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Firefighter PPE compliance: How to achieve buy-in

A systematic approach that creates a “new normal” within the department is critical to firefighter commitment

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The proper use of the structural firefighting protective ensemble during fire suppression operations and the decontamination of personnel as they exit the hazard area have become of paramount concern for firefighters and officers alike.

AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

As we closed out the decade of the 2010s, one of the hottest topics is protecting firefighters from carcinogens, toxic chemicals and toxic compounds present in the products of combustion in today’s structure fires.

The proper use of the structural firefighting protective ensemble during fire suppression operations and the decontamination of personnel as they exit the hazard area have become of paramount concern for firefighters and officers alike.

Firefighter participation vs. commitment

A useful analogy to aid in understanding the meaning of and differences between participation and commitment involves the roles of a chicken and pig in the preparation of a hearty country breakfast of eggs and bacon. The chicken participates, but the pig is committed.

Many fire departments and their personnel are participating in efforts to reduce the exposure of their personnel to the hazards present during structural firefighting, but their degree of commitment to those efforts cannot be taken for granted. And without commitment, any measures put in place are not likely to succeed in the long term.

A systematic approach for the long game

Fire department leaders can only expect a high level of commitment – with a resulting higher level of compliance – through a systematic approach to the challenges encountered. A fire department’s leadership must clearly define the what, why, who, and how for the department’s Cancer Exposure Reduction Program (CERP).

A successful program will have three key components that we’ll call the department’s “governing documents”:

  1. A policy that outlines the department’s key strategies for reducing exposures that includes employee/member on-boarding; entry-level training; incumbent staff training; PPE selection and procurement; PPE use; post-exposure decontamination of personnel and equipment; documentation of exposures; and medical surveillance for personnel.
  2. Standard operational procedures (SOPs) that clearly link to the applicable sections of the policy and that provide clear direction necessary for compliance by all personnel.
  3. Processes that clearly describe the necessary actions for personnel to comply with each of those SOPs.

Leadership at all levels of the organization must receive training and education so that they are informed and educated about the governing documents and their role in gaining commitment from their direct reports for the actions and behaviors required in those documents.

This is crucial for the department’s first-level supervisors (e.g., company officers), as they have the most direct influence on the majority of the department’s assets, like personnel, apparatus, equipment and facilities. Without the commitment of everyone at this level of the organization’s management team, any department would reduce its opportunity to successfully implement a CERP.

Training and education for all personnel

Every individual employee/member must receive the necessary training and education about the risks posed by their exposure to the products of combustion present during interior structural firefighting. Such a program of training and education should focus on informing and educating personnel about the department’s CERP policy, the program’s SOGs, and especially their role in following the identified processes that support the SOGs.

That programmatic training and education must be provided and emphasized during entry-level training for new employees/members. A separate program of training and education must address incumbent staff and should be delivered at least annually. That program should not merely provide refresher training on the training they received at the entry-level but should also provide feedback on the implementation of the CERP including, but not limited to, compliance issues encountered, how compliance issues are being addressed, and what needs to be done to continue making progress on successful implementation of the program.

Provide a range of firefighter PPE options

For too long, the structural firefighting protective ensemble (turnout gear) has been the sole PPE option available to fire department personnel, even as the mission of many fire departments has expanded into non-firefighting activities (e.g., EMS, technical rescue, wildland/WUI firefighting).

We’re becoming increasingly aware that even after proper laundering and drying of PPE elements, there remains some degree of contaminants to which the coat and pants were exposed. It’s therefore incumbent that a fire department’s CERP makes it clear that the structural firefighting ensemble only be worn during response to structural fires. Period.

Increasingly, many fire departments are coming to the realization that every structural fire is a hazardous materials incident as well. If that’s true (and I firmly believe that it is), then we must take the position that the only time firefighters and officers wear their structural firefighting ensemble is when they respond to structure fires and engage in interior structural fire suppression operations.

Responders to hazmat incidents (e.g., technicians and specialists) only don their chemical protective equipment (Level A or Level B) to make an entry and then get out of it as soon as possible. They certainly don’t wear their PPE any other time, do they?

As such, fire departments must provide their personnel with PPE options for those other emergency calls for service. Fire departments should look at PPE options such as:

Creating the new normal

Sociology researchers have discovered that if a leader wants to make meaningful and lasting cultural changes in an organization – to really change how the people in an organization think and behave – it’s not going to be by changing what’s inside of people or appealing to their inner sense of virtue (what’s right). Instead, the leader just must convince them that “everybody else is doing it.”

“The inner conformist is stronger than the inner activist,” said Michael Morris, a psychologist at Columbia University who studies the role of culture in decision-making.

Most of us think of progress or improvement as the spread of enlightened thinking and the expansion of morality. We believe that in order to change the culture of a fire department, we can do it by appealing to the sense of right and wrong in our people.

But as I wrote in a blog in 2014, that’s not how real change takes place in organizations. Rather, it’s about creating a new normal. People want to be normal; they don’t want to the outliers in their group.

Create the new normal and you’ll be well on your way to creating a solid CERP in your fire department because you’ll have a higher level of commitment from everyone.

The views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of the sponsor.

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an 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’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.

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