Cutting through the noise: Leaders speak up about safety messages

Fire service leaders address size-up, situational awareness, roadway safety, proper PPE, complacency, go/no-go decision-making and more


We hear about safety ALL the time, so much so that many within our ranks tune out the message as soon as they hear the word. For those members, what could be a life-or-death discussion turns into mere noise akin to Charlie Brown’s teacher – “Wah wah, wah wah.”

As leaders, we must ensure we are using the tools that will cut through the noise – tools like videos of close calls and analysis reports of incident investigations. We must also amplify the messages of fire service leaders who have experienced first-hand why pushing on safety messages matters.

I asked fire service leaders from across the country – departments large and small, paid and volunteer – to encapsulate that one safety-related topic that they believe firefighters must focus on – right now. But first, allow me to offer a few observations about seemingly simply safety issues from watching departments in action recently.

Simple fixes to serious issues

Three examples driven by personal pet peeves that flabbergast me when I see firefighters continue to struggle with them: SCBA waist straps, vehicle seatbelts and running red traffic lights. They are all there for REAL reasons; they aren’t simple adornments added for some nostalgic or peripheral purpose.

Waist straps: Not buckling the waist strap is akin to not buttoning up your turnout coat. Every one of the straps, buttons, buckles and clasps on your PPE ensemble has purpose and deserves our attention. Remember these three important factors with respect to waist straps:

  1. Entanglement: Dangling straps can easily become entangled in anything from ladder components and fallen debris to doorways and narrow passages.
  2. Weight distribution: Properly buckled straps are designed to transfer the weight of the SCBA from your shoulders to your hips. Without them being buckled, your shoulders and back are taking the full weight of the SCBA ensemble.
  3. Rescue: While we hope to one day have drag-straps on every turnout coat, until then – and even after as a backup – the SCBA straps serve the important purpose for pulling firefighters out of tight spots, but only IF the waist strap is buckled. If the waist strap is not buckled, the SCBA is highly likely to pull right off the back of a firefighter you’re trying to drag.

Seatbelts: This really needs no introduction or explanation, yet we continue to see ejections during wrecks – ejections that are either occurring because of a defective seatbelt clasp or, more likely, because firefighters simply were not wearing their seatbelt.

Red traffic lights: We routinely see significant wrecks where apparatus fail to yield IN ANY WAY as they approach an intersection. In 2020, an FDNY engine collided with an ambulance traveling along the cross-street, tragically resulting in 1 fatality and 11 injuries. I don’t know who was at fault, but I do know that in both cases, one of them had a red light. Then in 2021, a Kansas City engine entered an intersection against a red light, striking a civilian vehicle that resulted in three civilian fatalities. And this year, a New Jersey truck broadsided a civilian vehicle, resulting in the deaths of the two individuals in that vehicle. Remember, we don’t own the intersections. Not only can we not help anybody if we don’t get there in the first place, but must CANNOT endanger our citizens’ lives. 

We routinely see significant wrecks where apparatus fail to yield IN ANY WAY as they approach an intersection.
We routinely see significant wrecks where apparatus fail to yield IN ANY WAY as they approach an intersection. (Photo/Getty)

Each of these issues is fixable and fully within our personal and organizational control. Beyond the laws, standards and manufacturer recommendations and specifications, I’d bet that most, if not all of, our departments have clear policies about stopping or at least controlling intersections, properly wearing SCBA and always wearing seatbelts. So, stop at the red lights, wear the stinking straps/belts and deal with it if someone is observed not wearing them or driving accordingly! It’s that simple.

While I could go on about many other safety-related concerns, I’d like share what other fire service leaders shared on this topic. Specifically, I asked fire service leaders, “What one topic should firefighters be focusing on right now?” This was an off-the-cuff discussion, with no time to prepare, so the discussions are raw and real. Here are the topics they amplified.

Scene size-up, roadway operations and go/no-go decisions

Deputy Chief Billy Goldfeder (Loveland-Symmes FD in Ohio) focused on size-up, specifically that size-up isn’t merely a scene discussion. “Size-up your crew, size-up your training, size-up your abilities, and then never stop sizing-up,” he said. In explaining the benefit of the continuous size-up cycle, Goldfeder continued, “then when you arrive on an incident – or have to deal with your members, your size-up provides you the reminder of what you know versus arriving to a blind date.” Size-up, size-up, size-up.

My discussion with Fire Chief Rich Cowger (Columbus Fire Rescue in Montana) focused on roadway operations and comes on the heels of two state troopers and a fire engine being struck on the roadway in the previous three weeks. Cowger cautioned about, “not getting complacent and keeping an eye on the things that come out of nowhere to get you.” As I’ve instructed many times before, treat traffic incidents like radiation: Limit your time on target, distance yourself from moving traffic, and shield yourself with big stuff, like apparatus. Get there, get done, and get out!

