When FDNY Commissioner Sal Cassano first met Ron Siarnicki of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), the FDNY was reeling from the tragedy of September 11. So many officers had been killed that day, it was the equivalent of 4,400 years of experience disappearing. “Some people didn’t think the department could come back,” Cassano says. “But Ron did.”
That was the beginning of a long relationship between the FDNY and the NFFF, one that Commissioner Cassano—speaking Monday evening at the Firefighter Life Safety Summit in Tampa—credited with changing the culture of the fire department and, ultimately, saving lives. He shared the department’s progress in part because “now we’re ready to pay it forward, to help everyone else,” but also because he believes that if cultural change can be enacted in the largest fire department in the country, it can happen anywhere.
Convincing the Masses
Not surprisingly, when as chief Cassano began working with the NFFF to stress the importance of safety, he faced some pushback from FDNY members. “One of the things we had a problem with was [the attitude], ‘Is safety going to trump everything?’” he says. “And the answer was yes—but we’re still firefighters. We still have people to save. You can still be brave, dedicated, but we just want you to do it a little safer.” Cassano believes that this approach, echoed by leaders across the department at every opportunity, was key to gaining buy-in with the members.
Another key: ensuring that the safety effort was carried out sincerely, with one goal—making members safer. “When people understand that their safety, their wellbeing, the wellbeing of their families, is important at the top levels of the department, you start to get buy-in,” he says. “Every speech I give, every speech the chief gives, the most important thing we stress is safety.”
In addition to the broad-based focus on a safety culture, Cassano credits several specific programs with having an impact on firefighter safety. They include:
- Wellness/fitness: Every FDNY firefighter undergoes an annual medical screening. “We used to say they did, but in truth it might be three years, or 10 if they were really creative, between screenings,” Cassano says. “Now we’re serious about it, because we know it saves myriad lives.”
- Seatbelt program: “I’m sure every one of you puts on your seatbelt when you drive a car,” Cassano said, “But on the rig we don’t. It’s tough to understand, but if we lose a member this way, it’s on us.” That’s why the FDNY embarked on a multi-year research and development project to first identify why firefighters weren’t wearing seatbelts—for many, it was because they didn’t fit over bunker gear—and design a system that would work. The result was a $1 million retrofit of all of FDNY’s apparatus with seatbelts designed to fit over a fully outfitted firefighter. And Cassano is backing up that approach with vehicle data recorders that will record who wears seatbelts and who doesn’t. “We’re serious about preventing deaths that are preventable,” he says. “And responding deaths are preventable.”
- Modified response: One of the most controversial programs Cassano has overseen is the move to modified response, where calls are treated based on severity. Admittedly, Cassano says, “in the culture of the FDNY, this was like having a root canal every day. They couldn’t believe that they couldn’t respond to a water leak like it was a five-alarm fire.” Anticipating pushback, the department stared small, with one borough, and as it proved successful, slowly rolled it out across the department. “Now, modified response is one of the most respected programs we have—and we know it’s saving lives,” he says.
- Fire behavior research: Another big key to the FDNY’s changing culture has been the department’s close work with NIST and UL, through a series of tests done on Governors Island, first to examine the dynamics of wind-driven high-rise fires and next to study the impact of ventilation tactics on fires. Both tests have resulted in what Cassano calls “subtle changes” in tactics—but changes that “are going to save lives.”
- Risk-based inspection program: With more than 9,000 buildings in New York City, there’s no way the fire department can inspect each one. So the department initiated a system to rank structures by risk, based on factors such as construction, occupancy load, whether they’re sprinklered, etc. Cassano says the system is working, and offered to share it with departments around the country so they can implement something similar.
- Public education: “This used to be the first thing we would cut,” Cassano says. “But the more fires you reduce, the more you reduce firefighter injuries.” FDNY brought in retired fire officers and firefighters to carry out its expanded public education program. As a result, civilian fire fatalities are at an all-time low.
And the result of all of these programs on the department itself: “Accidents, injuries, serious injuries, and burns are all down,” Cassano says.
No Department Too Big…
As both chief and now commissioner, Cassano has worked hard to help the FDNY rebuild out of the ashes of September 11. He’s been successful at it not by stressing rules or punitive measures (although of course those exist), but by trying to instill in all members the same passion for safety that he has. And his message to the TAMPA2 delegates is that cultural change is possible in any department. “No matter how big your department, no matter how small—career or volunteer—this mission to save lives, to keep members safe, is of utmost importance to all of us,” he says. “No department is too big or too small to make sure your firefighters are safe.”