(A Need For Open Discussion)
I’ve spent much of my career finding ways to improve firefighter safety through protective equipment and training. As chair for the National Fire Protection Association 1901 Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus Committee, I have championed improvement to fire service apparatus in order to improve safety for our nation’s first responders.
As we invest in the latest equipment and technology, we must understand that there is no technology or equipment available that will change the behavior and culture of the fire service. As fire service leaders, that job is up to us.
I started with the LAFD in 1976 and moved through the ranks – firefighter, engineer, engine captain, truck captain, battalion chief and division chief. Like all firefighters, I have the memories and stories that accumulate over time from so many emergency incidents.
I am proud to be a firefighter, but I now find that the excitement, the rush, and the satisfaction that result from making a difference is secondary to the satisfaction I get from being a part of the brotherhood that exists between firefighters. In our profession, character counts. I like working with men and women who are confident, have integrity and are willing to do anything to get the job done.
Our shared experience becomes our bond. The bond between firefighters is often compared to the bond that ties family members together. This is a good thing because the emergencies we encounter require teamwork. When firefighters begin to think that fellow firefighters are their brothers or sisters, then they are starting to work as a team.
I’ve observed this “family” behavior internally, within the LAFD, and externally, at various fire departments across the country. Firefighters have an air, or swagger, that makes them readily distin- guishable. As a group, firefighters are bold, poised and assertive. Firefighter swagger is a desirable behavior because emergency operations often require decisive, confident action. Excessive swagger, however, increases risk to firefighters whose confidence may exceed situational reality.
Fire service culture is more than a specific behavior; it is a behavior pattern.
It is tradition, the way we go about doing things. Firefighters help fellow firefighters. We honor sacrifice. This is the culture that we show to the public.
I learned first hand about fire service culture when I received second-degree facial burns during a live-fire training exercise. I was overwhelmed by the concern and support that I received. Fellow firefighters, some that I had not seen in more than 10 years, stopped by the hospital to check on me. The outpouring was genuine, from the heart. This is fire service culture at its best. We take care of our own.
There is, however, a dark side to fire service culture. Our swagger, the very bravado that gives us confidence to face horrific situations, works against us when we begin to think, by nature of our position, that we are above the law.
How many of us have a firefighter sticker, license plate frame or personalized license on our car, to let law enforcement know that we are firefighters when we are pulled over? How about safety equipment? How many firefighters release their seat belts before arriving on-scene, so that they are ready to go when the brakes are set? How many firefighters still fail to use seat belts at all? How many firefighters, stopped by law enforcement for being under the influence, try to use their position as firefighters to avoid being arrested?
A primary purpose of investigations into emergency incidents resulting in significant injury or death is to try to identify ways to prevent similar occurrences. In significant incident investigations in which I participated there was never a single causal factor. In each case investigated, there were multiple causes that, when linked or aligned, led to the undesired outcome.
Alignment is a common term that is understood by most Americans to mean having linear or parallel positioning. It is the process of adjusting parts so they are in proper relative position. Within the fire service, alignment describes a sequence of events that contribute to an outcome.
Poor strategy, reckless tactics, unsafe supervision, broken or defective equipment and unsafe acts are some alignment components that may combine to create a bad outcome. Break the alignment, and the outcome is changed.
LAFD experience at two separate fire incidents, in which firefighters fell through roofs, frame this argument. In the first case, the firefighter was fully protected by his protective equipment. He fell into a fully-involved attic. His injuries were negligible, considering the amount of time he was exposed to the fire. In the second case, the firefighter did not don his firefighting gloves. When he went through the roof, his hands were severely burned.
In both examples, the alignment was different. Roof construction was different, time of day was different, volume of fire was different. The common link in the alignment sequence was the use of firefighting gloves. One firefighter wore gloves; the other did not. The sequence in the first example was not in alignment because gloves were worn. Sequence alignment in the second example could have been disrupted if gloves had been worn.
Firefighters choose, on a daily basis, whether or not to comply with rules established by society and by our organization. Normally, an individual not abiding by the rules is held accountable for his or her actions. Accountability occurs when people are responsible and answerable for their actions.
The normalization of deviance – frequent and unofficially condoned violations of procedure commonly referred to as “everybody’s doin’ it, nobody cares” – plays a significant role in alignment. When this occurs, fire service culture interferes with accountability.
Let me give you an example. Recently the LAFD responded to a fire at a business that handles exotic metals, i.e. magnesium and titanium. Internal video footage from a coat-mounted camera on a firefighter working in the IDLH (immediately hazardous to life and health) area showed all but one firefighter working without their gloves on.
When one firefighter fails to follow policy, you have a training issue. When a majority of firefighters fail to follow policy and deviance is normalized, the problem is culture. Call it cultural indifference or cultural disobedience, but recognize that this is a profound issue.
The problem at all levels within the fire service is that we have not demonstrated the moral courage to address systemic cultural issues. In the metal fire example, firefighters should be checking their brother or sister firefighters to make sure they are prepared for the battle they are about to wage. Their captains should be setting a positive example and establishing expectations that their subordinates use protective equipment according to policy. Finally, chiefs, made aware of the issue, cannot ignore their culpability. They bear responsibility and must find ways to make positive cultural change to preclude recurrence.
As I see it, fire service culture is a double- edged sword. The high esteem with which firefighters are held in the public eye results from a pattern of behavior demonstrated over a long period. Fire service culture builds public trust, which enables us to perform our duties effectively. Public trust is like a block wall. You build it, over time, brick by brick. If a few bricks become dislodged, it quickly becomes fragile. The wall cracks and the wall comes tumbling down.
We need to develop a climate of candor, where we can be open, frank and sincere in our conversations regarding policy, standard operating procedures (SOPs) or budgets. We should also develop a culture of peer accountability that becomes a driving force for change. Some firefighters, lacking moral character, may use their standing as firefighters to avoid being held accountable. When culture blocks accountability, we all suffer. Are you aware of cultural impediments within your organization? Do firefighters follow the rules of society and the policies within their department willingly? Or do they seek exemption because they are in a class above the rules? I welcome the discussion this column sparks.
Editor’s note: Don Frazeur is chief of staff at the Los Angeles Fire Department, where he has worked for 34 years. He earned a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Southern California and serves as chairman of four NFPA standard committees – 1901 (fire apparatus), 1906 (wildland fire apparatus), 1911 (fire apparatus inspection, maintenance, testing, and retirement) and 1912 (fire apparatus refurbishing). He is also a member of the committee developing NFPA’s first ambulance standard, which will be known as NFPA 1917.