A research team conducting a focus group study about firefighter compliance with PPE policies learned something about firefighters that changed their strategy early on.
“Focus groups conducted with firefighters who had varied years of experience limited divergent opinions. Researchers observed rookie firefighters being less likely to vocalize their opinion in a focus group setting if a senior man was present.”
Who'd have thought, right?
The researchers revised their data collection strategy for the remaining departments to conduct individual interviews, which “allowed participants to express their experiences with safety in their fire department more deeply with researchers, without additional pressure from fellow firefighters in a focus group setting.”
Why do firefighters take unsafe actions related to PPE?
Is there a firefighter alive today who hasn’t heard or read about the dangers associated with exposure to the toxic gases and particulate matter present in today’s structural fires – who hasn’t been told that many of these materials are carcinogens, and that firefighters as a group are experiencing a host of cancers at rates far greater than the general public?
So, why do we continue to see photos and videos of firefighters in action with less than their full protective ensemble being properly worn during firefighting operations – walking in and out of structures without breathing from their SCBA, while visible smoke is still billowing; or conducting overhaul operations while wearing only their helmet, gloves, bunker pants and boots?
Firefighters know how to do their job safely, but they sometimes choose not to engage in safety behaviors. Why?
In September 2016, a research team sought to find answers to those questions. With guidance and support from Drexel University’s Center for Firefighter Injury Research and Safety Trends, the team met with 123 firefighters representing 12 departments from across the U.S. In total, the team conducted 62 individual interviews and 10 focus groups.
Firefighter culture and peers play a role in PPE compliance
The fire service culture has many components, among which one of the strongest is firefighter identity. Even the newest recruit strongly identifies with the popular images of the firefighter being a modern-day version of St. George slaying dragons. The acceptance of group cultural norms (e.g., what it means to work as a “real” firefighter) is a far more powerful driver of firefighter behavior than are acknowledged safety standards.
Our firefighter DNA is made up of genes that include:
- Fast – getting to the fire as quickly as possible.
- Wet – getting water on the fire as quickly as possible.
- Close – getting as close to the seat of the fire as possible when applying the water.
In their individual interviews and focus groups, Maglio and his colleagues discovered two factors that contributed heavily in overcoming firefighter identity, goal seduction and situation aversion: individual will and organizational solidarity.
Goal seduction affects firefighter behavior when firefighters are led to prioritize “getting there fast” over their own safety, such as not taking time to put on PPE before getting in the apparatus or attempting to do so in the crew cab of the moving fire truck.
Belonging to the group is another powerful cultural element that leads firefighters to engage in situation aversion. In situation aversion, firefighters can be led away from making safe choices because those choices are inconvenient or uncomfortable, such as in situations where choosing to be safe and wearing their PPE may invite ridicule and harassment from their peers.
Two tools for changing firefighter behavior regarding PPE
Here are two powerful tools for fire department leaders to use to support a firefighter’s individual will with organizational solidarity:
- Support a firefighter’s individual will. When an individual firefighter’s knowledge of occupational risk compels them to comply with PPE use, despite these other pressures, it’s because of their individual will. Fire department leaders can strengthen an individual’s will by regularly providing good training and education on safety practices and the potential risks of their work. Firefighters who truly understand the what, why and how regarding their PPE are better prepared to resist negative pressure from others who choose not to comply.
- Leading by example never goes out of style. Fire department leaders should always wear their PPE when they’re on the scene. The study group learned that firefighters are more inclined to wear their PPE when leaders set a personal example by wearing their own PPE. They found that organizational solidarity was a powerful tool for showing that those leaders promote and embrace the organization’s safety policies.
Changing our fire service culture
The first Firefighter Life Safety Initiative from the Everyone Goes Home program instructs firefighters to “define and advocate the need for a cultural change within the fire service relating to safety; incorporating leadership, management, supervision, accountability and personal responsibility.”
The changes called for in the Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives cannot be successfully implemented or sustained without understanding the culture within a fire and emergency service organization. The findings of Maglio and his associates provide us with some valuable insights into how we can make that cultural change, one step at a time, starting with 100 percent compliance for PPE use.