As I travel around the country talking about firefighter safety, improving operations, and minimizing risks when none are warranted, one of the frustrations expressed by safety officers is the inability to convince more senior members of the need to change the approach to firefighting. This challenge appears to be more of a need for increased training and education than anything else. I say that because of the support that is given when fire science and building construction are explained and come with scientific backing because of the great work of many researchers. Another element of having success convincing people of the need to change, unfortunately, has to do with increasing information regarding the elevated risks firefighters have for certain cancers. It seems that everyone knows of someone on their department who either contracted cancer while on the job or shortly after leaving. Usually there are more than one, depending upon the size of the organization. As more members of the fire service learn more, there is a greater likelihood that behaviors will begin to change. Motivation to do things differently is the first step towards improving not only the operations of an organization but also the safety of the members.
There is plenty to learn and more information is being generated daily. True professionals in the fire service will continue to seek out material that allows them to be an expert in their field. With the improving economy, the hope is that departments (with the support of elected officials) will increase funding. This is only one aspect. We all know the challenge that all departments, whether career or volunteer, have in finding the necessary time. The decline of volunteer firefighters has received a lot of coverage and rightfully so. One contributing factor cited is the lack of time to prepare for an increasingly complex job. On the career side, rapidly increasing run volumes, much attributed to EMS calls, leaves less time to train and educate. To pile on, busy lives for firefighters leave less time when not on duty. This affects volunteers who struggle to find time to train for extra duties and for career departments whose ranks will decline overtime opportunities. Some departments have been getting creative and are finding some success. But, inadequate staffing may make this overly challenging for many.
Departments that desire to be at the top of their profession have to embrace a comprehensive training program in spite of the challenges mentioned above. In order to do this, organizations need the support of the policy makers (politicians who control the funds), adequate staffing, proper funding, leadership committed to getting great, and firefighters who let their competitive nature out so they strive for excellence. The training and education must be meaningful and well-rounded. It is not just about checking a box. There has to be verification, and the training must come from various sources. There is value to getting outside the organization so that other perspectives can be viewed. This is also an opportunity to benchmark. How do you measure up against other leading agencies? It is good that departments and members tout their capabilities. But, they must be realistic in assessing their skills, knowledge, and abilities. An honest internal evaluation will establish a baseline from which to begin. Knowing what can be accomplished presents the goal. Every fire department has the responsibility to be the best it can with the resources it is provided.
I would like to give a shout out to all the folks at Responder Safety Training Institute. These are the folks who provide free training for roadway operations on its Web site www.respondersafety.com. There continues to be too many cases of firefighters and other responders getting hit while working on the roadways causing serious injuries and deaths. The group continues to do great work to try and minimize the risks for not only firefighters but others who work in the danger zone including law enforcement, tow operators, and highway personnel. We should all be grateful that they are so dedicated and work on our behalf.
As I write this, there are wildfires raging in California, and one is the deadliest ever. Being from the Midwest and a city, I cannot imagine what is going through the firefighters’ minds. There is a tremendous amount of physical work and on top of that, this great life loss. I have tremendous respect for what they do and the efforts they are making. They deserve all the kudos they are receiving and represent our entire service as well as humanly possible. I wish everyone affected by the fires, firefighters and residents, the best possible outcome. The danger is great, and the firefighters continue to face the challenges. I hope for cooperative weather to give them a fighting chance.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA). He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment and Fire Engineering Editorial Advisory Board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.