Put It into Policy: Supporting Your Responsibility as a Leader in the Fire Service

by | April 19, 2016

Is getting your firefighters and officers to reduce the risk of firefighter injury and death easy?

Of course not. But if you’re having trouble getting it done at your fire department, maybe it’s time to think about what policies exist to support your mission.

For instance, let’s look at the seatbelt issue. Do your firefighters wear seatbelts—every firefighter, every time the rig leaves the station? If not, why not? Look gang, this isn’t brain surgery.

I was recently traveling with a friend when we heard sirens coming from a distant emergency vehicle. Like we’re required to do, we stopped and watched the apparatus approach. THEN WE FROZE IN DISBELIEF. As the apparatus passed us, we saw a firefighter standing up, facing forward (this was a rig with an open jump seat), hanging over the sides and looking over the roof. No gear, no helmet, no seatbelt … enjoying that ride.

We felt like we had gone back in time. But just a few months later I saw it again.

Every year firefighters are injured and killed when they are ejected from apparatus. As heroic as joining their fire department was, their deaths were not heroic by any means. They were horrible, devastating and tragic, but they were not heroic.

Now, don’t get me wrong—for years, I rode the tailboard. But then one day, some slick attorney in Massachusetts took a lawsuit in which a firefighter was seriously injured and disabled because he fell out of the apparatus, riding in the same manner. That lawsuit put an apparatus manufacturer out of business. Yeah—the manufacturer got blamed.

More recently, at that same fire department in New England, another firefighter was killed in the same exact manner. At the same fire department.

Predictable? Yes. Preventable? Without a doubt. How? Through policy that is easily trained on and enforced.

Policy, along with a disciplined and trained company officer who is not afraid to enforce it, and a chief who will back them up, is one of the best ways to ensure that we take care of our personnel so they can take care of the public.

And that’s the issue! A department must have POLICY just as a pro football team must have a playbook. Members must train on policy regularly. And fire officers must ensure members follow policy and—when necessary—enforce it.

Let’s get back to seatbelts. Do you have a policy that states clearly that all members must wear seatbelts anytime they are in a moving fire department vehicle, and what will happen to them if they are found in violation? Or do you have a “policy” that allows for “special circumstances” and unequal treatment?

If your department lacks a clearly stated, zero-tolerance, fairly enforced seatbelt policy, you need to put one into place, and you need to ensure your officers enforce it. And be prepared to encounter the usual lame excuses:

But they won’t listen to me!
The policy makes clear what will happen if they don’t, and as chief, I’ve got your back. Keep the firefighter survival stuff in the members’ faces, every day, in every possible way, so it becomes a way of life.
But the rules don’t apply to everyone at our fire department!
Yes they do. Our policy makes that clear, and everyone from the probie to the chief will be held to it.
But it’s not worth fighting with these firefighters!
Yes it is. But if you can’t decide when to enforce the rules, then don’t be an officer. Not everyone is cut out for this job.
But the firefighters won’t like me!
Get over it. They don’t like you now, you just don’t know it. If you need love, buy a puppy. True brotherhood and sisterhood means taking care of each other—and that requires being unpopular sometimes.
And as a volunteer officer, if they don’t LIKE me, they may not ELECT ME!
That’s the chance you take. Make it real clear what you stand for before you get elected. That way when you do get elected, the members won’t be confused when you do what you promised you would do.

While certainly being concerned about the legal aspects of these areas, I want to talk for a minute for the emotional aspect. Although you may report to a commissioner, a mayor, etc., you really report to the families of those you supervise—your firefighters. Are you prepared to have a family member approach you—with their loved one (your firefighter) in the hospital or at a funeral home—and ask you, “How could you let this happen?” To me that’s kind of the bottom line, and it’s always helped empower me to make the good decisions, to be a tougher boss. Because even though the firefighter might not want to always do what’s right, I am confident the family members are holding me accountable to make sure that they always do.

Every once in a while at your fire company, you may have a chance to dramatically save the life of someone at a fire. Those events are critical, and we must be fully prepared, because they are rare. However, by getting serious about taking care of our personnel—by putting it into policy—you will be saving the lives of your firefighters, and the civilians you serve, in a silent but no less heroic manner.

BILLY GOLDFEDER is a deputy chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio. He’s also a member of the Board of Directors for the International Association of Fire Chiefs, a frequent contributor to fire publications and a consultant for Lexipol.

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