On June 14 – 20th, firefighters all over the world participated in the International Fire/EMS Safety and Health Week. This year’s theme, as declared by the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) and the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) was “Creating a Culture of Safety”. Throughout the week, many fire and EMS departments suspended all non-emergency activity to engage in safety and health training and education.
In 2013, 97 firefighters lost their lives in the line of duty and 65,880 were injured in 2013 (according to the National Fire Protection Association). In addition, many studies have shown that firefighters face an increased risk of heart disease, cancer, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The Firefighter of Behavioral Health Alliance reports 103 firefighter suicides in 2014. The “Creating a Culture of Safety” theme highlights the need to revolutionize attitudes and behaviors to promote a culture that encourages safety and the need to actively reduce risk. Although the week has passed, the topics and tips discussed should be advocated year-round. By working together, fire and emergency departments can eradicate preventable tragedy and minimize the risks of emergency response.
Creating a Culture of Safety in Your Fire Department and Beyond
As highlighted throughout the week, there are three facets to cultivating a culture of safety: Community, Department, and Individual. By normalizing safety and health practices at each level, we can both reduce the everyday risks faced by emergency responders and foster sounder neighborhoods for our families.
Individual: Proper Use of Personal Protective Gear
Creating a culture of safety begins with each and every firefighter. Each individual firefighter is responsible for following standard operating procedures and guidelines while prioritizing their safety and health. A key component of this is the proper use of protective fire fighting equipment. This includes, but is not limited to, fire gloves, fire fighter helmets, and firefighting hoods. These pieces of firefighter apparel reduce exposure to toxins and dangerous working conditions which can cause injury and illness.
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To maintain both heart and mental health, create a habit of exercising daily and consuming healthy, nutritious meals. If you ever feel the need for assistance on any issues affecting your work or personal life, talk to someone in your department who can recommend a professional source of support.
In a job of serving and protecting others, it is easy to forget about your individual health and well-being as a person and as a firefighter. However, it is important to remember that taking responsibility for your safety and health is not only vital to your own well-being, but also to the rest of your department. You are in a position where people – fellow firefighters, your family, and your community – count on you. Hence, failing to care for your own safety places everyone at risk. On the contrary, if every individual firefighter does their part in keeping themselves safe, we will see less losses, injuries, and illnesses for a stronger overall service.
Department: Lead by Example
As discussed above, it is every individual firefighter’s responsibility to take the necessary precautions to ensure their own safety and health. However, it is also important for department leaders to promote and reinforce these practices. Change within any department starts with its leaders. Create standard operating procedures and guidelines that are required throughout the department, and clearly establish and reiterate the consequences of not following said procedures. Also, provide resources and develop programs that address issues such as heart and mental health while in the line of duty. Individuals in need of help are more likely to reach out when a resource is made available to them. Finally, clearly outline SOPs, SOGs, and wellness tips as part of all training programs and initiatives.
One of the main duties of firefighters is to put out fires and remove victims out of harm’s way. However, another important duty is educating your community in fire prevention. By enforcing proper codes and requirements in your community, firefighters create a culture of safety with less fires, less fire response, and less danger faced by firemen and community members alike. Plan education programs in schools and community centers, advocate for significant safety legislation, and conduct community risk assessments to evaluate what threats are present and what can be done to address them to avoid disaster.