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Fire Officer Safety
by Robert Avsec
Sponsored by Globe

Fire officer training: 6 ways to make safer firefighters

The company officer plays a critical role in firefighter safety; here are steps the officer can take build a culture of safety

By Robert Avsec

Many years ago, one of the first fire service publications that I had the good fortune to get my hands on was the book "Effective Company Command" by the late Battalion Chief James O. Page.

Some of the "old salts" may be familiar with Chief Page who served for many years with the Los Angeles County Fire Department; many of you know him as the technical advisor for the popular television show "Emergency!" Beyond that, Chief Page was an attorney and life-long advocate for fire-based EMS.

Here is one quote from Page that has always stuck in my head: "The company officer is one part supervisor and one part instructor." As the company officer you are responsible for leading, guiding and directing your firefighters — the supervisor. You are equally responsible for ensuring that they have the requisite knowledge, skills and abilities to carry out their jobs — the instructor.

Today, it's pertinent to add a "third corner" to the company officer's hat: risk manager. Chief Page wrote that, "Nobody has more influence [good or bad] on the job performance of firefighters than the company officer." 

If we are to continue making positive strides towards making the job of a firefighter safer, we must develop company officers who can recognize and manage risk in both the emergency and non-emergency arenas.

Cultural architecture
In January 2013, Lt. S. Brieanne Nix, a career lieutenant and paramedic with Hanover (Va.) Fire EMS, published "Company Officer Leadership: Inspiring a Culture of Safety." in the International Association of Fire Chiefs newsletter, On-Scene. Lt. Nix wrote:

"Departmental culture is generally defined as a way of thinking, behaving and believing that members of an organization have in common. To achieve a true culture of safety, officers must address the real and underlying causes of the 'gap' in safety measures. Do you suffer from any pitfalls of poor safety responsibility? Do you or the officers around you ever:

  • Show more concern for not upsetting others than for fixing problems?
  • Feel powerless and see safety as a have-to, and not a want-to?
  • Lack interest; avoid making commitments; or shift responsibility to others?"

What's your personal attitude toward safety? Is it a have-to or a want-to attitude?

The discipline of risk management focuses on three elements to reduce risk: education, engineering and enforcement. Here's how those elements apply to a company officer.

The 3 E's
Ensure that you've informed and educated your firefighters regarding all of the applicable policies, procedures and rules in your organization that relate to safety in the workplace. From SCBA use to the proper handling of chemicals in the fire station, and everything in between, your job is to know what these governing documents are and then to inform and educate your people for proper compliance. 

Some examples include those policies, procedures and rules that are applicable to:

  • How members shall drive and operate emergency vehicles.
  • When and how the appropriate personal protective clothing and respiratory protection must be used.
  • How a member must report an accidental exposure to a biohazard while providing patient care.
  • How a member must report a work-related injury to the supervisor.

Engineering is the use of tools, protective guards, work ergonomics and personal protective clothing and equipment to eliminate or reduce an identified risk. Some examples would include:

  • Wearing the complete turnout gear ensemble and SCBA throughout fire operations, including overhaul.
  • Proper lifting and moving techniques when providing patient care.
  • Using chainsaw chaps when operating chainsaws.
  • Wearing eye and ear protection when operating engine-powered portable equipment.
  • Wearing the appropriate barrier protection against bodily fluid contact while providing patient care.

The third element, enforcement, is the key element. Your organization can have great governing documents for safety in your organization, provide your people with all the best engineering solutions, and still have preventable deaths and injuries occur because a company officers didn't ensure 100 percent compliance from their people. Here are six strategies that can help you achieve that 100 percent compliance on the part of your direct reports.

Six strategies
1. Be the role model. If you don't follow the rules, how can you expect them to do so? I read recently where a department had upgraded its SCBA-use policy to require personnel to breathe cylinder air from SCBA whenever they are in the hazard area, including during overhaul. At the first few working fires following this change, the fire chief showed up, geared up, went on air, and surveyed the scene while overhaul was underway.

2. Be proactive I. Start your tour of duty with a 6-minute safety briefing where you take one safety policy or procedure or rule and review the why, what and how covered in the document. Better yet, get firefighters actively engaged by assigning them governing documents to review and have them deliver the briefing.

3. Be proactive II. Conduct a quick safety briefing before starting any company activity such as a training exercise to advance and flow a portable master stream device. Highlight the potential hazards, how the hazards will be addressed, and what protective clothing and equipment is required. If you want your people to operate more safely on the fireground, take the time to mold them into more safely operating firefighters during every non-emergency opportunity.

4. Be proactive III. Teach and practice a safety double check procedure with your firefighters to be used before entering a hazard area. This involves checking a buddy to ensure he has all the gear on properly; if the team has the right tools; and if the team understands its assignment.

5. Be unyielding in enforcement. This applies to all of the organization's safety policies, procedures and rules. Be vigilant in non-emergency settings when training, working out or even preparing the evening meal. We had an incident where a firefighter was using a knife and cutting board, but not the protective cutting glove that was available. Result? A nasty laceration that required multiple stitches and a lost-time injury.

6. Be more than a safety cop. Make it a practice to tell firefighters that they've done something right regarding a safe work practice. Tell them every day. Psychologists say that a person must perform a new activity an average of 27 times correctly before it becomes an ingrained habit. You cannot give too much positive reinforcement when it comes to risk management and safety.

To be sure, the other two corners of your company officer hat occupy a significant portion of your daily activities. But all three elements — supervision, instruction and risk management — are very intertwined. All three will have an impact (good or bad) on your injury-prevention efforts.

So, what's your commitment? If you don't have the time to ensure they do it right, do you have the time to deal with the fallout of a firefighter injury or death on your watch?

About the author

Sponsored by Globe

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (Ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Va.) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an active instructor for fire, EMS, and hazardous materials courses at the local, state, and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor of science degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master of science degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program. Since his retirement in 2007, he has continued to be a life-long learner working in both the private and public sectors to further develop his "management sciences mechanic" credentials. He makes his home near Charleston, W.Va. Contact Robert at Robert.Avsec@FireRescue1.com



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