By Doug Cline
Horry County Fire Recue (S.C.)

I recently attended a conference for fire chiefs where the hot topic centered on firefighter injuries and deaths resulting from motor vehicle crashes. The use of seat belts or lack of was a big part of the conversation. The topic was discussed at length. Everyone is searching for answers on how to get firefighters to comply. Ideas like decreasing state-death benefits and funding from county governments for departments with violations were tossed around as potential suggestions to help make groups comply. One rather salty chief blurted out, it’s all about attitude and many folks have a (darn) bad one!

That was an interesting and accurate comment. The attitude has to be there to make this cultural change. It has to start with the fire chief, the fired-up fire chief concluded. I was so thrilled to hear his comments I could’ve done back flips!

Unfortunately the next comment by another chief in attendance showed there is still an underlying issue: 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. We are focused on protecting our communities, but we fail to protect ourselves by neglecting to wear our seatbelts. What sense does that make?

Folks, this is all about attitude. 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 can we change attitudes?

One area this is especially critical is in line-of-duty-deaths that occur as a result of motor vehicle accidents. It has been shown repeatedly that a need for speed is not necessary in most cases. Now, I’m not advocating slowing our responses but the difference between 55 and 65 mph is relatively minor but very dangerous when you consider the fact were handling a 48.5-foot long ladder truck that weighs more than 73,000 pounds or a large apparatus weighing around 45,000 pounds.

The laws of physics show a drastic difference in the stopping distances, not to mention the external forces that affect the apparatus. I have news for everybody in the fire service: We are not immune from the dangers associated with motor vehicle crashes. Unfortunately, our attitudes suggest we think otherwise.

Time is long overdue for the fire and rescue services to actively and seriously address this key safety issue. Too often we tend to take a cosmetic approach rather than getting to the root of the problem. The fire and rescue services, at all levels, need to rise up and meet this challenge.

This means doing what is necessary to turn around the seemingly apathetic or complacent attitude about safety prevailing in the fire service today. You may be thinking that the fire service is safer today than it’s ever been. That may be true. We definitely have better equipment today and our apparatus and gear are safer. But make no mistake, the most important part of our own safety is the one thing we control most our attitude.

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 nation that never heard of this program even with all of the efforts 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.

I challenge you as fire service leaders to help make this necessary change. How do we do this, you ask? Start by being safety minded in everything you do. Take the 16 Life Safety Initiatives that were developed by the Fallen Firefighters Foundation. Look at your own department to see how you are measuring up. If you are falling short, focus on making cultural changes in how you operate on a daily basis. Take aggressive actions to identify and correct actions that are unsafe. Make everyday a training day so everyone goes home safe!

>> This blog was originally posted with TargetSolutions in December of 2010

About the Author
Douglas Cline is a 32-year veteran of the Fire Service. He serves as assistant chief with Horry County Fire Recue (S.C.). Cline is a North Carolina Level II Fire Instructor, National Fire Academy Instructor and an EMT-Paramedic instructor for the North Carolina Office of Emergency Medical Services. Cline is the President of the Southeastern Association of Fire Chiefs (SEAFC), a member of the North Carolina Society of Fire and Rescue Instructors and the 1st Vice President International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI).