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Creating the "New" Fire Service Safety Culture: A Perspective, Part 1

By Bill Manning

On the face of it, the Life Safety Initiatives are basic stuff. Promoting their value to the fire service should be like selling baseball pitchers on the importance of the curveball and the changeup. But it's not as easy as that.

Few firefighters would take issue with the individual Life Safety Initiatives, in concept. While the process of implementing specifics within the Initiatives should yield healthy discussion, the conceptual framework is not only sound, but practically inarguable. What makes the task of reducing line-of-duty deaths and injuries so challenging is that certain negative behaviors, attitudes, and systems are engrained in many fire department cultures. Our success in reducing deaths and injuries on the job is directly related to our ability to change behaviors and attitudes-to change culture. "Culture change" is the first Life Safety Initiative, from which all others follow. To do that, we must have a better understanding of what it is and what it isn't. The first Initiative reads: "Define and advocate the need for a cultural change within the fire service relating to safety; incorporating leadership, management, supervision, accountability and personal responsibility." Focus on the words "incorporating leadership, management, supervision, accountability, and personal responsibility." We not only expect change, we expect everyone to change, we expect everyone to lead in the change, we expect everyone to be accountable to each other for the change, and we expect everyone to take personal responsibility for the change. It's heady stuff.

But think about it. We use these words-leadership, accountability, personal responsibility, and such-all the time to describe high-level action qualities in our fire service. Aren't these intangibles necessary for any life-saving operation to succeed? Aren't these values you inherently adopt when you swear to uphold your duty to save lives and property?

So where's the disconnect?
The disconnecting occurs on five levels. First, "culture change" is viewed by some as a threat. Second, bad (unsafe) behaviors and attitudes are allowed to leech into what the membership see as part of "tradition." Third, safety and mission within organizational cultures are imbalanced. Fourth, the voices (and actions) of safety leadership have been either subconsciously muffled or consciously subdued. And fifth, the lessons from behavioral safety science haven't been embraced by fire service leaders, much less blended into everyday operations.

It's not difficult to understand why, for some, culture change causes neck hairs to stand straight up: For them, "culture change" translate to "assault on tradition." But the goal is the culture change Life Safety Initiative is anything but that. To put it simply: The fire service is an institution whose mission is to save lives and property. Saving lives and property is a 2,000-year fire service tradition. Other customs and traditions have developed in support of that mission and the organization: the tradition of parades, the tradition of fire department funerals, the tradition of graduation or advancement ceremonies. Fire service traditions are good. Saving lives is a proud fire service tradition.

A culture develops in the day-to-day execution of the mission, very different from tradition, that derives from personal and group attitudes and behaviors. It's how people think, feel, and act toward their work and others in the organization. There's good culture and bad culture, or more specifically, good behavior and bad behavior, good attitudes and bad attitudes. On the negative side, not wearing your chinstrap inside a burning building, for example, is bad behavior, a cultural aspect that needs changing, as is management's failure to correct the problem. We could fill pages on unsafe behaviors that are tolerated within fire department cultures. But they are just that-part of a culture, not part of a tradition.

With that in mind, changing the culture means reversing negative, "business as usual" thinking and behavior patterns to improve safety within the traditional mission. It means getting better and safer in every aspect of what you do, nothing more and nothing less.

"Business as Usual" and Complacency: the Enemies of Progressive Culture Firefighting and lifesaving is a heroic business, and your heroism shines through, in many ways and on many stages. That includes, each year, confrontations with fire that claim the lives of our members. However, without any judgment or prejudice whatsoever, the fact is that the vast majority of line-of-duty deaths each year do not directly involve heroic circumstances.

While it's true that every firefighter who dies in the line of duty rightfully receives a hero's funeral service, it's also true that the vast majority of our LODDs are so obviously preventable as to evoke well-founded outrage. This is especially true of our completely preventable and completely senseless roadway/vehicle response tragedies, and to an extent, our heart attack deaths.

