Why firefighters choose unsafe actions when they know better

Mitigating the negative influences of goal seduction, situation aversion and firefighter identity are critical to fostering a culture of safety


This article originally appeared in the FireRescue1 Digital Edition, "Dirty Helmet Syndrome: Are you afflicted?" Download your copy here

By Jennfer A. Taylor, Ph.D, MPH, CPPS; Joseph A. Allen, Ph.D.; Andrea Davis, MPH, CPH; and Alexandra Fisher, MPH

Have you ever wondered why firefighters who know how and when to use their SCBA take it off during a structural fire or overhaul? It's like grabbing a bag of chips when we know we should be having a salad. 

Much like there is a gap between people knowing what is healthy to eat and what they actually consume, there is a gap between firefighters knowing how to do their job safely and complying with safety. The FIRST Center named this gap the "Black Box of Decision-Making." Firefighters know that they will be exposed to toxins and carcinogens from combustion, but often remove their SCBA nonetheless. 

Firefighters know that they will be exposed to toxins and carcinogens from combustion, but often remove their SCBA nonetheless.
Firefighters know that they will be exposed to toxins and carcinogens from combustion, but often remove their SCBA nonetheless. (Photo/Bob Graham)

Why do firefighter sometimes make decision that conflict with their knowledge? 

Safety knowledge and safety motivation

Here's what we know and what science and practice have told us. There are two antecedents to safety behaviors: safety knowledge and safety motivation. 

  • Safety knowledge means you must know how to perform a behavior safely to enact that safe beahvior. It's difficult to wear a SCBA properly if the individual doesn't know how. Thus, the first step is knowing the right thing to do. 
  • Safety motivation reflects someone's willingness to put in the effort to carry out a safe behavior. That willingness may stem from safety knowledge, but it also comes from an awareness of the consequences of deviating from safety standards and protocols, as well as what may be expected of peers and leadership. Someone has to have both the knowledge to carry out the safe behavior and be motivated in order to conduct safe behaviors. 

If safety knowledge and motivation are present, then firefighters comply with safety standards (i.e., safety compliance) and help others do likewise (i.e., safety citizenship), which then contributes positively to safety outcomes, such as injuries, near misses and line-of-duty deaths (LODDs). The "Black Box of Decision-Making" gives some of the reasons why knowledge and motivation do not always result in the right bahviors. 

Breaking down the Black Box

Research suggests that at goal seduction and situation aversion may be at play: 

  • Goal seduction is a drive toward unsafe behaviors to meet a goal. 
  • Situation aversion is a drive away form safe behaviors. 

To understand how these factors might impact SCBA and PPE use specifically, the FIRST Center conducted a study that included interviews with 123 firefighter from 12 fire departments across the country. About two-thirds of participants were frontline personnel while the other one-third were supervisors. These interviews shed light on some of the prominent reasons why firefighters do not always comply with PPE and SCBA policies and practices, such as firefighter image and social and individual pressures.

FIRST found five factors that constitute the "Black Box" and have the potential to impact firefighter decisions in real time. Three factors are negative influences on safety behaviors, and two are positive influences. 

Photo/FIRST Center Publication

Negative influences: Situation aversion and goal seduction were identified as negative influences on safety behavior. For example, firefighters want to get on scene quickly so they can provide help – and arrive before other responders so they can initiate incident command. So, they may drive faster than they should or ride in the apparatus without a seatbelt while donning the rest of their gear en route. 

Another example of goal seduction was convenience and increased mobility regarding PPE. As one participant stated: "... it's easier for me to pull my helmet off, and take a look, if I need to look up or whatever, or put my face piece on – it's just a lot easier not to use a chin strap, which can slow you down in certain things."

Some firefighters expressed wanting to fit in and not complying with safety behaviors because they observed that others were not. Mocking or taunging by peers for being safe creates situation aversion. One paricipant explained it this way: "When I started as a firefighter, my experience was that you got frowned on for wearing your breathing apparatus. 'Come on, don't be a sissy, you don't need that. Get in here and fight that fire,' you know, and it contradicted for me my training. In my rookie training they emphasized wear your breathing apparatus, and then I get in the station and I'm working with an officer whose been in the fire service a long time where that culture was different – very different that what I was trained on. We got frowned on somewhat. I mean I felt some peer pressure that was like, aw man, he wears his breathing apparatus."

The third negative influence in the "Black Box" is firefighter identity. How firefighters see themselves and want to be seen by society can negatively impact their safety decisions. In interviews, participants shared that dirty gear and a "tough guy" attitude were embedded in fire service culture. In this example, clean turnout gear was associated with inexperience and being less authentic, rather than being new, safe or idea: "... when I first started working with the fire department, ... I put my new turnouts on, and they were like, .... we've gotta get you into a fire and get your turnouts all dirty, because you look brand new."

