5 ways officers can keep firefighters safer

While firefighters are responsible for their own safety, the company officer has a great deal of influence over their behaviors

Nobody in a fire department's chain of command should have more influence on the safety performance of its firefighters than the individual company officer. Think about that statement for a moment and see if it doesn't fit your department.

Who is the first-line supervisor for the vast majority of your department's members?

Who has daily responsibility for the majority of your department's physical assets (fire stations and fire apparatus)?

The answer to both questions is a company officer.

Remember when we used to respond to motor vehicle accidents (MVAs)? Now we respond to motor vehicle crashes (MVCs).

So what's in a name? Conventional wisdom says that most MVCs are not accidents because they don't meet the Legal Dictionary's definition of "accident:"

In its most commonly accepted meaning, or in its ordinary or popular sense, the word may be defined as meaning: some sudden and unexpected event taking place without expectation upon the instant, rather than something that continues, progresses or develops; something happening by chance; something unforeseen, unexpected, unusual, extraordinary, or phenomenal, taking place not according to the usual course of things or events, out of the range of ordinary calculations; that which exists or occurs abnormally, or an uncommon occurrence.

Preventable behavior
Most MVCs happen as a result of a driver's behavior that a reasonable person would expect to cause the crash: speeding, failing to slow down in bad weather, failure to stop for a red light or stop sign, following too closely, etc. We've stopped referring to these incidents as accidents because they are preventable.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, every day, more than 12 workers die on the job — over 4,500 a year — and every year, more than 4.1 million workers suffer a serious job-related injury or illness. Most of these deaths, injuries and illnesses are preventable. To bring these numbers down, we need to focus on prevention.

Incidents of firefighters being injured or killed in their working environment, — the fire station or on the emergency scene — are not accidents because such incidents are preventable.

Each year, more than 2 million workers in the United States are injured severely enough on the job that they cannot return to work and need ongoing medical care. A company officer's job is to help protect firefighters from preventable accidents that threaten their work and wellbeing.

Although the officer's responsible for creating a safe work environment, it is firefighter's responsibility to take an active role in maintaining safety. To do this, officers can make sure firefighter follow these five best practices.

Avoid shortcuts 
It's natural to want to get the job finished on schedule — or even ahead of time — but with a "get it done quick" attitude, incidents happen. Don't take shortcuts — stick to the instructions and work with diligence and awareness of the surroundings.

Also, if there are shortcomings in the instructions, don't begin the task until they are clarified and all your questions are answered. The firefighters must always be comfortable and familiar with the procedure before commencing any work.

Be safe in transit 
According to OSHA, workplace driving accidents cost employers an average of $60 billion a year. Make sure that all departmental vehicles receive a daily safety check. Note needed repairs and complete required work orders to get those repairs completed and follow up to ensure that the repairs are made promptly.

The officer must be seated and belted before the fire apparatus moves. Likewise, the apparatus driver must make sure that all personnel are seated and belted before putting the vehicle in motion.

Always employ the use of at least one ground guide, preferably two, whenever backing fire apparatus even if the vehicle is equipped with a rear-view camera.

Weather the weather
Both inside and outdoor work or training may expose firefighters to extreme conditions. Whether very hot or very cold, both ends of the temperature spectrum can have an adverse impact on health.

When it is cold, be sure firefighters dress in layers and properly cover their head, feet, hands and face — these parts of the body are most prone to frostbite. They should always keep a change of clothes on the fire apparatus in case their clothes get wet.

When it is hot, make sure firefighters wear loose-fitting clothes, take frequent breaks in a cool rest area and get plenty of fluids. Have them remove personal protective equipment when appropriate during emergency operations or training exercises.

Make PPE a VIP
PPE is crucial to prevent injury, so make sure they wear it, and wear it properly. This includes:

  • Goggles and face protection to protect from flying particles, chemicals or caustic liquids.
  • Gloves to prevent cuts, scrapes, punctures, burns, chemical absorption or temperature extremes.
  • Helmets to safeguard against falling objects and bumping into overhead objects.
  • Safety shoes for work areas where heavy objects could be dropped and injure the feet.
  • Ear muffs or ear plugs to protect against hearing damage in noisy workplaces.

Keep an orderly house 
Many firefighters and officers don't realize the negative consequences of poor housekeeping. If an unkempt fire station becomes the norm — paper, debris, clutter and spills are accepted as familiar — then more serious health and safety hazards are overlooked and injuries become more probable.

Housekeeping goes beyond personal cleanliness — it also includes keeping all areas of the station orderly, taking care of any slip-and-trip hazards as soon as they arise and removing waste and fire hazards regularly.

Assess your work environment with a critical eye and pay attention to the layout of the workplace, aisle marking, adequacy of storage and maintenance. Report dangers or deficiencies right away.

The foundation of a safe fire station is good company officer leadership that incorporates the aforementioned practices and encourages firefighters to take safety measures seriously.

As a company officer, it's your job to make your firefighters feel comfortable asking questions and reporting dangerous situations — make them feel safe to be safe. 

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