Chiefs Must Commit to Enforcing Safe Driving Policies

Sixteen initiatives, seatbelt pledges, Stand Down weeks, firefighter close calls, firefighter near misses, safety, health and survival, everybody goes home. A lot is going on related to firefighter safety, health and survival. Does it matter? Hell yeah, it does. It is making a difference? Absolutely. Sorta. Well … maybe. In some places.

Loads of work is being done from the tippy-top down–through the U.S. Fire Administration, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the International Association of Fire Fighters, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, the National Volunteer Fire Council and many others. All of those organizations have created loads of free resources so that if any firefighter, fire officer or fire chief wants to learn about how to deal with the issues, the information is there.

As horrific as 100-plus lost firefighters each year is, remember that we’re trying to reduce that number by “intentionally” changing the behavior of 1.1 million firefighters, so it isn’t going to happen very quickly. Some chiefs are trying to fix it by taking care of their personnel, which sometimes requires actions met with resistance by those who require the care.

Of course, fire officers have no business being in, operating within and especially leading our business if they’re that careless with how we’re taken care of–chiefs especially included. The bottom line in all cases is the chief. Although all firefighters lead heroic lives, sadly, the majority of our?line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) are?not due to heroic circumstances.

The chief can impact that–locally. Forget the national focus–those are programs that create resources chiefs can use to help fix the problem at the home firehouse. All attempts, successes and failures in the saving of firefighters’ lives are local, and local means the local fire chief is the key to the end result. Of course the company officer and the individual firefighter play a critical part in reducing LODDs. But the chief is the bottom line, and this massive responsibility–no matter the size of the fire department–cannot be ignored.

Why Focus on Driving?

When we look at the LODD numbers, the majority of LODDs are related to health, fitness and medical issues. Although the chief can impact these losses by requiring physicals and offering fitness programs and related “We’d like you to live a long time” actions, there’s little the chief can do when that firefighter goes home and “intentionally” enjoys a 12-pack of deep-fried Twinkies for dinner. You can impact it, but you cannot stop it.

That brings us to the No. 2 most common way firefighters get themselves killed in the line of duty: riding in or driving fire and emergency apparatus. This may be the area where the chief has the greatest impact on reducing injury and death: intentionally determining and dictating exactly HOW firefighters will train, drive and ride on your fire apparatus.

In a recent, highly publicized incident, three civilians were killed and four firefighters were injured when a truck company struck an SUV while responding to a fire call. Picture yourself sleeping in your bed when your phone rings and the dispatcher tells you that this incident involved your apparatus, your firefighters and your citizens. Everything changes for you as the chief from that day forward–everything. The best you can hope for is that the dispatcher’s call is a dream–but you very quickly realize that it’s not.

The fire apparatus was traveling to a call for smoke in a building when it violently collided with the SUV. The civilians had the green traffic light. They did nothing wrong. The fire apparatus had its lights and sirens on and, clearly, the firefighters had no intention of doing anything wrong. But they did. Because the apparatus blew the red traffic light, three civilians (ages 49, 35 and 24) were killed by those who were driving and/or supervising the driving of the apparatus.

Were they intentionally killed? Tough question. You decide. Did the firefighter driving intentionally stop at the red light as dictated by law, training and policy? Did the fire officer intentionally supervise the driver of the apparatus to ensure that the laws and policies were followed and respected? Is this the first time the driver has blown through a red traffic light? Is it the first time the fire officer did not supervise the firefighter driving? Is it the first time firefighters have killed people while responding to help people?

Set the Tone

As chief, you’re probably up to your ears in work–and little of it has to do with going to fires or emergencies. Once in a while, you make it to an incident, but it isn’t what you do with most of your time. Chances are, you don’t need another phone call from the city manager, mayor or commissioner asking you to “block out a few hours to meet with the attorneys.” It’s probably one of the last things you want, but you might be headed for it if you haven’t intentionally made safe driving a priority.

Unfortunately, in many fire departments, chiefs have failed to set the tone when it comes to how firefighters will drive “our” vehicles and how firefighters will not drive “our” vehicles. The driving–and all that leads to it, including background/license checks, training, more training and more training–of emergency vehicles should not be discussible or debatable. It should not be negotiable. There should be no gray areas whatsoever. These days, in some fire departments, there’s way too much open or participatory management when it comes to the safety of the public and our firefighters. Sometimes, the chief just has to state: “This is the way it will be.” Period. No discussion. Just do it … or else. Although firefighters on the line must display courage and bravery, this is the area where the chief must display authoritative courage and bravery. (Check your personal file under “It’s lonely at the top of the ladder” for more on this.)