There's no LODD circumstance or cause that defines personal and organizational irresponsibility like "to and from" injuries do. Such incidents display complacency and the "business as usual" mentality at their very worst. Without a basic culture change in this area, it's hard to imagine how we can tackle the rest of our problem areas with any measure of success.

But we can and we will. By the very nature of their controllability, reduction of "to and from" incidents overall must and will be the first manifestation of our willingness to become "progressive" organizations. Again, we need to strip away the mystery and misperceptions. Over years of conversations with firefighters, I've found that some think of the word "progressive" in the abstract, with a sense of mystique and wonderment, almost as something unachievable by organizations of mere mortals. Others imbue to it a negative connotation, as something to be avoided, an enemy of "real firefighting" and "real firefighters." Of course, being "progressive" just means seeing ahead and taking actions necessary to make progress. If we can all agree that reduction of "to and from" deaths are a good and common goal representing real progress, then it's incumbent on all fire organizations and individuals to "get progressive."

Perhaps this seems too unsophisticated. But, in part, we're dealing with changing attitudes, and the walls we've built to withstand change are thick. The natural human resistance to change is made all the more difficult to break because unsafe acts and attitudes have been repeated and repeated until they've been engrained in our cultures for years-the "business as usual" syndrome. And, if left unaddressed, very predictable human reactions to responses within a life-and-death occupation whose margins for error are small-the adrenaline rush during response comes readily to mind-will continue to bring about untimely funerals and incapacitated firefighters.

I've heard people wonder aloud why the Life Safety Initiatives focus on line-ofduty deaths, instead not injuries. First off, they're easily measurable and the reduction impact will be immediately recognized and felt. Saying, for instance, that we're shooting for a line-of-duty injury reduction 100,000 to 70,000 in five years is harder to quantify and doesn't carry the same urgency or stark simplicity. But more important, as the problems we face are interrelated, the question's a nonstarter: What connects LODDs, injuries, near misses, and thousands upon thousands of "harmless" unsafe acts without direct consequences is a business-as-usual and complacent mentality inherent in the fire service, which can only be counteracted by conscious, progressive efforts to change the culture at multiple levels of group interaction.

In other words, we know by measuring safety progress at the "tip of the iceberg" that profound cultural changes are happening "under the surface." The behavioral safety community has long theorized and amassed considerable evidence supporting that for every workplace catastrophe there are hundreds of unsafe acts preceding it.

In his article "Psychology of Behavioral Safety," published at www.behavioralsafety.com, Dr. Dominic writes, "People often behave unsafely because they have never been hurt before while doing their job in an unsafe way: 'I've always done the job this way' being a familiar comment. This may well be true, but the potential for an accident is never far away as illustrated by various accident triangles. Heinrich's Triangle, for example, suggests that for every 330 unsafe acts, 29 will result in minor injuries and 1 in a major or lost time incident. Over an extended period of time, therefore, the lack of any injuries for those who are consistently unsafe is actually reinforcing the very behaviors that in all probability will eventually lead them to be seriously injured. The principle being illustrated here is that the consequences of behaving unsafely will nearly always determine future unsafe behavior, simply because reinforced behavior tends to be repeated."

While I'm unaware of any of these studies having used the fire service as the subject, I'd presume, given the firefighting/fire service environment and prevailing cultures, that we'd not fare well. The challenge is not so much preventing the one catastrophe as it is preventing the hundreds and hundreds of unsafe behaviors that have no overt consequence but that degrade the safety culture to the point that the organization becomes ripe for a big tragedy.

