Keeping It Safe: That Cultural Thing


Robert Tutterow
Where to begin? In trying to grasp an understanding of the civil unrest following the alleged murder of George Floyd by a police officer, an underlying theme seems to be police culture.

As I researched police culture on the Internet, I found an abundance of material—most of it not flattering. My attention was centered on police/law enforcement publications, not the nontrustworthy media. The culture is something that has been ongoing (smoldering) for decades. The alleged murder of Mr. Floyd was the spark that started a conflagration.

So, what does this have to do with firefighter health and safety? Indirectly, it means a lot. The police department’s conflagration is self-inflicted. However, as a fire service, we can be grateful for the visionary leadership in the mid-1980s that realized if we (the fire service) did not address our health and safety issues, the men and women who wear the long black robes will. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) started tracking firefighter line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) in 1977. For the 15-year period from the start of the NFPA’s tracking, an average of 130 LODDs occurred annually. There was no argument that a major underlying cause of this unacceptable rate was firefighter culture. Those of us who were active in the fire service remember those days. We were not in agreement.

The keystone in creating that culture change was the development of the first edition of NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety, Health, and Wellness Program. Our cultural fire was lit. It was said that volunteer fire departments would be put out of business. A major metro career firefighter told me that the safety initiative would eliminate hazard pay and his paycheck would shrink.

Fast forward to a 15-year period ending in 2018; the average number of LODDs was 80 (excluding the World Trade Center attack). The difference is 50 firefighter lives per year. Without this change, the math says we have 750 firefighters who did not lose their lives, and the quality of our service delivery was not compromised.

Of course, this does not mean our culture does not need any more change. National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Life Safety Initiative #1 states: “Define and advocate the need for a cultural change within the fire service relating to safety; incorporating leadership, management, supervision, accountability and personal responsibility.” Read that carefully. One of the articles that caught my attention was one written a year ago on a police Web site that identified seven reasons the police culture is broken. They are as follows: “1. We do not provide enough leadership training; 2. We fail to celebrate successes; 3. We ignore dangerous behaviors; 4. We are quick to ‘eat our own’; 5. We do not treat recruits with respect; 6. We think stress is the key to effective training; and 7. We see asking for help as a sign of weakness.”

In my mind, numbers 2 and 4 likely do not apply to the fire service. But, we often wear the other five reasons. The fire service is fortunate in that we respond to help people, not try to catch them. Maybe the police could learn from us on this issue. And, it has been my observation that police are not nearly as active in the community (on a volunteer basis) as firefighters. This includes being active in civic clubs and churches and working with youth in sports and entities such as scouting. Of course, volunteer firefighters are the epitome of community service. From my perspective, police officers stick to themselves while off-duty. I have been told that they are encouraged not to get involved in the community so they do not develop social relationships that could lead to favoritism when duty calls.

However, we must pay very close attention to what is happening to police departments. We are linked to them through the umbrella of public safety. We do not need to be dragged into the mindset of funding cuts and, in some cases, the disbandment of police departments. Comparing police culture to fire service culture is not comparing apples to apples, but we are both in the fruit basket.

We must remember that we serve customers, not victims. The customer deserves the highest quality service we can provide, both from a mitigation perspective and the human interaction perspective. From a health and safety perspective, we must increase our pursuit of additional cultural change. As in the 1980s, we are still hearing excuses for not putting contamination controls in place and addressing our behavioral health issues. If we identified the number of firefighter deaths attributed to contamination and behavioral health, then our LODD numbers are steeply rising.

The information is out there; we must get it and take the appropriate steps to reduce these deaths. The loss of life cannot be measured in monetary terms for the families and friends. However, the financial costs of these events exceed the cost of implementing preventive measures. We can figure out how to address the contamination and behavioral health issues. If we do not, we again risk the men and women in the black robes doing it for us or, even worse, agenda-driven crooked politicians.

Remember Life Safety Initiative #1: “Define and advocate the need for a cultural change within the fire service relating to safety; incorporating leadership, management, supervision, accountability and personal responsibility.” Again, this needs to be read very carefully … and be a primary focus of your department.

ROBERT TUTTEROW retired as safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board. His 40-year career includes 10 as a volunteer. He has been very active in the National Fire Protection Association through service on the Fire Service Section Executive Board and technical committees involved with safety, apparatus, and personal protective equipment. He is a founding member and president of the Fire Industry Education Resource Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).

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