Communicating Safety Beyond Conversation
As line officers, we are in a unique position to effectuate the change toward safety that everyone in our industry seems to understand is needed. Politicians and administrators can assist us in advocating a safer fire service, and even sometimes admonish us for not achieving it. They cannot, however, make it a reality without the assistance of those of us in the field.
There are many articles and websites devoted to safety — including what you're reading now. And although they can set the pace, it is up to firefighters and officers, particularly line officers, to meet that pace. The interaction between crew and officer, and then officer and chief, sets a tone for the agency and its attempts at establishing a culture of safety.
Clearly safety is paramount for a line officer. And although many will verbalize their desires for safety, there are many more wa ys for the officer to communicate it beyond conversation. Every firefighter has different capabilities of taking in the messages we send them, so we need to ensure that we do more than just talk the talk. Each firefighter must see their officers act in a safe manner and use positive and negative reinforcement of safe and unsafe practices
If we take a look at line-of-duty deaths and injuries just this year alone, response in both apparatus and personal vehicles remains very dangerous for fire and EMS personnel. As a line officer, I'm sure you've relayed the standard operating procedures of your department. These SOPs hopefully convey today's understanding that personnel who don't arrive safely can't do anyone any good. But do you follow these discussions up with non-verbal clues that let your crew know that you mean what you say and that they can feel secure in following your lead?
Most of us started off driving apparatus, but do you regal the recruits with tales of your adventures behind the wheel? If so, you may be giving the impression that that it's OK to be a little reckless for the "Big One." Such discussions remove all credibility you might have the next time you try to convey a safer message. Discussing "near-misses" is one thing, but glorifying our often less then glorious past does little good to convince newer members that they have a responsibility to themselves, fellow firefighters and the general public to respond reasonably.
For newer officers, it can be somewhat daunting to turn to a seasoned veteran driving the apparatus and tell them to slow down, but that's exactly what we need to do. Unsafe is simply that and unsafe actions, particularly behind the wheel of a multi-ton piece of fire equipment, need to be stopped when recognized. Don't get me wrong, I don't believe in ripping into a firefighter of any rank in front of their peers. Humiliation has a unique ability to stop people from hearing and simply doesn't work well. However, I can assure you that others in the apparatus will hear your direction to the driver and file that safety information away as more than an SOP, and as a true method of operation.
These actions do speak louder than words and the folks in the rig that day will soon convey — as we all know how word spreads around the apparatus room floor — to their peers that drivers need to drive appropriately with you in the rig. This action will give drivers and fellow officers the freedom they need to follow and enforce the SOPs equally well. To some, this may seem unnecessary but it's actually the opposite. Few individuals want to be the first to make or live with change, but if you help enforce this new way of life, others will have the courage to grab on as well.
PPE is a similar issue. The old axiom of training the way we fight so that we fight the way we train holds true for safety as well. How often do we see other officers or firefighters on the training ground with their PPE partially on or missing. I'm not discussing folks who are in rehab or catching their breath; I'm talking about those individuals who never seem to have their turnout coats fastened or their helmets on.
Officers need to set the example of proper PPE use all the time. These actions will give you the credibility to demand similar standards from your crew on the training ground and in turn on the fireground. This standard of conduct will be noticed and within time duplicated.
Finally, what do we as officers do about fellow officers who won’t live to the same standards we demand of our firefighters? Well, we take them to task. I'm not suggesting a knockdown, drag-out fight, but we do need to let them know that they need to help us set the tone for what we want our firefighters to do and how we want them to act. Although this may upset some, they might also come around and again your level of credibility will be heightened.
I urge everyone to keep talking about safety, but most importantly communicate safety more than just verbally. It's never too late to start.