5 things you can do right now to improve operational firefighter safety

Firefighter safety doesn’t preclude efficiency, and it is the responsibility of every emergency responder on scene


By Rommie L. Duckworth, LP

Most firefighters think that they are as safe as the demands of their job will allow. While total firefighter injuries are going down, preventable injuries and deaths continue to plague the fire service. Firefighters, officers and chiefs who want to stack the cards in favor of improving both safety and operational effectiveness have to begin by looking at the big five myths of firefighter operational safety.

1. Myth: Safety is a thing you do

Truth: Safety is not an individual thing to do, nor a particular tool to use or a certain way to use it. Safety is the way we must approach everything we do in emergency operations.

Here’s an example from routine fire department roadway operations: simply putting a reflective vest on is not safety. Safety is employing good traffic incident management to alert and divert traffic, safely blocking and protecting the area of operations. Demanding that firefighters all wear reflective vests while not using other simple traffic incident management techniques is safety lip service and is neither safe nor operationally effective.

2. Myth: A responder can either be safe or can ‘get in there and do something’

Truth: It is not an either/or choice between operational effectiveness and operational safety. This does not mean that as firefighters, we will take no action unless it is completely safe. It means that we will take and direct necessary actions in a manner that will allow us to remain operationally effective.

Allowing actions that cause unnecessary and preventable injuries will take firefighters out of the fight, and that isn’t good either in the short term for the incident, or for the long term for the firefighter.

This practice is illustrated in the IAFC Safety, Health and Survival Sections’ Rules of Engagement for Firefighter Survival.

3. Myth: Operational safety begins on scene

Truth: Just like operational effectiveness, operational safety must begin way before the emergency call to be effective. Departments must understand how to manage risk in every aspect of their operations.

Risk management consists of four steps:

  • Identification. Recognizing the hazards (accidents, illnesses and injuries) associated with emergency operations that occur either within your own agency or within agencies performing similar duties.
  • Evaluation. Looking at hazard and asking how frequently this hazard occurs and how severe or expensive it may be.
  • Control. Controlling the risks and hazards by either avoiding the activity that poses the risk, transferring the risk by having some other specialist person or agency perform the risky activity, and finally taking control – when it is not possible to either avoid or transfer the hazard – taking steps reduce either the chance of occurrence or the impact of the hazard.
  • Monitoring. The final step in risk management is to continually evaluate for new hazards, changes in the existing hazards and the effectiveness of the measures in place to avoid, and/or control the existing hazards.

Risk management helps to improve the safety of not only emergency operations, but all of the activities that help support emergency operations, including apparatus and equipment maintenance, training, vehicle response and support operations.

4. Myth: If another emergency responder is unsafe, that's their problem

Truth: If a responder gets injured or causes injury because of unsafe actions, it will destroy the operational effectiveness of the other emergency responders. A simple review of NIOSH firefighter fatality investigations will quickly convince any firefighter, officer or chief of how much of a challenge it can be to maintain effective incident operations once firefighters on scene become injured or killed.

5. Myth: Only the chief, incident commander, or safety officer can stop an unsafe action

Truth: It must be within the ability of every emergency responder to immediately stop any unsafe action on any scene at any time for any reason. In fact it is the responsibility of every emergency responder to do so.

Programs such as The Firefighter Near Miss Program and the EMS Volunteer Event Notification Tool currently exist to track both firefighter and EMS near misses. These tools can be used to identify potential hazards discovered by agencies similar to yours performing similar tasks under similar conditions and can also be used to reinforce a central concept underlying effective crew resource management, which is that anyone can and must report a key safety issue and has the power to stop operations if they identify an immediate life-threatening safety concern.

This concept must be backed up not only by standard operating procedures, but also by training and real-world practice. This same concept should also be applied to firefighters alerting their team, section or division leaders of critical clues and cues to enhance situational awareness in order to improve operational effectiveness. No single incident commander, no matter how skilled and experienced, can be everywhere on-scene and consider every factor from every angle.

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