( The Volunteer Firefighter )
By Kimberly Quiros, National Volunteer Fire Council Chief of Communications
Firefighting is an inherently dangerous job, but there are many steps that can be taken to lessen the risks. Injury prevention is not an abstract concept – it is something we have control over and can prioritize for ourselves and our departments.
Take, for example, a firefighter who is seriously injured after being thrown from a vehicle because he or she wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. An action that takes a second or two to complete could have prevented this situation.
Safety needs to be at the forefront of every firefighter’s mind, whether during training, at the incident scene, or even working around the station. It may sound cliché, but the old adage rings especially true in the fire service where lives are on the line – an ounce of prevention is most certainly worth a pound of cure.
The National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) most recent report on firefighter injuries shows there were 68,085 firefighter injuries in 2015. Surprisingly, after years of a downward trend, the number of injuries actually increased by 7.5 percent compared to 2014.
Not only that, but the number of fireground injuries per 1,000 fires has remained relatively constant for the past 20 years. This means that despite advances in gear and equipment, better understanding of fire behavior and improved incident command procedures, we are not seeing a reduction in fireground injuries.
These facts should be a wake-up call that there is still a lot to be done in the area of injury prevention, and that the responsibility falls on department leaders as well as each individual firefighter for making positive changes toward safety. If we have better tools and knowledge and are still seeing these kinds of injury numbers, then it is time for a change in how we implement these advances during training and operations. And that means a collective refocusing on safety.
Consider the Consequences
Firefighters are in the business of putting others first, but more often than not the “shortcuts” they take with safety do more harm than good. How can you help someone if you crash your vehicle because you didn’t stop at an intersection during response? Or if you are taken out of service due to cancer caused by wearing dirty gear?
Think about your family. How do you tell them you have a serious or even life-threatening injury or illnesses because you didn’t take the time to follow safety procedures? What about your crew?
An injury on the fireground can put other members of the crew at risk. And how will they be impacted if you are out of service due to a preventable injury?
Firefighters want to help people, but make sure you have a clear perspective. Taking care of yourself is the best way you can take care of others.
Firefighters consider the fire service as a family that will always have each other’s backs. We see this in times of tragedy, when in the aftermath of a line-of-duty injury or death we rally around the victim, their families and each other.
We need to take this much further. Why wait until a tragedy happens in order to review safety practices? We need to come together before someone is injured or killed so we can prevent the tragedy in the first place. This includes saying something if you realize someone is being unsafe or acting recklessly.
Do you see someone removing their SCBA before the air is safe? Is someone forgoing a seatbelt in a moving vehicle? Are members of your crew disregarding an established safety procedure because they value speed over safety? Then say something! These are your brothers and sisters – if you see them endangering themselves, speak up. Don’t wait until it is too late.
Training is Key
Training is one of the most important keys to injury prevention. Department leaders need to make sure all personnel are properly trained for every function they are expected to perform. Never assign someone a task for which they have not been trained. Emphasize safety in all training, and make sure personnel are following the correct procedures.
In addition, educate personnel on why safety is important. Make sure everyone understands that safety and injury prevention are critical to the department being able to accomplish its mission.
Create a Culture of Safety
It all comes down to what kind of department you want to have. Consider the new recruit. If they see seasoned members ignoring a safety protocol, they will be much more apt to do the same. This instills a belief that SOPs can be ignored or only used when it is “convenient.” Is that the kind of message you want to send – that safety is an option?
We all have to take safety seriously. Remember that SOPs were put in place for a reason, and make sure to follow them every time. Develop clear disciplinary procedures for those who don’t follow safety protocols and provide everyone with a copy so they understand how serious the department is about safety.
As a firefighter, you have a responsibility to yourself, your family, your crew and your community to be at your best. Safety is a vital component of this. It is up to all of us to do everything we can to be there for all those who depend on us.
Kimberly Quiros is the Chief of Communications for the National Volunteer Fire Council. In this role, she focuses on many critical issues facing the fire and emergency services, including health and safety, recruitment and retention, grants and funding, and reputation management. She holds a master’s degree in public communication.