Define the Rules

When it comes to the driving and operating of publicly owned vehicles (the public owns it all–they paid for it through taxes, donations, whatever; we just forget that sometimes), there should be no gray area. The vehicle rules for the driver must be clear. The rules for the officer must be clear. The rules for those riding backward must be clear. And the consequences of intentionally choosing not to follow the rules must be clear too–well before anyone starts driving anything.

A sample emergency response policy should include clear rules that state:

  • The vehicle doesn’t move until everyone is seatbelted in. Ever.
  • The vehicle will always come to a complete stop if the traffic light is red. Always.
  • The vehicle will always come to a complete stop at a stop sign. Always.

And a sample emergency response responsibility/consequences standard should include:

  • The driver will be held fully responsible for the operation of the vehicle.
  • The officer will be held fully responsible for the actions of the driver and all firefighters riding in the vehicle in relation to policy enforcement.
  • If the driver fails to follow the response policy, the driver will be suspended pending termination based upon the facts and all laws, rights and legalities.
  • If the firefighters or driver fails to follow the emergency response policy, the officer will be held fully accountable for failure to supervise and will be suspended pending termination based upon the facts and all laws, rights and legalities.

Prepare for the Consequences

Do you think this sounds too tough? Are you concerned about grievances (career chiefs)? Concerned about not getting re-elected (volunteer/call chiefs)? Concerned about not being liked? These are all natural and appropriate concerns; let’s address each of them.

Grievances. They will happen and are part of fair and appropriate departmental labor/management operations–and employees are entitled to file grievances when they’re not being treated fairly and appropriately. Solution: Treat them fairly and appropriately by making the policy clear, training all personnel on the policy and educating them on the consequences (departmentally as well as potential personal legal issues). What better way to genuinely treat employees fairly and appropriately than by enforcing policies (not guidelines, but policies that have absolutely NO gray area or room for interpretation) that will benefit them and their family members?

Not getting elected. In many volunteer/call fire departments (VFDs), the firefighters elect the chief. In departments that “get it,” the election of their chief is all about the chief’s qualifications, ability to ensure the safety of the firefighters and the experience they possess to deliver the best service to the community. In that case, my above suggestions should fit in nicely. In other VFDs, where the last thing the members are concerned about is the chief’s qualifications, experience and related professional criteria, it will be difficult to enforce any meaningful policies without gaining the support of the majority of members. Although challenging, that can and has been done by many chiefs–it just takes time. One of the weapons some chiefs use in that situation is to get the fire department’s insurance provider to require related safety and survival policies. After all, it’s the money that’s at issue here–long after injuries are healed and funerals are attended.

Not being liked. Some chiefs say they don’t care if their firefighters like them. Most of them are full of it. It’s a very human quality to want to be liked. And firefighters, by nature of what we do, like being liked. If we didn’t want to be liked, we would be cops. But the “being liked” part has to be thrown out when it comes to doing the right thing and aggressively enforcing safety, health and survival policies.

What’s Your Intention?

It’s easy to be a chief who’s passive, takes little aggressive action (even when needed) and simply hopes nothing will go wrong. It’s easy to sit in the office, read the paper, pretend to be friends with all the firefighters and count the days. It’s easy and it’s done. But that’s not being a chief–that’s a civilian dressed in chief’s clothes pretending to be a chief. Many get away with it. The problem: When something does go wrong–something very predictable–whoever is dressed as the chief is now absolutely and clearly the chief, with simply no way to hide from the problem, the lawyers, the families and the emotions.

Although it isn’t always easy to be the chief, it’s a choice you made. And with all the good stuff you have–the Cadillac Escalade chief car, the 1,000-square-foot office with a view of the water, the huge staff to handle most of the problems, all the time off and the pay that requires you to buy a summer home–comes the clear responsibility to not allow bad situations to occur. Crashes and related tragic events involving apparatus are among the most frequent bad situations that happen to fire departments.

Horrific and tragic vehicular incidents are the No. 1 area in which fire chiefs can directly impact firefighter injury and death. To prevent your fire department from intentionally doing harm and making the headlines will require some no-nonsense policies, training and clear enforcement, with across-the-board fairness and consequences. What’s more, driver safety must be directed, led and managed–micromanaged, if that’s what it takes initially–at your level. It requires that every member at every level understands clearly what will happen if any of the safety and survival policies are not followed exactly and without variance.

Quite simply, it’s a matter of doing some intentional chiefing.

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