In a recent column on why firefighters may not consistently use their PPE, I stated that firefighters in 2016 know the dangers of the job and therefore have no reason not to consistently use proper safety gear.
A friend who is a former fire chief commented on this article by saying, "Maybe they should know the dangers. But that doesn't mean that they do know, or that they act on that knowledge appropriately."
My response was, "If they don't know, why don't they know? Whose responsibility is that?"
Creating a culture of safety within a fire department is something that must come from the top down. Of course this added responsibility on chief-level officers does not absolve all others from taking care of themselves and their coworkers. But a top-down approach to safety sets a standard and expectation by which individual actions can be measured.
The importance of example is critical. If chiefs and company officers don't use proper PPE, or fasten their seatbelts or follow safe protocols, then firefighters are much less likely to do so either.
Example is important, but it does not stand alone. All firefighters must have access to information, and must be encouraged to process and incorporate that information into their own lives and patterns of behavior.
Information comes from many sources. These days, the internet is a primary source for information on just about any topic. Other forms of media also have influence: television, radio, newspapers, magazines and books.
Then there are in-person sources — that can be everything from an informal conversation with a coworker to a formal presentation at a professional conference.
Six easy options
For firefighters to be most fully informed, they must have access to multiple sources of information. Upper level officers often have opportunities to talk with other leaders both within and beyond the fire service. They attend conferences and may enroll in professional development programs, such as the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy or Chief Fire Officer certification.
As a result, upper-level officers might have different perspectives versus line firefighters. This perspective is influenced by the roles they are in and their personal experiences, but also by having access to larger field of professional contacts and knowledge.
Unless they make a specific effort, the perspective of line firefighters may be much narrower. But it doesn't have to be that way. Fire departments benefit when all members develop a wider, more informed, more inclusive perspective. Department leaders can make this happen.
There are many ways that line firefighters can be drawn into a higher level of engagement and wider perspective in their jobs. Here are just a few.
1. Join committees
Firefighters can be recruited for committees to guide department decision processes. The key here is that the committee work must be meaningful and the results must be listened to and used.
2. Program leadership
Firefighters can be encouraged to take on leadership roles within existing department programs. Most departments have many options including public education, fundraising, fire camps, union negotiation, pension board and so on. Departments can be open and give support to new program ideas generated at all levels of the organization.
3. Group discussions
Company officers can engage crew members in focused discussion on critical topics. For example, the crew leader could assign all members to read a brief article about recent findings related to firefighters' cancer risk so they can discuss the article as a group.
4. Attended conferences
Firefighters can be sent to professional conferences or other development opportunities. Most states have such conferences, in addition to the larger national events. Departments can sponsor members and then work with them to decide which presentations they will attend and report on what they learned to the rest of the department.
5. Formal education
Fire departments can support their members in pursuing formal educational opportunities. These programs might include attending a class at the National Fire Academy, or one at the local community college. Financial and logistical support make all the difference in how eager members will be to take advantage of such opportunities.
6. Use technology
Technology can be used to allow department members at any level to share personal expertise via short videos or podcasts.
Some of these ideas carry cost with them; some carry little or none. All of them pay back to the department in having a more engaged, better informed, more positive and committed firefighter on the team. And that level of engagement will always make firefighters safer, happier and more productive in their work.