Sunday, June 21, 2009

Don't save Safety for the Critique

At the end of the 2009 Safety, Health, and Survival week, I'm sitting here sadly shaking my head. June has been a bad month for the U.S. Fire and EMS services. This month there have already been 10 reported LODDs involving 9 firefighters and a rescue squad member. One of the LODDs was from my state, South Carolina. Since Safety Week started, a random sampling of fire and EMS news includes an Ohio firefighter that was originally reported as a LODD that is on life support following a line-of-duty event, three San Antonio firefighters burned when a fire unexpectedly breached a wall during an interior attack, and four Baltimore firefighter injured in an engine vs. structure crash. This morning, I woke up to see this bad news about a St. Paul FD ambulance being involved in an accident that resulted in a civilian fatality. I've had a very busy week, with focusing on the punch list for our nearly-completed training center, but I've still tried to find time to promote Safety Week and to ensure that our firefighters had easy access to Safety Week activities and information.

A couple of evenings ago, I had the chance to stop by one of our busier stations. The crew was taking advantage of a little lull in the action to engage in a little team-building discussion. The discussion was pretty interesting. It centered on chief officers - one of the four areas of concentration for this year's Safety Week. The comments were, in typical firehouse fashion, blunt and to the point. One of the firefighters commented that chief officers need to understand the difference between thinking tactically and thinking like a safety officer when they act as the Incident Safety Officer. I asked what he meant. He went on to say that some chiefs focus on how to extinguish the fire regardless of what vest they're wearing, while others understand the Safety Officer's role and how to carry it out without interfering with a properly-run operation. The other firefighters commented on the other extreme, when the Safety Officer attempts to start the post-incident critique while the battle against the fire is still being waged.

So where does the Safety Officer draw the line?

The Safety Officer is charged with recognizing unsafe acts and conditions, informing Command, and can take direct action to stop unsafe acts or remediate unsafe conditions. How do you do that without inappropriate interference with the tactical situation? My rule is that if the issue is minor, if I'm the Safety Officer, I correct it and move on. For example, if the pump operator forgot to don his safety vest, I tell him to don it and keep moving. If a firefighter wants to start a mid-fire conversation about the unsafe acts of a different company, I tell him "Save the critique for the critique." On the other hand, if I see a company starting to make entry into a building with collapse potential, not only do I stop the entry, I immediately notify Command that we need to evacuate the building and I start establishing and marking a collapse zone. The trick is to know when to make a big deal out of the problem, when to simply communicate conditions to Command, and when to directly correct a minor problem.

As my good friend and colleague Mick Mayers says..."Don’t try to take shortcuts because you think it is easier. Shortcuts are cheating and cheating ultimately results in a catastrophic failure when someone gets caught." If you're in the Safety Officer role and you see someone taking a dangerous shortcut, stop it!

There are some common sense things that we can all do to make life safer and easier for all of us. If the drivers don't routinely don full gear, then they should have their traffic vest on their seat and don it prior to responding. It won't delay the comany's turnout time, trust me. If you use the Passport accountability system or a similar system that uses helmet identifiers, then the officer should ensure that every company member has their name tags in the system and has helmet identifiers properly attached as soon as they enter quarters to start the shift. In other words, Don't let the little things become big things.

When you get to the critique, if some of us are a little peeved because the Safety Officer made us wear eye protection to operate extrication tools, made us stop to put on a traffic vest, or stopped us from entering that marginal structure fire that we just "knew" we could hit offensively and "get away with it", then remember that you're alive and well to be peeved. After all, we can work out critique points at the critique. We can't, however, go back and unbury a LODD brother or sister at the critique.

In closing, even though this year's Safety Week is over, don't act as if it is. Drive safely, condition, wear incident-appropriate PPE, stay hydrated, get help when you need it, and look out for each other. Rehab as if your life depends on it, especially in the tropical heat wave we're having in the south right now. Make every week Safety Week.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Monkey Parable, Safety, and Resistance to Change

The 2009 Fire and EMS Safety, Health, and Survival Week begins tomorrow. My department is using these resources to help our firefighters develop healthy lifestyles, and maintain a safer work environment. In honor of Safety Week, I offer the following - The Monkey Parable.

Once upon a time, some researchers conducted an experiment. They obtained five monkeys and placed them into a single cage. In the center of the cage was a stairway that terminated in thin air. After a hungry night in the cage, the monkeys saw a researcher lowering a bunch of bananas through the bars above the stairs. The monkeys immediately charged up the stairs toward the food. Other researchers immediately blasted the monkeys with ice cold water from fire hoses, played tapes of loud, discordant music, and turned on strobe lights. They repeated these actions every time they lowered the bananas into the cage. It didn't take the monkeys long to refuse to set foot on the stairs, no matter how hungry they were.

Once this conditioning had taken effect, the researchers removed one of the monkeys from the cage and replaced him with a 2nd-generation monkey. Down came the bananas. The new monkey raced for the stairs. Before he could set foot on the bottom step, the other four monkeys grabbed him and beat him down, not wanting to experience a repeat of the previous few days' unpleasantness. No icy bath, strobe lights, or discordant music resulted. This was repeated until all of the 1st generation monkeys had been replaced by 2nd generation monkeys, none of which had experied the unpleasantness through which the 1st generation had lived.

Once the 2nd generation monkeys were completely conditioned, one of them was removed from the cage and replaced with a 3rd generation monkey. Down came the bananas. The newest monkey dashed for the food, was caught at the bottom of the stairs, and beaten down, just as the 2nd generation monkeys were beaten down by the 1st generation monkeys. During the beat-down, the new monkey cried out"Why are you guys beating me?" The beat down stopped and the four 2nd-generation monkeys looked around at each other. Finally, one of them replied..."I don't know, it's just that we've always done it that way." Hopefully, fire-rescue and EMS personnel aren't so conditioned to "We've always done it that way" that we act like the monkeys in the story. We're supposed to be smarter than monkeys.

Chief Officers share in the responsibility to help keep our firefighters safe. Safety Week activities include resources to help the chiefs take care of the firefighters and paramedics for whom they are responsible.

How many firefighters will continue to die unnecessarily because we run into Born Losers...because we've always done it that way? How many of us will refuse to use new tactics and tools because we like the old ones...because we've always done it that way? How many fire and EMS personnel will die because we are too busy donning SCBA or performing patient care to ensure our own safety...because we've always done it that way?

Let's commit to safer, healthier firefighters and emergency operations. If we don't, then we're really not any smarter than the monkeys.