or I will vent this thing with his arm.”


Let’s admit it up front: This job is pretty exciting. That’s what won me over. But the less you do the job, the higher your level of excitement. The result is an adrenaline rush that overcomes your ability to develop some reasonable plan of action. In fact, you get so excited that you can do only three things: “When in wonder, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.”

I did not even know my name at my first structure fire in 1972. That probably explains why I left my gloves on the running board and my chinstrap undone as I entered a smoke-filled house. I remember crawling along trying to pull the hose, hold my helmet on, and hope my hands would not burn. It got better when I looked up at my captain standing above me, who told me to give him the nozzle so he could put out the fire.

Unfortunately, we gravitate away from our training, get the “moth-to-a-flame” blank stare, and start to take unacceptable risks. This problem is huge and has always been lurking in the shadows. It can be countered with reality-based training and controlled by competent officers who organize and control the scenes immediately while allowing younger personnel opportunities to be part of the process as situations allow. That captain who took my nozzle told me I could finish the fire next time if I would remember to button up my business. It worked. It is so important to teach our personnel that we are not responding to our emergency, we are responding to someone else’s, so don’t let yourself get caught up in some other person’s excitement. Or, better yet, just be an island of calm in a sea of confusion.


I think one of the best examples of this is training fires—when we actually have control of the fire and we still manage to kill or injure firefighters because we light fires that hurt them. You don’t have to simulate every rotten fire situation you will come across in training to forge the metal in our personnel. If that were true, we would be killing people to demonstrate EMS training.

Chief Alan Brunacini, Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department, always said (and I paraphrase): We will take risk to save property, we will take great risk to save a life, and we will take no risk to save property or life already lost. When I signed on 32 summers ago to be a firefighter, I never once decided I would give my life to save another, and I have avoided people who advocate that philosophy. In 1982, I had my first child and then and only then did I decide I would die for another soul, and that is my choice to make.

If you work with firefighters who toss out terms like “acceptable losses” and “It is our job to risk our life,” then that is a situation that shouts “Watch out!” Most of it is just bravado and lunchroom talk, but look out for the firefighter who can’t wait for the Medal of Valor. I personally don’t want one because another person will have to be in a very bad place for me to have to save him to get the recognition. This job is so darn dangerous when everything is right that we just don’t need cowboys pushing the envelope for personal reasons.

Our job is simple. We place ourselves between the dragon and the stuff it wants to hurt. That does not imply death to me. Do not drag others down into the death triangle because you want to place yourself there. Get some consensus first.


This is the root of this evil. In a sense, it is a validation of my comment in the beginning that we place ourselves in compromising situations by choice. I know many of you are saying that we have to be in these positions many times to complete rescues or suppress a fire. I agree. But I will stand firm that it is a choice by the company officer, the incident commander, or you to compromise your safety. More importantly, it can always be done in a safe manner with approved routines. If not, don’t do it.

For example, say a water tender crashes and kills a young firefighter. The causes were speed and possibly alcohol. Our department has a policy about code 3 driving: You must drive at a rate of speed that allows you to avoid a collision. You should probably be sober so you can understand the intent. I firmly believe that almost all driving-related crashes are avoidable if the person behind the wheel made the right choice. What good are you if you don’t arrive? What good are you if you get there and you are drunk?

The fire service is making a political mistake concerning safety right now. We first need to recognize that there are distinct differences between doing a job safely and doing a job right but that both are forever linked in this profession. It surfaces under the subject of the numbers of personnel on equipment. The debate orbits around three or four or more firefighters on engines and trucks. The message from us to the governing bodies is this: If you don’t give us the funding to place four folks on our engines and trucks, it is a grave safety issue for our firefighters. I disagree. I suggest in an ideal world a fire in a building or in the woods by itself is inherently safe for firefighters. We only make it unsafe for firefighters when we decide to mess with it.

The problem is we will attack a fire in a textbook fashion regardless of the resources available. If we even think a person is in the house, we will throw caution to the wind. One of the basic premises of fire command is you do not develop a strategy and implement tactics that are not representative of the resources you have available. You must operate within that reality and adjust as the resources arrive, recognizing real time constraints on the plan. So don’t make fires unsafe by doing something you are not staffed to do. It is a choice, not a mandate. In the context of what I am saying, staffing is directly related to efficiency and effectiveness, or production rates.

Now before you start mumbling, here is the rest of this story. On the subject of staffing, we are barking up the wrong tree. If we want the funding for adequate staffing, we need to emphasize the need for personnel to ensure the safety of our citizens, not our firefighters. Yes, I am dedicated to the safety of firefighters, but we need to reach to the core of our elected officials and talk about property loss, maintaining sources of revenue, and continuance of operations. When you negotiate with elected officials, you must understand what is important to them, not what is important to you.

Here is a sad theory for you. An elected official will never admit it, but it is much easier to deal with a firefighter fatality than a civilian fatality. The firefighter death is sorrowful, the elected officials can express how concerned they are, and the community will accept it. The elected officials will go on about what a hero our lost firefighter was and feel pretty good about the whole political opportunity. You know why? Because they think we are supposed to risk our lives and we might just die now and then.

If a civilian dies in a fire, the chief is dragged through the mud, and the elected officials are held accountable. Why do you have transient people in abandoned buildings? Why didn’t the fire inspector see the flammable foam on the walls of the nightclub? Who is going to give us a pound of flesh? That is not a position they want to be in. Civilians are not supposed to die, ever.

What is the moral of the story? You want to get money for staffing? Paint a picture for your elected officials of how ugly life is when civilians die and revenue is lost because you don’t have the resources to efficiently and effectively fight the fires.


You do not have to fight a fire that requires 18 firefighters with 10 firefighters. When you do simulations, do you set up the fire with what you would like to have or with what you really have? Do you ever drill on a single-family dwelling fire attack with less than the standard first alarm? You do not have to search floors above a fire without water if you can’t do it safely. You do not have to go into cold storage warehouses after mystical transient people if you can’t do it safely. You do not have to walk into narrow canyons with fire if you can’t be 100 percent sure of the impending fire behavior.

When a firefighter dies searching for someone who is not there, we shall not accept the standard answer that we had to, someone might have been in there, and we will do it again. Get rid of those thoughts and those people who believe that this philosophy is valid. Those people should be asking what indicators were missed in the decision tree that led us to this disaster so we can catch it a little sooner next time.

We also have to stop talking about safety and start doing it, living it. Firefighters have to be dressed and belted before the rig moves; we must have zero tolerance for alcohol in fire stations; we must require personal protective gear compliance on fires; we must make our firefighters drive at a reasonable speed while responding; we must encourage health, fitness, and well- being; we must train realistically but reasonably; and we must educate our elected officials about why we need to exist in the numbers we require. There is no justification to do otherwise when it comes to the well-being of our firefighters.

It is time to stop the lip service about safety, release unsafe traditions, and step up to the plate if we want to be taken seriously. We must focus on what is killing us beyond the major firefight and, most of all, maintain the passion to survive and make those who trust in us believe it as well.

MICHAEL S. TERWILLIGER is chief of the Truckee (CA) Fire Protection District. He began his career in 1972 with the California Department of Forestry, where he served for 24 years in the following assignments: division chief of operations (South) in the Nevada-Yuba-Placer Ranger Unit and as operation section chief and planning section chief on a Type I team from 1988 to 1996. He is a certified fire behavior analyst. Terwilliger is incident commander for the Sierra Front Wildfire Cooperators Team, which operates along the eastern California/Nevada border. He also instructs operations section chiefs, division group supervisors, and strike team leaders.


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