7 steps to better firefighter safety
Making a fire-safety dream into a fire-safety reality takes action; these seven steps can bring that dream to life
By Kenn Fontenot, NVFC
The fire service is constantly addressing the issue of safety in order to reduce line-of-duty deaths and injuries. We talk, discuss, cuss, develop programs — but unless action is taken, it remains a dream.
Without a doubt, the culture of safety in a fire department begins at the top. Without strong, forceful leadership at the highest level, any and all safety programs will have limited or no success.
Here are seven basic actions that a leader should take to improve firefighter safety.
1. Set clear expectations
Clear, concise expectations for safety must be made. This can be done with policies, procedures and directives.
If the expectations are not met, then disciplinary actions must be taken. This should be an all-or-nothing expectation. There is no excuse for violating safety policies and procedures.
2. Set the example
Always and without exception buckle up. Always operate the apparatus with due regard. Always wear SCBA during overhaul (pack on your back until back in the rack). Always wash PPE including flash hood after returning from a working structure fire.
If you set the example, there is no excuse for others to not adhere to safety policies and procedures.
3. Foster a culture of safety
Ensure that safety is always a part of every response, training evolution and station activity. Establish a safety committee as required by NFPA 1500 Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program.
This committee should have the responsibility and authority to establish policies and procedures regarding department safety. Additionally, the committee should investigate any accidents or near-miss incidents and make recommendations for necessary changes or training to correct the issues discovered.
4. Implement safety and wellness programs
Educational and awareness programs aimed at firefighter health, safety and wellness need to be provided to all members of the department. Potential programs should include but not be limited to cancer awareness, PPE laundering, driving and operating apparatus safely, smoking cessation, weight control, nutrition, exercise, firefighter suicide and stress management.
5. Provide and mandate proper training
Firefighters need to be trained and qualified for the jobs they are expected to perform. This is an OSHA ruling. Firefighters should never be put in a positon to perform duties for which they have not been properly or adequately trained.
The quickest way to a response disaster is allowing unqualified personnel to drive apparatus for which they have had little or no training.
On a personal note, I will never forget the night that six brand new firefighters showed up for their very first training class. They were in a department pumper — and one of them was the driver. What was the chief thinking?
Safety should always be a part of every training evolution. Safety should be discussed before and implemented during all training activities. According to NFPA 1403 Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions, "A safety officer shall be appointed to at all live fire training activities." A span of control of one instructor for every five students should also be followed. You must be familiar with every aspect of this standard.
6. Empower all members
Each and every member of the fire department should be empowered to address issues when safety is compromised. A safety officer has the authority to alter, suspend or terminate any unsafe activity.
This authority also can be given to all members of the department and exercised when there is imminent potential for injury or death to firefighters. All members must be made aware that they need to follow these directives.
7. Hold firefighters responsible for their safety
Members need to be told that any safety program, policy, procedure or directive will only be effective when each and every member follows the safety rules. Firefighters should be made aware that they are responsible for adhering to these polices or procedures and will be held accountable for their actions.
Discipline is often regarded as punishment. However, when safety is the issue, firefighters need to know that they will be held accountable — if they don't become a line-of-duty death because of their actions.
This is the time for every fire chief to impartially evaluate the safety culture within their department. Be honest, be brutal and be realistic.
It would serve no purpose to have a Pollyanna rose-colored vision of the department's safety environment should it be lacking. When the analysis is complete, consider what actions need to be taken to convert a safety dream into safety reality.
About the Author
Kenn Fontenot is the NVFC's Louisiana director and chair of both the NVFC Health and Safety Committee and the Disaster Relief Committee. He is also a charter member and first fire chief of the LeBlanc (La.) Volunteer Fire Department. Kenn is a principal member on the NFPA 1001 standards committee and an alternate member of NFPA 1021. He has served for 12 years as the regional fire training coordinator at the Louisiana State University Fire and Emergency Training Institute, and is a past-president of the Louisiana State Firemen's Association. He holds an associate's degree in Fire Science.