The fire department, for example, without strict, enforceable driving policies is a department that, due to repetition and reinforcement of unsafe acts, commits to a culture that feeds the lie that its human losses are "just part of the fire service-just the way it is, always has been, and always will be." It's not okay to drive recklessly and respond as though normal road safety rules don't apply, and a department that doesn't educate its members and enforce policies as such pays the price in ways yet to be seen. The same for seatbelt policies, driver training, and highway safety protocols. And physical fitness. But it's not a one-way street or simple fix. Culture change is not as simple as a boss handing down policies. It's about mind-switch. It's about getting people motivated to buy into the message. It's about creating a culture that continually replenishes itself and moves forward through effective positive and negative reinforcement. You have to make it popular and fashionable to do the right thing, awarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior. Culture change happens company by company, championed by internal safety advocates. It's about reciprocal accountability, reciprocal leadership. It's a planet that, as it gets larger and stronger, pulls more people into its gravity. It's about infusing greater responsibility into the organizational fabric, demanding that the individual is duty-bound to do what's right for the organization. People who aren't behaving in ways that are good for the organization have no business being there. The culture must support what's good for the organization as a whole so each individual can be served.

By not seeking to become progressive (as in doing something about the problems above and below the surface), by not at least beginning to create a safer culture within the fire service, by not addressing our "business as usual" mentality, and by falling into the complacency trap, the organization is doomed to repeating the mistakes of the past- mistakes we live and relive year after year.

I've written extensively over the years about fire service culture and how courage and heroism and educated risk-taking must not be eradicated from this business-how they're defining characteristics of the fire service that distinguish it from most other nonmilitary occupations, and how sanitizing those characteristics will take the heart and soul out of it. I still believe that to be true. Yet in saying that, I'm also speaking from a perspective where all the support systems, on-scene resources and coordination, communications, size-up, training, experience, command structure and span of control, safety protocols, preincident planning, and so forth are abundant and in place before and during the event, whereby and through which thinking firefighters and officers can make personal and group risk assessments to place themselves in marginally tenable situations to save known lives-that's to say, they can act courageously because they have all the tools, systems, and support to do so. And while firefighters are and will continue to exhibit great courage and bravery, in too many places the complex safety/support structure isn't in place.

It's a crucial point, because when it comes to culture change, many, if not most, firefighters are concerned that they'll still have the freedom to be a "real" firefighter and make a difference where it counts most, in saving lives and property.

If properly construed, there's nothing in the Life Safety Initiatives meant to take "fighter" out of "firefighter." The key to it is balance. A culture of safety means the homogenization of smart thinking, sensible protocols, and providing the systems and people investment required to create an aggressive yet safe fire department. Because few fire departments in the United States have achieved equilibrium of the two, "safe" and "aggressive/effective" often are seen as antithetical, when they're really entwined. The concepts of risk management, risk assessment, fireground behavior, and fireground policies deserve greater scrutiny with respect to culture change and LODD and injury reduction. These concepts must be developed in constructive, balanced ways that are mission- and people-responsive. Though there are some obvious circumstances wherein simple rules need to be instituted and enforced-seatbelt usage readily comes to mind-more complicated response safety issues demand thoughtful, holistic treatment because, first, they necessitate profound behavior and attitude changes and, second, the department's very identity hangs in the threads.

A firefighter wants to be a firefighter to the fullest extent, and you won't stop him or her from being one unless you turn the fire department into the department of public works. The prescription for firefighter deaths on the fireground isn't mission revision. For example, taming a potentially dangerous situation by writing out property protection may seem to "solve" the problem, but, in effect, it says "We (as an organization) don't have the wherewithal or ability to create a balanced culture of safety and aggressiveness within our mission statement, so to protect you (the underprotected firefighters) from yourselves, we're going to write rules that amend the mission statement."

That's not to disparage any organization whose leadership is concerned about its members going home after shift or after the call and so pose strict policy limits on response to unsavable property. We've all seen enough firefighters dying in vacant commercial structures to know better. But it is to consciously revisit what only a few courageous souls in this business have had the smarts and nerve to say: that effectiveness equals safety. The statement, when understood and practiced, is the perfect response to the "dilemma" between safety and mission.

In my next column, we'll continue the discussion of fireground culture and the "effectiveness equals safety" concept.

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