Safety In the Fire Service: Where Do We Start To Improve?

by Howard Meek, ESTI Environmental, Health, and Safety Manager

Ask any number of folks their opinions of how to improve safety in the fire service and you are likely to hear many different opinions.  That’s because the problem of improving safety performance in emergency services can be a monumental task.  There’s no doubt that when a department experiences a significant event, such as a serious injury or fatality, there’s a sense of urgency to improve.   But why do we wait until we experience the event?  Why can’t we learn from others and prevent any occurrence to our personnel?  And how on earth do we even get started on the opportunities for improvement? 

An important place to start is to address the definition of an unwanted, significant event.  All fire and emergency service personnel will likely say that a Line of Duty Death fits the definition.  Some may even say an injury requiring a hospital stay, or a Mayday call, are unwanted, significant events.  But how many of us would say that all injuries or motor vehicle accidents should count as unwanted, significant events?

During my career, I’ve had the good fortune to work with some great organizations doing research on how to improve organizational safety performance and culture.  One such organization, the Construction Users Roundtable, established their “Guiding Principles for Safety” in 2004; with some slight modifications, I think their foundational principles apply equally well to what we do in the fire service.

  1. No work-related injury, illness, or damage to property or the environment is acceptable.
  2. Departments should work to prevent all such injury, illness, or damage.
  3. A department will achieve whatever performance level it is willing to accept.
  4. “Zero incidents” is the only justifiable goal. 

I realize this may go against what many of us have learned over the years.  We’ve been taught that firefighting is a dangerous profession and injuries are just part of the job.  But if you’re like me, then you’ve seen all the firefighter injury and death you want to see.  It’s time for us to take a stand and realize we can do better.  We must do better. Can your department agree to the principles above?  Can you personally agree to them?  Join us on a journey in future articles as we highlight ways to improve firefighter safety performance.  Let us never forget our motto. “Everyone Goes Home”.