When You Want a Safety Culture … But Not Everyone Else Does

Dear Nozzlehead: After going through several NIOSH line-of-duty-death reports, I’ve decided to start changing some of my bad habits. I’ve been a firefighter with my department for a little more than 7 years, and I’m now an engine driver. My officer is going on 30 years with the department, and he really isn’t that old. My problem is that I try to make safety- or common-sense-related changes, and he gives me grief.

I can honestly say that I’ve worn my seatbelt every time I’m on the rig, and that’s a habit I’ll never lose. I corrected my officer recently when he got on one of our firefighters for putting on a traffic vest over his turnout gear. He told the firefighter that he’s not to wear a traffic vest if he has gear on. I said, “It’s his butt; if he wants to wear it, let him wear it–as long as it’s not into a fire.” You can’t be too visible, right?

So how do I deal with my officer who’s stuck in the past and chastises everyone for trying to be safer, especially with the new vest standard?

–Vested in Vermont

Dear Vested,
NIOSH reports? What good are they? After all, I recently heard a fire officer state that, “Those NIOSH reports don’t really tell the whole truth.” Yeah, what does NIOSH know anyway?

As you may guess, ol’ Nozzlehead is a big fan of the NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program (FFFIPP), which investigates firefighter LODDs. It doesn’t place personal blame; it generates recommendations for preventing deaths and injuries from similar events. In other words, it’s the “How Not to Repeat LODD History” program.”

Once notified of a firefighter fatality, a very qualified, educated and trained NIOSH representative contacts the fire department. Not all NIOSH investigators are firefighters, but they work closely with the national and local fire service to ensure the facts are properly investigated. NIOSH does use fire service experts in some investigations, as well as to review nearly all final draft firefighter LODD reports.

NIOSH investigators review all applicable documents. They interview fire department personnel who were on the scene at the time of the incident, and also work closely with local and state law enforcement authorities, such as the fire marshal’s office, etc.

Once the investigation is complete, NIOSH summarizes the sequence of events and prepares a draft report. Each department, union (if present) or family (where applicable) is given the opportunity to review this draft to ensure that it’s technically accurate and factual. As we recently saw, the City of Charleston made news when the mayor decided to release the draft document of the Charleston 9 tragedy to the public, which is normally discouraged because it’s just that–a draft.

After review, the report is finalized with the addition of recommendations for preventing future deaths and injuries under similar circumstances. Once the fire department, union and family have received the final copy of the NIOSH report, it’s made available to the public on the Web site www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire.

Although many NIOSH reports seem to sound the same, how many different ways do we need NIOSH to report to us that, in many cases, we keep making the same errors, leading to our deaths? How else can NIOSH tell us to get healthy, to drive smart, to wear seatbelts, to not go into a building that should have already collapsed? Maybe we ought to read the reports and then compare them to how we are actually operating. Each NIOSH report can be a wake-up call, but only if we want it to be. Wanna honor firefighters who have been killed? Read the reports and make sure you don’t repeat the problems. Better yet, give the reports to your firefighters and ask them to provide genuine, realistic and constructive feedback on the possibility of “that” happening at your department.

OK, now you understand a little bit about the NIOSH program, so let’s talk about VESTS. Remember that Salt-n-Pepa song, “Let’s Talk about Sex”? Well, here’s a different version for the fire service: “Yo, I don’t think we should talk about this; Come on, why not? People might misunderstand what we’re tryin’ to say, you know? No, but that’s a part of life; Come on! Yo Nozzlehead-erella, cut it up one time; Let’s talk about vests, baby; Let’s talk about you and me; Let’s talk about all the good things and the bad things that may be; Let’s talk about vests … let’s talk about VESTS!”

Sorry, I’m prone to break out in song whenever such awesome music pops in my head. Word.

As far as reflective, roadway-safe, firefighter-protectin’ vests, the best place to learn about them is from the good folks at www.ResponderSafety.com. The current program they’re using to educate us on the new safety vest standards is called The Challenge to Be Visible. Can you see me now? Good.

Federal regulations as well as NFPA standards require the use of high-visibility garments for emergency responders operating on or near a roadway. The minimum requirements include the use of fluorescent background materials; yellow/green, red/orange or red; and retro-reflective material arranged for 360-degree visibility. Also, garments should be labeled for ANSI/ISEA 107-2004 or ANSI/ISEA 207-2006.

And no, your bunker gear does not provide that level of visibility protection. NFPA addresses the issue of “you being seen so you don’t get your butt run over” by recommending a specific garment (vest) that allows you to be seen. The feds require that all workers in the right-of-way of a federal-aid highway shall wear high-visibility safety apparel. Of course, when in actual “firefighting mode,” the roadway should be protected and the incident scene blocked from traffic; in this case, vests should not be worn, as they will interfere with your PPE. But for others performing any other duties on the scene–from the cops to the EMTs to the wrecker-drivers to the firefighters not fighting the fire–why wouldn’t we want to be as visible as possible?!

The vests are easy to use, inexpensive and can make a big difference in your safety. For more information, see the article “The Challenge to Be Visible,” by Steve Austin, July 2008.

Vested, tell your fire officer to just put on his vest and consider a little less talk and a little more positive action. Now he will be seen and not heard.

It’s sad that some people, especially those in positions of authority, choose to go with “what they like or feel” as opposed to what is right, especially when it comes to the safety and protection of their firefighters.

We’ve all read the reports about the tragic LODDs of the nine firefighters who gave their lives in Charleston, S.C., a little more than 1 year ago. This is another example of how critical it is for fire officers (chiefs and company officers) to look well beyond what they “personally” like or don’t like to what is best for their members based on national standards and proven modern methods.

Retired chief and noted fire service expert Gordon Routley, who headed the panel charged with investigating the Charleston firefighter deaths, stated very clearly that all fire chiefs have a duty to stay abreast of ever-evolving advances in the profession and to learn from mistakes made by other fire departments that have lost firefighters in the line of duty.

“Unfortunately, the Charleston chief was out of touch with the mainstream of what was going on in the fire service for the last 30 years or so,” Routley said in an interview with the Post & Courier. “It was hard for me to understand how he was unaware of a lot of this or discounted this.”

Many management experts use the phrase “think outside the box,” and it seems that in our business, a little more thinking outside the local firehouse (or headquarters) might just be a real good idea, whether that’s related to wearing safety vests, understanding NIOSH reports or improving tactics used to fight fires.

Don’t stick to antiquated personal opinions. It’s our responsibility to find out how others do this job and how we can do this job better to benefit our members. This job has nothing to do with our personal opinions or likes; it has everything to do with what is best for everyone involved–those having the emergency and those having to mitigate it–and nothing more.

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