Individual will and organizational solidarity are the two "Black Box" factors that can positively influence a firefighter's decision to comply with fireground policies.
Individual will and organizational solidarity are the two "Black Box" factors that can positively influence a firefighter's decision to comply with fireground policies. (Photo/Spokane Fire Department)

Positive influences: Individual will and organizational solidarity are the two "Black Box" factors that can positively influence a firefighter's decision to comply. 

Individual will is the ability to use what is learned in training to carry out safe behaviors and use safety knowledge to advocate for oneself. One participant explained why he used his pack: "I carried it [air pack]. It's sill smokey, and I'm not taking it off until it's empty ... And I'm looking around, and everybody's hacking horribly from the poison. Everybody's got snot running down their nose ... [They told me] 'oh, no, you're all right. Come off the pack.' I'm looking around like nope, I'm not doing it, and I caught hell for it. But you know what? I did what I had to do and left the pack on."

Organizational solidarity is the idea that firefighters are more likely to wear their PPE properly when there is support from both peers and leadership to do so. This means that the safety culture of a department can influence whether personnel wear their PPE properly and at appropriate times. 

Taking advantage of firefighter comradery and the strong sense of looking out for fellow responders could be a powerful tool for improvement. Here's one example: "We go on the scene, look at a scene with what your brother or your sister's wearing, and make sure you're following suit with that. I mean especially going on the fire scene, we want to make sure we have our PPE on, if we got to look at our buddy here or our brother, make sure that he's properly donned, got all his stuff on becasue any exposure could mean his life ...."

This is good news. It means there are steps that can be taken to mitigate these internal and external conflicts in firefighters' decisions, such as improving the culture around safe practices in a department. Leadership and company officers can make a difference through leading by example. They and veteran firefighters have a strong influence on rank-and-file members and can use that influence for positive change. They can also acknowledge the tensions or conflicts that personnel might be feeling and work toward a more positive safety culture by consistently rewarding and supporting safe practices. Creating a culture where safe practices are in step with, rather than in conflict with, firefighter identity is key. 

You can be the change

Think of these five, "Black Box of Decision-Making" factors as levers. you have the power to push and pull them to encourage or discourage safe behaviors. As an individual, you can carry out safe behaviors even when others may not, and you can check on your brothers and sisters to make sure they are protecting themselves from the many hazards you face every shift. As leaders, you can work to change the image of what a firefighter looks like in your department by creating organizational solidary through policy and practice. 

In 2012, the FIRST Center was awarded a FEMA AFG Research and Development Grant to create the Fire Service Organizational Culture of Safety (FOCUS) survey. The FOCUS survey was developed using data from the same interviews that constructed the "Black Box of Decision-Making." The survey was field-tested with 130 career and volunteer fire departments from a geographically statified random sample of all 10 FEMA regions (approximately 800 stations and 10,000 firefighters). 

There are two dimensions to FOCUS: Management Commitment and Supervisor Support, both of which reflect members' perceptions of their superiors' commitment to safety. Other previously validated scales are included on the FOCUS survey (burnout, work engagement and job satisfaction) so that organizational outcomes can be measured in conjuction with safety outcomes. The resultant industry-specific, firefighter safety culture survey was psychometrically validated and shown to predict firefighter safety compliance, burnout, morale, engagement and injuries. FOCUS has a negative relationship with injury rates and burnout, and a positive relationship with job satisfaction, work engagement, and safety behaviors. 

With the FOCUS tool developed, the FIRST Center moved FOCUS from research to practice, which was funded through two FEMA AFG Fire Prevention and Safety Grants, both of which partnered the FIRST Center with the Fire Department Safety Officers Associated (FDSOA). This collaboration created national fire service impact by widely disseminating the FOCUS survey to provide customized analysis for participating departments.

More than 500 departments and 60,000 members of the fire service have been assessed with FOCUS, creating the largest known sample of firefighters to date. Over 100 departments have administered FOCUS multiple times, showing its adoption as a useful tool by the fire service. FOCUS can provide fire departments diagnostic data regarding the safety cliamte in which their members are making important decisions every day. 


Sidebar: FOCUS: Study information

In 2012, the FIRST Center was awarded a FEMA AFG Research and Development Grant to create the Fire Service Organizational Culture of Safety (FOCUS) survey. The FOCUS survey was developed using data from the same interviews that constructed the “Black Box of Decision-Making.” The survey was field-tested with 130 career and volunteer fire departments from a geographically stratified random sample of all 10 FEMA regions (approximately 800 stations and 10,000 firefighters).

