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How your company officers influence firefighter PPE behavior

A recent study makes some fundamentally wrong, and right, assertions about firefighter safety practices


“Backdraft” came out almost 30 years ago. It shouldn’t still be influencing firefighter PPE perceptions.

Updated Aug. 22, 2017

Do members of your fire department always wear proper safety gear on every incident? If not, why not?

A study by Drexel University suggests that peer pressure and a desire to live up to popular expectations might be factors when firefighters fail to use appropriate PPE.

I have to admit that I have some doubts about this study based on personal experience. The fact that only 123 firefighters from 12 different departments were interviewed adds to my skepticism. My observation in recent years is that most firefighters are good about using PPE most of the time.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. When I first became a firefighter back in 1980, many of the older members did not consistently wear PPE.

I remember one incident with a fully involved detached garage with a vehicle in it. My captain and I were dousing hot spots after the main fire was knocked down.

I was wearing full PPE including SCBA. I looked over to my captain. He had on an open bunker coat over his polyester uniform pants, a helmet with no chinstrap and cowboy boots. And he was smoking a cigarette.

That was over 35 years ago. Times have changed.

When explaining where expectations for behavior come from, the research study referred to popular media references about firefighters, such as the movie “Backdraft.” But that film came out 25 years ago. And not that many people who I knew took it very seriously even at the time.

Firefighter Risk awareness

Firefighters today know the dangers. They know that firefighters have a higher risk of developing cancer and other diseases compared to the general public.

They all know someone who has been injured on the job. They know, either from personal experience or from the media, what first responders from the World Trade Center are going through with their health challenges. They’ve been to too many funerals.

There were some good reasons why firefighters did not always wear full PPE back in 1980. For one thing, we didn’t have full PPE. We routinely wore day boots into fires, and Nomex hoods wouldn’t become available for years. And we had no medical protective gear at all back then.

In addition, protective gear was often poorly designed so as to seem like a hazard in itself. Gloves didn’t fit. One-size-fit-all air masks rarely fit anyone. And generically sized bunker gear was bulky.

Thankfully, those days are long past. Now there is no excuse for firefighters not always wearing PPE when it is needed. And I don’t believe that the reason they sometimes don’t is because they are trying to be like some actor in a movie.

But let’s be honest, sometimes firefighters do cut corners. Maybe they’re in a hurry. Maybe they justify it by saying that they’ll only be in the building for a minute or two.

One thing I remember from my early days as a firefighter is that my coworkers and officers always encouraged me to wear full protective gear, even if they didn’t. There was no obvious stigma to being safe, as the research study suggests.

Firefighters are watching Fire Officers for PPE Direction

However, there was the issue of example. Firefighters look to their officers and other informal leaders to know what to do. My officers said the right words about PPE, but they didn’t always do the right thing. And that example gave me permission to not always do the right thing either.

A firefighter I met at a safety conference recently said it well. “When I was new on the job, I watched what my officer did at fires. If he took his mask off, I took mine off too.”

This firefighter followed his officer’s example, even if his officer didn’t expect him to, and even if it went against his better judgment at times.

Make sure your company officers understand the power they have just by virtue of example. They can say the right words, but if they don’t do the right thing, their crews will follow their actions rather than their words.

The Drexel University study has its limitations, but it did get one thing right. As it states in its summary conclusion, “Leading by example at the peer and organizational levels appear(s) to be essential … when choosing whether or not to engage in safety behavior.”

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.