Training firefighters to prioritize life safety and ‘own’ the CRR vision

New firefighters receive little training on fire prevention messages before being asked to deliver presentations and take action in the field

In every fire and emergency services department around this great nation, members seeking training to advance their skills and abilities in fireground tactics and strategies, EMS, officer development, technical rescue, hazardous materials … the list goes on and on. However, one area seldom considered for firefighter training is fire and life safety prevention/education, or community risk reduction (CRR).

Training firefighters on fire prevention

Once someone joins the fire service, they attend recruit school, where they learn about the many basic skills that will save them when confronted with challenging circumstances. Soon, they graduate, receive their assignments, and then here comes the station tour – the “pub ed” presentation or the company inspection, which we haven’t trained them for. We haven’t put those tools in the rookie’s toolbox.

As an organization, we must believe in the values and mission of protecting life and property, including before an emergency ever occurs.
As an organization, we must believe in the values and mission of protecting life and property, including before an emergency ever occurs. (Photo/City of Roanoke)

We’ve invested days, weeks, months and dollars into training these recruits without addressing one of the most basic and fundamental priorities that every firefighter should be trained to do – preventing a fire or emergency from occurring when possible.

Putting an untrained rookie into a position like this makes the firefighter resent fire prevention and erodes public trust in those giving a second-rate presentation or tour. 

We can prevent this lose-lose situation simply with training.

Believing in the mission – and taking action

First, as an organization, we must believe in the values and mission of protecting life and property, including before an emergency ever occurs. We must demonstrate it in our actions, behaviors and commitments (ABCs). It must truly be a core value!

Second, we must include this value, emphasize it and hold everyone accountable to it in every position, from the newest member to the most senior. It’s not enough to just incorporate the message into mission statements; we must demonstrate it.

Next, we should have an accurate understanding of what fire and life safety education, prevention and CRR truly is. A common misconception is that public education is only about teaching children about friendly firefighters, stop drop and roll, and calling 911.

However, if an exit door is blocked at the local grocery store when we stop for milk or at the restaurant where we are picking up dinner, that’s a fire safety educational moment. If we respond to a medical emergency in a home and hear a smoke alarm chirping, we shouldn’t ignore it. If we see someone intentionally starting a fire during a burn ban, we must take action. If we see a trip hazard at a place of business, it’s time to speak up and mitigate the danger. If we see a car about to drive across a flooded roadway, again, we must intervene and use the incident as an educational moment. In all of these situations, if prevention fails, it is our members who will respond to the resulting incident.

Too many firefighters believe public education is only about kids and that fire code violations should only be identified and addressed by someone from the Fire Marshal’s Office. Too often, we pass this responsibility to “the other shift.” Again, it goes back to the basics: We must be trained to own CRR efforts.

6 ways to prioritize fire and life safety

Here are a few ideas that can assist in making fire and life safety a priority in your organization:

1. Use data: This means that you should be able to present local, state and national statistics in key focus areas. Not just fire data, but also include unintentional injury statistics as well, especially if we find that most of our responses are EMS calls. What is the data to qualify it? Who are we responding to? When are the peak times we are responding? What are the types of calls?

Don’t just talk about property lost – celebrate property and lives saved, and the financial impact of those saves. Being able to present this information provides credibility when asking members to join in, the community to support programs and the elected officials to fund the programs.

2. Look outside: When we respond to incidents, what other agencies and organizations are affected? We in the fire service like to bear the burden of solving problems and often think we are the only ones affected. But there are others who also may be searching to solve the same problems and may have the additional resources to do it.

3. Find safety advocates: Fire and emergency services professionals – career workers or volunteers – do not want anything bad to happen to anyone. Deep down, we swore an oath to protect lives and property, despite the craving for that working fire.

Create dialogue and communication to find those who have a special interest that can be utilized. Those who are electricians can talk about electrical safety. Those who are in construction can talk about site safety, fall prevention and other safety areas. Find something that sparks an interest and turn their interest into safety advocacy.

4. Put the tools in the toolbox: Provide the training that will make members successful. Don’t expect them to be teachers if they haven’t been taught how to be, nor expect them to be experts on topics they aren’t familiar with.

5. Keep it simple: Once the tools have been provided, keep the message simple, consistent and relevant. We are the experts in our industry. It’s easy to drift from the fire triangle to positive pressure ventilation attacks, flow paths and reading smoke in the blink of an eye.

6. Celebrate success: There’s no guarantee that everyone will get on board with fire and life safety prevention or CRR. But when they do, celebrate it. When there is a successful outcome internally or externally, celebrate it. Small wins are consolidated gains that become great success stories.

Eat the CRR elephant one bite at a time

There are many ways to engage members of the organization to embrace fire and life safety and CRR. The best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time, so don’t ignore it just because it’s in the room, and don’t accept, “It’s not my job,” as an answer. It’s all of our jobs as long as the patch is on our arm.

Be safe!

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