Firefighter Safety


The ‘dinosaurs’ love to talk about the times they were covered in blood, walked through fire and sucked up smoke. After all, it looks good to come home covered in soot, right? Even better: Make sure you stick your helmet in the fire to melt it so that it looks like you’re a ‘real’ firefighter! Air packs? Air packs are for the weak. What a joke.

Too many firefighters and departments consider safety to be secondary. No one wants to sit in blood borne pathogens classes or any safety class. The drills that are remembered the most are the live burns where the building almost flashed and the heat was unbearable. Do not forget that most hero awards were won when doing something above and beyond, and putting yourself at risk. When we reward unsafe acts, what do you expect the result to be?

Safety is not just a buzz word, it is everyone’s concern. Safety starts with training. When we train safe, we play safe. This means requiring members to train like they play, and not ‘cutting corners’. Every evolution should be conducted in full PPE appropriate to the event. I know it is hard to tie ropes with your gloves on, but at a fire scene you do not want your members to take their gloves off, right? Same goes for EMS training. It ‘feels’ different doing assessments with gloves on and we all need to get the appropriate feel.

I know we all groan when it is time for ‘mandatory’ training, but there is a reason for it. The ‘small’ safety things are often forgotten. What is the amount of variance allowed between gauges on SCBA? What pathogens are blood borne versus air borne? What is the evacuation signal and process? Does the shank side of the hose point in or out when I am disorientated? How do I do the self bail-out maneuver? What level hazmat suit do I need to wear and how do I put it on ?

The challenge is to make your mandatory safety training informative without being repetitive. OSHA specifically states that members have to prove competency, not the amount of time that needs to be spent on each issue. This leaves us with a lot of leeway in training. Ultimately training should reflect your SOPs or SOGs but with emphasis placed on safety and minimum actions and equipment.

The problem is making the training ‘entertaining’ while being informative. Try bringing in a subject matter expert, even if it is just a member of a neighboring department. Brining in an outside instructor helps to keep the training fresh and even if it is the same material being presented, members will be more attentive. Another option is to use real life examples to illustrate the dangers of unsafe attempts. One of the best classes I have been at recently was a blood borne pathogens (bbp) class. It is a dry subject, but the instructor spoke about his personal life and how it changed after he caught TB at work. His frankness and real life experience drove home the importance of BBP.

There are many firefighters who have had injuries on the job who will speak about safety for free. I hosted an airbag safety class at my department by Todd Hoffman and have been receiving positive feedback about it months later. (http://www.volunteerfd.org/airbag/)

The problem with safety is getting over the attitude of it being ‘uncool’ and ‘dry’ and changing members’ attitudes. At first, it may be tough. SOGs need to be developed along with the training outlining expectations and consequences. Officers need to be proactive about safety and ensure that each of their crewmembers is safe. Our job is inherently unsafe, but we can take steps to make it less dangerous.

Lets start with the beginning of a call. Guidelines on when and what to wear for PPE for each type of call need to be established. This includes things like nomex hoods, and when to wear air packs. One of the things that bugs me is when firefighters are metering a structure for a hazardous substance, or even CO, and are not ‘on air’. If the meter is on, your air pack should be on. While we’re on PPE, remember that even if you are an exterior firefighter, you need protection. There can be different levels of protection for different jobs, but everyone should be wearing a helmet, gloves, boots, and eyewear.

The next step is response to emergency calls. While it may be controversial, your department needs to outline what is a ‘true emergency’ versus a routine call. Responding lights and sirens raises the likelihood of an accident exponentially. It is controversial, but not all calls require an emergency response. Your emergency responses should be planned also. Many departments have adopted the model of ‘no more then 10 miles over the speed limit, and come to a complete stop at all intersections’. This may sound conservative, but it will save lives.

While we are talking about responses, there should be a zero tolerance policy for driving under the influence and mandatory wearing of seatbelts. Most states have laws about DUI and seatbelts, and we are not above the law. Anyone who needs convincing about seatbelts should check out the piece that Pierce put out about rollovers in fire trucks. (http://www.volunteerfd.org/airbag/PIERCE.mpg WARNING: This is a very large file)

Notice that we haven’t even gotten to the fire ground and our safety concerns are extensive. Once we get to the fire ground, the most important safety concern is accountability. We have learned by the loss of many of our brethren that knowing how many of our firefighters are inside and where they are saves lives. You can have the best RIT team in the world, but without this information they are useless. You do not need an expensive GPS computerized accountability system, but you need to have policies and procedures for personal accountability reports.

Developing programs can be difficult, but that is why VolunteerFD.org exists. Later this week I will be putting out a second column with examples of SOGs and training programs submitted to VolunteerFD.org. This column will be sent out to those members who subscribed to the “volunteerfdvendor” column when they signed up. I am looking to expand VolunteerFD.org and I am planning on sending the second column of the week to the vendor list as I do not want to overtax the weekly review list. If you are not subscribed to the list you can change your options at http://www.volunteerfd.org/profile.php or by emailing volunteerfdvendor-subscribe@lists.volunteerfd.org

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