Monday, May 2, 2011

Changing Attitudes



Recently I was attending a conference where the hot topic among a group of Fire Chiefs was focused on the amount of firefighter injuries and deaths, many resulting from motor vehicle crashes. A big subcomponent was the use of seat belts or lack there of. This topic was discussed at length as they were searching for answers of how to get firefighters to comply. Ideas of affecting funding from county government, decreasing state death benefits and others were tossed around as ideas to get groups to comply. One salty Chief finally just blurted out, “it is all about attitude and many folks have a damn bad one”. “The attitude has to be there to make this cultural change and it has to start with the fire chief”, he went on to say. I was so excited to hear that one statement come out, I could have turned flips. Problem being was the next question, “How do we change the attitudes of individuals who don’t see this as a problem”?

There are many attitudes about hundreds of topics in the fire service. But why are there still attitudes when it comes to the safety of fire personnel. Unlike other public safety professionals the fire and rescue service is charged with the responsibility of protecting people and property from the ravages of fire and other hostile forces – both man made and natural. Who is going to protect us with acts like, failing to wear your seat belt going on? We are our own worst enemy when it comes to safety. Failure to be safe is a human act… ATTITUDE!!! It seems that when a firefighter is seriously injured or killed, the fire service does little to promote positive action to prevent a reoccurrence. The message spreads quickly of a fallen comrade, but the lesson is slow to follow and is seldom learned. How do we make the changes in these attitudes?

One area of this is the line of duty deaths that occur as a result of motor vehicle accidents. It has been shown repeatedly where the “Need for Speed” is not relevant in most cases. Now, I am not advocating that we not expedite our responses but the difference between 65 mph and 55 mph is a drastic difference when you look at the handling of a 48 1/2-foot long ladder truck that weighs 73,500 pound or a large apparatus weighing 45,000 pound. The laws of physics show a drastic difference in the stopping distances not to mention the external forces that affect the apparatus. Additionally we need to remember we don’t have a hedge of protection around us in vehicles and we must buckle up! In most states it is the law and guess what, we are not special or immune from any of the dangers associated with motor vehicle crashes. Attitude wise, we just think we are!

Time is long over due for the fire and rescue services to actively and seriously address the firefighter safety issue. Too often we tend to take a cosmetic approach rather than getting to the root of the problem. We treat the symptoms and rarely the cause.

The fire and rescue services, at all levels, must rise to meet this challenge. This means doing what is necessary to turn around the seemingly apathetic or complacent attitude about safety which prevails in the fire service today. At this point you may be saying to yourself that the fire service is safer today than it ever has been. This may be true, but times change and we are playing catch up!!! Although technology is a necessary ingredient in the safety recipe, it is not the most important. This is where I feel a lot of professionals are missing the point. Sure we are dressed well today and our equipment and apparatus are safer. This aspect is of the utmost importance and is a portion of the recipe. This is the portion that is most often not left out. Where we are lacking is the ATTITUDE of both management and the firefighter or at least a safety conscious attitude. Most fire service personnel have plenty of attitudes, just that they are far too often focused on the wrong things. I can’t understand why a firefighter would have an attitude problem with safety since it is there own lives affected. Further, I absolutely can not see where a leader, fire officer or management position could not constantly be focused on the right attitudes about everything, especially SAFETY.

Over the past two years the firefighter safety stand down has taken the fire service by storm with progressive departments. However, there are departments across our great nation that have not even heard of this program, even with all of the efforts made this past year by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. Every attitude in the fire service needs to be focused on the concept of “having the courage to be safe”.

As a Fire Chief and as a member of the fire service, I want to challenge each and every individual across the United States to change there attitude. I know I am asking for the world here folks, but we have got to loose the 100 years of tradition unimpeded by progress mentality. We have got to change and we have to do it NOW! Line of duty deaths are nothing to be proud of.

I challenge you to help me and other fire service leaders make that attitude change? How do we do this you ask? Start by being safety minded in everything you do. Take the 16 Life Safety Initiatives, developed by the Fallen Firefighters Foundation, and look at your own department to see how you are measuring up. If you are falling short, MAKE CHANGE!!! Focus on making cultural changes in how you operated and conduct daily business. Take aggressive actions to identify and correct actions that are unsafe. Make Everyday a training do “SO THAT EVERYONE GOES HOME”…there families are counting on you.
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2 comments:

  1. Enjoyed your article Chief Cline ! When we advocate change in the confines of the kitchen table at the firehouse-change-often becomes contested between (1) long time experienced officers & firefighters, (2) let's say the 5 year firefighter, and (3) the new probie, conversations or discussions become heated much like two or three saloon patrons discussing politics or religion. It takes substantial courage and desire to listen to proposed changes. It takes a heap of maturity to accept change; and it takes aggressive initiative to engage even the small changes to a degree that they become habitual. If we are to employ changes for safety's sake, we must embrace those changes...even if we disagree with them or find the logic behind them to be ridiculous. In the 1960's, SCBA was a pain in the ass, not everyone thought they were a life saving idea.

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  2. "Culture" will start to turn the corner when the powers that be put their money where their mouths are. Companies must be taken out of service, two hours every shift for mandatory PT. Annual fitness for duty evaluations must have teeth. Those that don't pass should be put on administrative duty until they do. Officers must have be held accountable for the behavior and performance of the firefighters they supervise. Progress is often painful and never cheap.

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