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The Root to Improving Safety

“Near-miss reporting” and the company officer’s attitude is the root to improving safety.

With the advent of “near-miss reporting,” the fire service has finally identified that actual accidents are a poor way to measure safety. Just because there is no history of accidents does not guarantee that there will be none in the future. Nor should we wait until an accident happens to assess the safety of fire service operations. Posting favorable numbers about the accident rate per X number of hours/days worked at a particular workplace or operation may make us feel that we operate safely, but the fact is worthless if your fire department is one of the few that has a mishap.

Safety is a personal thing, and so should be our approach to safety.

The fire service today offers everyone the opportunity to be a safe professional. Fire departments are allowed to control all of the factors affecting operational safety, such as firefighter and support personnel hiring; personnel staffing; operating procedures; equipment selection; maintenance; dispatching; and, of course, training.

For example, consider just one safety factor: crew staffing and crew cohesion. The concept of fire company cohesion, or how closely firefighters are tied together as a group, plays an important role in fireground safety. Studies of fire crews have shown that the less cohesion crews have, the more likely they are to be involved in accidents. These less-cohesive crews may be made up of firefighters from different stations, shifts, or even departments, and they may not have had the opportunity to work or train together. But it need not be a problem.

Safety depends upon the degree to which a fire department manages all the elements under its control, the most important being its personnel. Studies show that “people errors” cause the vast majority of accidents in high-risk professions, including the fire service. Managing people and managing safety are intertwined.

The company officer’s role in establishing a culture that encourages safety cannot be underestimated. For example, an officer’s pressure to operate in an unsafe environment, such as marginal conditions at a structure fire or with fatigued crews, definitely compromises safety. When company officers embrace safe practices, so do the firefighters in their company. Safety must be a way of life; a lifestyle that is practiced every minute of the shift, whether on the fireground, during training or while doing chores at the station. Adherence to safe attitudes and safe actions will provide the highest probability that everyone will go home.

To measure your company’s safety, measure your firefighters’ attitudes toward safety. Do your firefighters treat safety as a way of life? Do you, the company officer, promote a non-threatening environment where your firefighters can openly discuss incidents and mishaps? Do you respond to these “close-call” incidents through retraining or retribution?

When measuring the safety of your firefighters, look at safety attitudes. They are more user-friendly than accidents.

The many years of analyzing safety in the fire service have taught us that accidents continue to occur for much of the same reasons they always have. Even as technology and protective equipment have improved, the risk factors haven’t changed much. Weather, time, fatigue and attitudes are some of the unforgiving elements that continue to confront firefighters while they are at work.

Finding ways to counteract risk factors is difficult and slow work, but the fire service has made progress. One prominent example is the acceptance and practice of a crew resource management program that focuses on teamwork, communicating under stress, making critical decisions and understanding task overload and situational awareness.

As it is with most things, a change in the overall safety performance of the fire service comes slowly. The good news is that change is lasting. New equipment and new attitudes, including the understanding of human factors and training methods, are all contributing to a change for the better.

Fire department company officers can influence every part of fire station life, from culture and motivation to LODD reduction. Learn to lead effectively with Billy Schmidt’s FireRescue1 exclusive column, ‘The Company Officer.’