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What are we safe for?

We each have to take personal responsibility for the safety of the fire service, for the sake of those we care about

By Tom LaBelle

What are we safe for? It’s a question that can be asked a lot of ways, and answered just as many. Maybe the real question is who are we safe for? At the end of the day there are a lot of good, sensible public policy and public protection reasons for safety, but the base should be the “who” we are being safe for.

I try to be safe for the people I love and care about, friends and family. I also try to be safe for my fellow firefighters. I don’t want to hurt them physically or emotionally if I was to injure others or myself. I can’t — nor really want — to imagine my chiefs trying to explain to my family that I wasn’t coming home.

There are a lot of really great and caring people working for our safety. And without their efforts we would be in a much worse place than we currently are. Sure, there’s always room for improvement, but they’ve taken us a long way already. There’s only so much they can do — only so much social and physical engineering that can be done.

At the end of the day we each have to take personal responsibility for the safety of the fire service — responsibility for our actions, and to call out the unsafe actions of others. It takes courage sometimes to enact that level of responsibility, as the National Fallen Firefighters’ program is called “Courage to Be Safe.”

We often think that everything must come from the chief down, but that’s only half the equation. Certainly the chief must set the tone and must convey his or her desire to through SOP’s, training to those procedures, ensuring the correct equipment is in place and that positive and negative reinforcement exists when those SOP’s are, or are not followed.

But safety also comes from the firefighter up. Each of us has not only the ability and imperative to act safely, but we can also impact the entire organization with those actions. There are a million reasons we hear for not acting safely: we don’t have enough fires, we have so many fires, we know what we’re doing, we don’t have time — and my personal favorite — that’s not how we do it. It’s as if the physics of fire suppression changed when we entered the boundaries of one fire department to another.

The reality is each of these excuses are just that — excuses. It is simply lazy to say that it’s too difficult to change. It amazes me that a group of individuals, career and volunteer, that have signed up to do a physically, mentally and emotionally demanding job have a difficult time getting this right, and I’m not saying I’m perfect. Far from it.

It takes leadership, regardless of rank, to step up and demand safety from yourself and those around you. Knowing our trade, taking the time to learn the when, where and how’s of what we do is easier — and cheaper — than ever before. Not everyone can make it to the big trade and educational shows, but a lot of times those educational sessions are available online, or via some other electronic format. There are many other ways to get that information; you must simply find the time.

Every call is important, and each gives us the opportunity to practice the safe and effective implementation of our SOP’s. These opportunities allow us to see if what we are doing both personally and organizationally works. The vast majority of calls these days are not working fires so there’s no better time to see if what we do works at these events. If not, speak up. Learning at the fireground is too costly an effort.

Learn how to make your department a safer place in Tom LaBelle’s FireRescue1 column, ‘The Butcher’s Bill.’ LaBelle provides tips, advice and opinions that balance accomplishing strategic objectives with making sure every firefighter goes home.