A few weeks ago, I attended a meeting at Drexel University where a group of scientists met with fire professionals to discuss work being done on firefighter safety. The overall project is called FIRST—Firefighter Injury Research & Safety Trends. Drexel’s Dr. Jenn Taylor and her staff have done some great work compiling and analyzing data to better identify the risks faced by firefighters. As a nonscientist, I find this fascinating. From my perspective, the fire service has always relied heavily on the emotional aspects of the job to gain support. That is changing as there are more requests from policymakers to “show me the data.”
One of the issues discussed was safety “climate,” which is similar to safety “culture.” This may be a subtle difference, but that is not the issue. What the research indicates is that the safety climate is the best predictor of injuries within an organization and/or occupation. There are questions that can be asked to determine if your climate is positive or not so much. This climate is based not only on the leadership of an organization but the beliefs of the entire workforce. If everyone (or a vast majority, since it is almost impossible to get everyone to agree) believes the department is concerned about safety, then the end result regarding injuries will be better. It seems like such a simple concept and one that would appear to be intuitive. But, not there is data to support that viewpoint.
What happens when emotions and science collide? I have been present when members of the fire service have questioned science based on their experiences and viewpoints. I think in these cases the firefighters are relying more on their belief system than on what is being shown. Throughout history—from the times of the earliest scientists like Copernicus and Kepler—society has initially denied science in favor of its long-held belief systems. Those who have stepped forward to challenge the status quo often get ostracized by others. They do not want to believe what they are hearing. Certainly there is evidence that some of this is happening with recent developments in the fire service that have their roots in scientific research.
I am probably guilty of this on occasion. I understand the desire to hold on to long-held beliefs. I don’t always want my thought processes changed. But, eventually I either go along willingly, get forced to change, or continue doing things as I have always done and taking the consequences. Change is not always easy to accept. Of course, I am not an advocate of blindly following everything. There has to be some questioning and some research. If someone is going to challenge the status quo, then those holding on to those beliefs must ask the right questions to make sure what is being sold is really science and not some pseudo effort in this area.
We are in some great times in the fire service profession. Fire Act grants have attracted many research universities along with other organizations such as UL and NIST. They are doing some incredible work that will only help to advance the profession. There is great opportunity to look at the work being done and evaluating its affect on service delivery and firefighter safety. In the end, regardless of our views on aggressive fire attack, interior vs. “hard from the yard”, or whatever else is challenging our views, we must look at everything to help minimize the risks firefighters take. If improving a safety climate eliminates just one serious firefighter injury, then it is worth it.
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.