I had the opportunity recently to talk with a very progressive fire chief about situational awareness. I really enjoy my conversations with him because I always learn something. He was telling me that his department just hired 17 new paid-on-call members. He shared with me that during the hiring process he visits the home of each firefighter candidate to talk with their families about the commitments and obligations of being a firefighter and the required support the firefighter will need from family members.
That’s a great best practice for ensuring the family members are welcomed into their new fire department family. During one of his visits, he asked the wife of a firefighter candidate if she had any questions. By his own admission, she caught him off-guard when she asked…
“What safeguards do you have in place to ensure my husband will come home after every call?”
It’s a fair question. In fact, that question is probably on the minds of every first responder’s family members. Moms, dads, spouses, children, girlfriends or boyfriends, brothers or sisters… they all want to be assured the fire department is going to take care of the person who is very important in their lives.
It’s a dangerous business and it’s important to acknowledge that. Giving false hope that their loved one will never be in harm’s way is neither fair nor accurate. The stressful working conditions of emergency responders is dangerous and can result in heart attacks and strokes (#1 killer of firefighters). Responding to and returning from an emergency call also carries an element of danger (#2 killer of firefighters). Emergency scenes are hostile environments and conditions can change quickly and unexpectedly which can result in casualties (#3 killer of firefighters). That level of brutal honesty may not endear you to the family member and it doesn’t answer their question about the safeguards.
Do you have safeguards? Are they adequate? Maybe it’s time to take inventory and turn that brutal honesty back on yourself. Is safety a priority or lip service in your department?
On a side note… I once rode along with a fire department where, at the start of the shift, a large group of firefighters were ranting about how the city had cut the fire department’s health and wellness budget (and the firefighters were getting their free fitness center passes cut). ‘The city doesn’t give a crap about our safety’ was the theme of the rant.
Then, a call came in. I got on the apparatus and watched the four firefighters ride to the call without wearing seat belts. In fact, they all looked at me like I was from outer space when I put my seat belt on. As we rode to the call I thought to myself… If we get in an accident and, God forbid, one of you get killed, there’s going to be someone at home very upset when they learn you were not wearing a seat belt – the low hanging fruit on the safety tree.
Dr. Gasaway’s Advice
Every fire department should have safeguards in place to ensure the well-being of members (with an acknowledgement that even with safeguards in place bad things can happen). Here are a few that come to mind:
- A safety culture that lends support to members who do their jobs safely.
- A comprehensive health and wellness program that supports member fitness to perform the strenuous tasks without consequence.
- A thorough driver’s training program that promotes safe and defensive driving, both in emergency and non-emergency modes.
- A priority on training, both initial training and on-going training. Firefighters need to be taught how to safely perform their jobs and then be required to practice those skills routinely to ensure skill competency.
- Well-maintained equipment and gear to safety perform the job.
- A way to speak up when there is a concern for safety without fear of consequence.
- A process to learn from mistakes without blame.
- Strong leaders with health egos and strong self-esteems who stand up and do the right thing regardless of criticism.
- All members with a mindset that welcomes areas for how to improve the safety of the organization and their personal safety.
I’m sure the readers can think of a few more. And if you do, be sure to add them in a reply.
1. If someone who cared for you asked, “What safeguards does the department have in place to ensure you’re coming home after every call?“, are you prepared to give them an answer that assures them your safety is a priority?
2. Have you ever engaged your loved ones in a conversation about what concerns they have about your serving as a first responder?
3. What are some best practices you can suggest for ensuring the safety of first responders?
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Share your comments on this article in the “Leave a Reply” box below. If you want to send me incident pictures, videos or have an idea you’d like me to research and write about, contact me. I really enjoy getting feedback and supportive messages from fellow first responders. It gives me the energy to work harder for you.
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