There were many big questions in the air at the recent Tampa2 Summit on the 16 Life Safety Initiatives. How can firefighter suicide be prevented? What is the connection between organizational culture and firefighter life safety?
What is the actual instance of firefighter cancer, and how can these illnesses be prevented? Are some casualties inevitable among those who do an inherently dangerous job?
Ten work groups were formed, each creating recommendations on specific topics from behavioral health to wildland firefighting. All of the recommendations were on point and valid, but I could also sense a little frustration among conference participants.
Of course it's important to talk about and plan for the big issues, but what can one person do right now to make a difference?
This question was on my mind during one lunch break when I happened to share a table with two company officers from a large metropolitan department. They were talking about the problem of firefighters failing to always wear their air packs during overhaul, and how this exposure can lead to a number of long term illnesses.
"When I was a new firefighter, I took off my mask the minute my officer did," said one. "I didn't want to look weak in his eyes."
Others at the table echoed this attitude, reinforcing that the example set by the company officer often establishes the standard for health and safety during an entire emergency response.
Follow my lead
So the first obvious thing an individual can do is set a good example. It is critical that officers do this, but others — the senior firefighter, the highly respected engineer — should not underestimate their influence either.
Then another firefighter at the table recounted a system they had developed on his department for encouraging firefighters to stay on air longer.
"We use Scott masks, and you have to put your palm over your face to unscrew the regulator," he said. "So now when you put your hand over your mask to take it off, we look at it as if someone were holding a hand up in front of your face to stay 'Stop.' And then we look at the five fingers of the glove, and that means, wait five more minutes before you take off your mask."
I don't know who came up with this idea, but it's brilliant. It's not a sweeping policy that says firefighters must stay on air from the minute the get off the engine at the fire until the moment they step back on the rig to return to quarters. Certainly requiring firefighters to wear SCBA 100 percent of the time at fire calls would reduce toxic exposures, and that's a good thing.
But realistically, firefighters are not going to adhere to such an all-or-nothing policy. They will make decisions along the way about when to remove their breathing protection. And systems like the one I heard about in Tampa over lunch are great tools to assist every firefighter in making incrementally better decisions.
There are hundreds of ways individual firefighters can come up with reminders, rules of thumb, or individual systems for making firefighting a safer profession.
Conferences like the one last month in Tampa are great for talking about the big ideas, but may be even more valuable for sharing these smaller, more specific ideas in an informal way: over lunch, over beers, while riding the shuttle back to the airport.
Most importantly, whether the conversation centers on a nationwide study about cancer or a trick of the trade to get firefighters to use their protective gear more effectively, leadership always comes from example.
If officers want their crews to do something or to value something, then they must set the example in their actions and continue to live those values both on and off the emergency scene.