Throughout my career, I have heard many times that firefighters are the most valuable resources when providing fire services.
This has come from politicians, city managers and mayors, fire chiefs, union officials, and firefighters. While there are some who could be accused of paying this “lip service,” there seems to be much more interest in protecting firefighters and putting resources toward this endeavor. In some ways one could say that firefighter safety is “en vogue.” This cannot be just a trend and must become part of the permanent culture of the fire service.
There are many reasons for this change in attitude, and much can be attributed to fire service leadership. Regardless, there needs to be more done, and efforts need to continue. There continue to be too many cases where preventable injuries or fatalities occur. For more improvements to take place, organizations need to take a systems approach to protecting firefighters. This must include firefighter health, the best equipment, sound and continuous training, competent supervision, and comprehensive policies.
A review of injury and fatality causes provides valuable information that should provide direction regarding protecting firefighters. Clearly there is a health and wellness issue. There is much more information being provided every day that bolsters the need for more fit firefighters-mentally and physically. A climate of wellness must be fostered, and departments and individual members must embrace this. There is not enough space to address this issue in this article, but the importance of this in organizations sincerely interested in addressing safety cannot be overstated. Individuals and departments must be totally committed to effect significant change. All of the other elements needed to establish a climate of protecting firefighters depend on the commitment and attitude of the people in the organization-from top to bottom.
Training and education, if done properly and frequently (daily), can do the most to protect firefighters. The more people know about their trade, the better they are at performing the tasks. There must be practice to develop unconscious competence and continual study to learn about advancements in the profession. While firefighting is dangerous for various reasons, there are other occupations that are very risky. In many of those, there is a commitment to preparation through study and training to minimize the risks. Today’s fire service has more information available than ever before, and it can access it easily. The job is not as simple as it may have once been because of many technological advances in society. As such, those wishing to be the most successful must commit to continual education and training.
While on the topic of training, having competent and capable safety officers is an important element of a systems approach to protecting firefighters. Being an incident safety officer (ISO) is so much more than serving as the “bunker police.” ISOs need to prepare to view the big picture during an emergency and also must develop the tact and diplomacy needed to influence proper behavior. They must be totally competent in their knowledge so they can establish “street credibility” within their organizations. Health and safety officers (HSOs) must also know their job inside and out. They have the responsibility to develop, implement, and manage programs for the welfare of the firefighters on their department. Both the ISO and HSO have challenging jobs, but if they are properly prepared and capable, they can have the desired outcome of safer firefighters.
The equipment being produced today to protect firefighters is outstanding and getting better every day. My kudos to the manufacturers and those working to improve the performance of the items designed to offer the most protection. Of course, the only way to maximize the benefits is to keep up with advances and continually look at the improvements being made. Those in leadership positions must constantly fight for the resources needed to acquire the most advanced protection available. Could you imagine a football player today playing in a game with a helmet that was five years old? With the attention to concussions, there is no doubt they are using the best equipment possible. Firefighters deserve the same commitment to protection.
I realize that college and professional sports teams have much more money than fire departments. But, this does not relieve organizations from continually trying to improve. Firefighters need protection from the immediate hazards of emergencies and also from the long-term risks that are presented. Compliance with standards is not optional when protecting firefighters. Further, departments must provide the number of sets of equipment and the means to clean and maintain them. Too many firefighters are required to wear contaminated gear because they do not have a second set, do not have the proper machines to clean the gear, and lack policies to provide direction.
Protecting firefighters requires comprehensive policies and procedures that are realistic, valid, and enforced. Even though policies are designed to help protect firefighters, they may not always view it that way. The fact that you have good policies does not guarantee that they will be followed. Firefighters should have a role in the development of the policies and must also be given the resources to research best practices. There is also an educational and training element to demonstrate that proper protective clothing and its maintenance are in the best interests of short- and long-term firefighter health. Supervisors must supervise and do all they can to ensure firefighters follow the policies and procedures designed to help them.
Firefighter safety is getting its due, and this must continue. Success at meeting the goals of making sure firefighters are not exposed to unnecessary risks that could have immediate or long-term effects on health requires great effort. Proper firefighter protection involves a systems approach. There needs to be the right equipment, and it must be used properly. Additionally, training and preparation help reduce risks by increasing competence. Policies and procedures provide the necessary framework. Lastly, leadership needs to set the tone.
Protecting firefighters with better training and education, equipment, policies, and procedures does not mean that firefighters are being asked to stop being aggressive when attacking a fire. It means that they are better prepared so they make better decisions that are intellectual and not arbitrary. Much of the work done by firefighters during other emergencies such as emergency medical service, hazmat response, and special rescue situations requires safe operations including the latest equipment and constant preparation. Firefighting should be no different. Fire department leadership must accept the challenges presented by change and create an environment that stresses the importance of protecting an organization’s most valuable resources.
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.