Chief Fred Windisch (Ponderosa FD in Texas) shared Goldfeder’s general comments about scene size-up, specifically mentioning the on-scene evaluation of survivability and the process for go/no-go decision-making. We see the complexity of that process play out time after time, most recently in the South Strickler Street (Baltimore) LODD report.

Situational awareness and complacency

As it relates to situational awareness, Chief Charles Hood (San Antonio Fire) emphasized the need to recognize the difference between the residential and commercial mentalities when fighting fires. This was a significant finding in the after-action LODD report for Firefighter Scott Deem (2017). Hood emphasized the overall concern about freelancing, and the need to not allow freelancing to become “normalized deviance.”

The discussion with retired Fire Chief John Buckman (German Township VFD in Indiana) on complacency was less than 24-hours after a close call with a German Township firefighter. Similar in context to Hood’s comments, Buckman commented: “Plan for the worst. Our job is to mount an aggressive response within minutes of a call. You just can’t go from 0 mph to 100 mph in two seconds. It’s hard enough to do in four-minutes!”

In explaining his focus, Fire Chief Tim Sendelbach (Loveland Fire in Colorado) commented: “Act as directed, report your progress, and stay in your lane. It’s not rocket science! Size-up the situation, deploy the required personnel, apply the appropriate tactics (not tactics of personal interest), review progress, and revise as necessary.”

Retired Captain Mackensen (Consumes Fire in California) continues to be active with the U.S. Forest Service in wildfire mitigation. He commented: “We really need to work on developing situational awareness skills. Nearly every accident investigation report I see notes that those involved missed changes that were taking place in the fire environment. Whether it is weather changes, changes in fire behavior, fuel type, changes in available resources, or just the hair on your neck standing up. We often are so involved in the hands-on part of the job that we don’t see the big picture.”

My discussion with Chief Ron Siarnicki (National Fallen Firefighters Foundation) focused on situational awareness, scene size-up and being cognizant of surroundings. During our call, he received two LODD notifications, one being FDNY Firefighter William P. Moon, who suffered fatal injuries during training.

Not speaking specifically to either of those incidents, Siarnicki commented: “We need to get the message across to think before we act. The ‘emotional rush to act’ sometimes makes us do bad things.” That’s a powerful statement that we could all learn from.

Cancer prevention and proper PPE

Cancer prevention is obviously more than just a class or a concept. Fire Chief Lee Whitehurst (East Manatee Fire Rescue District, Florida) relayed how he personally delivers the “firefighter cancer awareness and prevention” module of training, explaining how the EMFR lost a firefighter to cancer and will work to prevent that from happening again.

FDNY Assistant Chief Frank Leeb underscored that, “cancer continues to be the greatest threat EVER to our profession and jeopardizes our ability to recruit and retain firefighters.” [Listen to more on this topic from Chief Leeb on the Better Every Shift podcast.]

IAFF 4th District Vice President Andrew Pantelis discussed the challenges with evaluating contaminated PPE and spoke to everything from basic decontamination to gear cleaning.

Fire Chief Donna Lake (Kansas City, Missouri) focused on proper PPE, not solely on cancer prevention, but also about injury prevention overall. Firefighting gloves instead of rescue gloves, eye protection during extrication, and N95s and/or surgical masks on EMS runs were all part of the discussion on cancer and injury prevention.

From these discussions, I’ll suggest there are at least three things we can do right now to reduce risks:

  1. We can all do better to find that champion within your organization to take the training programs seriously and personally. Cancer’s not a “sexy” topic, so finding that champion from within is a critical piece to success, both in prevention and in educating firefighters that will help with recruitment and retention concerns.
  2. Wear all your PPE at all the right times. If there’s smoke, there should be respiratory protection in use. There is a HUGE challenge in this specific area with respect to wildland firefighting, and the wildland community is aggressively evaluating how to improve.
  3. Decon, decon, decon – gross decon at a minimum before we leave the scene, second sets of gear, cleaning apparatus riding areas like it was our gear. Showering and fuller decon when we get back is also an easy one we don’t always do well.

Details matter

It can be easy to ignore the eyerolls of complacency that we see during safety discussions, classes, briefings or in the response to incident reports. We go about our business, and low and behold, “it” happens again, and we claim to have no idea how this could possibly happen.

There are countless training opportunities to address these and many other needs at your department today. Aside from the training opportunities, we KNOW how to have positive impact in all of the areas addressed above, and we have report after report making those recommendations – likely sitting on a shelf in one of your fire department offices. It is beyond time get it off the shelf, dust it off, and get to the job of making improvements in your department.

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