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How company fire officers influence safety culture

Most of the firefighting risks we face should be extinct; they’ve survived off inconsistent and conflicting messages about safe behavior


Insist your firefighters mimic these company officer behaviors

Nobody in a fire and EMS organization has more influence on its daily operations than does the first-line supervisor – the company officer.

So it only stands to reason that the company officer is the one position in the organization that has the most influence over the department’s safety culture. As the saying goes, “It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.”

Your department should provide company officers with the appropriate policy and procedures necessary for firefighters to do their jobs more safely, effectively and efficiently. That’s the strategic direction. The tactical direction, making it happen, falls squarely on the company officers’ shoulders.

And if you are that company officer, how are you doing in that role?

Do you model the expected behavior 100 percent of the time? Are you unyielding in your efforts to ensure that all members under your supervision do as you do?

fire officers Lead by example

Here are five examples of behaviors the company officer must exhibit and insist their firefighters mimic:

  1. Remain seated and belted whenever you are on a moving apparatus.
  2. Keep your personal protective gear free of the contaminants of fire through proper cleaning after every call.
  3. Breath cylinder air whenever you are in the hazard area – from initial fire attack through the completion of overhaul.
  4. Conduct a thorough size-up, risk assessment and develop an incident action plan before you commit personnel to an interior attack.
  5. Maintain a healthy body weight through good eating habits and proper exercise.

That’s just a short version of a much longer and more extensive list, but you get the picture. Your people observe your every movement and action during your tour of duty, both on and off the emergency scene.

Are you making the concerted effort to model the appropriate behaviors on a daily basis that advance firefighter safety and wellness – two key elements in a safety culture?

How else will we ever get the current and future generations of firefighters to understand – really take it to heart – that when you look at the facts, the vast majority of risks in firefighting should have gone the way of the dinosaur? They should be extinct.

We have the knowledge, skills, equipment and technology to make it so.

Consistent messaging for fire officers

Company officers must lead the way into a new era of firefighting through their daily actions.

This won’t be done if the company officer is regaling firefighters with “how it used to be” out one side of their mouth while telling them how they should be doing it differently today – and meting out discipline when they don’t follow policy or procedure.

How is a firefighter supposed to accept the science that tells us that wearing constantly contaminated turnout gear leads to cancer later in life when their company officer wears turnout gear that’s severely discolored by contaminants and a faceshield disfigured from heat and smoke?

How’s a new fire apparatus driver supposed to accept the department’s policies on safe driving during response to emergencies when their company officer and fellow firefighters are constantly reinforcing the “importance” of getting there fast because seconds count or because company pride at being first in is at stake with every call?

Making firefighter safety culture a new normal

We will not be successful in our continuing efforts to make firefighting safer until we make the new ways the new normal. I wrote on this in my blog, Talking “Shop” 4 Fire and EMS.

I wrote how true changes in culture do not take place because we tell people to do things differently and their inherent good nature will cause them to change their behavior. Instead, true change occurs because the new behavior becomes the socially acceptable norm.

Since the release of the U.S. Surgeon General’s 1964 report on the dangers of cigarette smoking, the American public has been well aware of the dangers of smoking to public health and the financial impact on our health care costs from treating smoking-related illnesses.

Did people suddenly quit smoking because they did not want to get sick and die? No, smoking rates did not start to decline at any meaningful rate until it became socially unacceptable to smoke in public settings.

If we want to make unsafe firefighting practices and operations a thing of the past, we must start taking steps to make them socially unacceptable to the members of the fire service. That has to begin with the company officer’s total commitment to embracing new information, equipment and technologies to make the job safer.

Maybe then, the new company officer mantra will be, “Do as I say, just as I do.”

We can continue to change our fire service safety culture for the better. What role are you playing?

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.