Firefighter safety is an attitude problem

All the technology and rules will only go so far; real safety change must come from a safety attitude

By Douglas Cline
May 2, 2011
Updated June 13, 2014

I recently attended a conference where the hot topic among a group of fire chiefs was the amount of firefighter injuries and deaths, many resulting from motor vehicle crashes. A big subcomponent was the use of seat belts, or lack there of.

This was discussed at length as they were searching for how to get firefighters to comply. Ideas of affecting funding from county government, decreasing state death benefits and others were tossed around as means to get groups to comply.

One salty Chief finally just blurted out, "It is all about attitude and many folks have a damn bad one. The attitude has to be there to make this cultural change and it has to start with the fire chief."

I was so excited to hear that one statement come out, I could have turned flips. The problem being was the next question: "How do we change the attitudes of individuals who don't see this as a problem?"

Our own worst enemy
There are many attitudes about hundreds of topics in the fire service. But why are there still attitudes when it comes to the safety of fire personnel?

Unlike other public safety professionals the fire and rescue service is charged with the responsibility of protecting people and property from the ravages of fire and other hostile forces — both manmade and natural. Who is going to protect us with acts like, failing to wear your seat belt going on?

We are our own worst enemy when it comes to safety. Failure to be safe is a human act. It seems that when a firefighter is seriously injured or killed, the fire service does little to promote positive action to prevent a reoccurrence.

The message spreads quickly of a fallen comrade, but the lesson is slow to follow and is seldom learned. How do we make the changes in these attitudes?

Taking it slow
One area of this is the line of duty deaths that occur as a result of motor vehicle accidents. It has been shown repeatedly where the "need for speed" is not relevant in most cases.

Now, I am not advocating that we not expedite our responses, but the difference between 65 mph and 55 mph is a drastic difference when you look at the handling of a 48.5-foot long ladder truck that weighs 73,500 pound or a large apparatus weighing 45,000 pound.

There is a drastic difference in the stopping distances, not to mention the external forces that affect the apparatus at those speeds.

In most states wearing a seat belt is the law. We are not special or immune from any of the dangers associated with motor vehicle crashes. Attitude wise, we just think we are.

Fresh attitude
The fire and rescue services, at all levels, must do what is necessary to turn around the seemingly apathetic or complacent attitude about safety. At this point you may be saying to yourself that the fire service is safer today than it ever has been.

This may be true, but times change and we are playing catch up. Although technology is a necessary ingredient in the safety recipe, it is not the most important.

Sure we are dressed well today and our equipment and apparatus are safer. Where we are lacking is the attitude of both management and the firefighter or at least a safety-conscious attitude. Most fire service personnel have plenty of attitudes, just that they are far too often focused on the wrong things.

I can't understand why a firefighter would have an attitude problem with safety since it is his own lives affected. Further, I absolutely cannot see how a leader, fire officer or manager could not constantly be focused on the right attitudes about everything, especially safety.

Stand down
Over the past few years the firefighter safety stand down has taken the fire service by storm with progressive departments. However, there are departments across our great nation that have not even heard of this program, even with all of the efforts made by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

As a fire chief and as a member of the fire service, I challenge each and every individual across the United States to change their attitude. I know I am asking for the world here folks, but we have got to lose the "100 years of tradition unimpeded by progress" mentality.

We have got to change and we have to do it now. Line-of-duty deaths are nothing to be proud of.

How do we do this you ask? Start by being safety minded in everything you do. Take the 16 Life Safety Initiatives, developed by NFFF, and look at your own department to see how you are measuring up.

If you are falling short, make change. Focus on making cultural changes in how you operated and conduct daily business. Take aggressive actions to identify and correct actions that are unsafe.

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