There are two dimensions to FOCUS: Management Commitment and Supervisor Support, both of which reflect members’ perceptions of their superiors’ commitment to safety. Other previously validated scales are included on the FOCUS survey (burnout, work engagement and job satisfaction) so that organizational outcomes can be measured in conjunction with safety outcomes.5-7 The resultant industry-specific, firefighter safety culture survey was psychometrically validated and shown to predict firefighter safety compliance, burnout, morale, engagement and injuries. FOCUS has a negative relationship with injury rates and burnout, and a positive relationship with job satisfaction, work engagement, and safety behaviors.8

With the FOCUS tool developed, the FIRST Center moved FOCUS from research to practice, which was funded through two FEMA AFG Fire Prevention and Safety Grants, both of which partnered the FIRST Center with the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA). This collaboration created national fire service impact by widely disseminating the FOCUS survey to provide customized analysis for participating departments.9

More than 500 departments and 60,000 members of the fire service have assessed with FOCUS, creating the largest known sample of firefighters to date. Over 100 departments have administered FOCUS multiple times, showing its adoption as a useful tool by the fire service. FOCUS can provide fire departments diagnostic data regarding the safety climate in which their members are making important decisions every day.


About the Authors

Jennifer A. Taylor, Ph.D., MPH, CPPS, is the director of the Center for Firefighter Injury Research and Safety Trends (FIRST) and Arthur L. and Joanne B. Frank Professor of Environmental & Occupational Health. Dr. Taylor has been trained in the field of injury prevention and control and uses its principles to address safety issues in healthcare and first responder industries. For first responders, Dr. Taylor applies her surveillance and safety climate expertise to the U.S. fire and rescue service, investigating the relationship between safety culture and injury risk.

Joseph A. Allen, Ph.D., is affiliate faculty for the FIRST Center and professor of industrial and organizational (I/O) psychology at the University of Utah. His research focuses on three major areas of inquiry, including the study of workplace meetings, organizational community engagement, and occupational safety and health. Dr. Allen directs the Center for Meeting Effectiveness housed in the Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, and has consulted for more than 400 non-profit and for-profit organizations.

Andrea Davis, MPH, CPH, is senior project manager for the FIRST Center at the Drexel University Dornsife School of Public Health. Davis oversees the day-to-day operations of the Center, including all research operations, and serves as the qualitative expert on the team. Her experience spans all aspects of study design, including Institutional Review Board submission, creation of essential study materials, facilitating interviews and focus groups, and NVivo data analysis, among others. Davis trains all graduate students and Fire Service Injury Research, Epidemiology, and Evaluation (FIRE) Fellows on qualitative data collection and analysis.

Alexandra Fisher, MPH, is the education and training coordinator for the FIRST Center. Fisher contributed to the health communication campaigns and outreach efforts for both the FOCUS survey and the COVID-19 RAPID Mental Health Assessment (RAPID) project. She has assisted with the recruitment and retention efforts of departments participating in FOCUS and RAPID. As a FIRE Fellow, Fisher worked to evaluate the safety training program that is part of FOCUS. She now continues this work as the education and training coordinator.

For inquiries, please contact Tori Gallogly, FIRST Center outreach and communications coordinator at vhg25@drexel.edu.

References

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  2. Neal A, Griffin MA & Hart PM. (2000). The impact of organizational climate on safety climate and individual behavior. Safety Science.
  3. Bearman C, Bremner PA. A day in the life of a volunteer incident commander: errors, pressures and mitigating strategies. Appl Ergono.
  4. Maglio MAScott CDavis ALAllen JTaylor JA. (2016). Situational Pressures that Influence Firefighters' Decision Making about Personal Protective Equipment: A Qualitative Analysis. Am J Health Behav. 
  5. Maslach C, Jackson SE (1981). The measurement of experienced burnout. Journal of Occupational Behavior.
  6. Schaufeli WB, Slanova M, González-Romá V, Bakker AB (2002). The Measurement of Engagement and Burnout: A two-sample confirmatory factor analytic approach. Journal of Happiness Studies.
  7. Sexton JB, Helmreich RL, Neilands TB, et al. (2006). The Safety Attitudes Questionnaire: Psychometric properties, benchmarking data, and emerging research. BMC Health Services Research.
  8. Taylor JA, Davis AL, Shepler L, et al. (2019). Development and validation of the fire service safety climate scale. Safety Science.
  9. Davis AY, Allen JA, Shepler LJ, et al. (2020). Moving FOCUS - The Fire Service Organizational Culture of Safety survey - From research to practice. Journal of Safety Research. Special Issue: NOIRS.

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