Improving Your Culture of Safety

By Chief Judy Smith Thill

Researching articles on firefighter safety, there were quite a few that focused on “creating” a culture of safety. With all the information we now have at our fingertips on line-of-duty injuries and deaths, all fire departments should already have some kind of safety culture started. It might not be documented, and it might not be perfect, but my guess is you all have a safety culture, so you really don’t need to “create” one. However, you most likely need to improve on the culture of safety you have.

We all know that safety improvements can get very expensive with adding equipment, vehicles, and fire stations; however, the first thing you need in order to improve the safety culture of your department is actually free. Having the right attitude costs nothing! You need to start with the attitudes of leadership, as well as of the firefighters. If leadership doesn’t have or show a commitment to safety and firefighters take no responsibility themselves, it will be difficult for you to improve the safety culture, or any part of the organization, no matter how much money you have.

When looking to improve anything in your fire department, it needs to begin with leadership, since that is the foundation for everything. For example, if your department has a high number of injuries, you will probably also find a leadership problem. Leadership needs to involve company officers and firefighters in all aspects of improving the culture. Company officers have the most influence over firefighters, and the firefighters are the ones who will be most affected by any changes. So, input by everyone is critical when trying to improve your safety culture.

Leaders need to communicate their commitment in both words and actions. Words can be in the form of written policies and procedures, and actions include setting examples and walking the talk. Policies, procedures, and actions need to be supported and promoted by all levels of leadership. That consistency is crucial.

What about the rank and file? Firefighters need to follow policies and guidelines established; however, firefighters also must take personal responsibility for their own safety and the safety of fellow firefighters. They cannot simply point to leadership and say, “It is their responsibility” or “S/he doesn’t care, so why should I?” For those who may have less than supportive leadership, firefighters can still develop and follow their own good safety habits and practices.

Funding a new initiative is often looked at as a barrier to any safety improvement. However, many times, little to no money is needed to make an impact, even for concerns involving the most recent focus of cardiac, cancer, and post-traumatic stress concerns.

Cardiac issues have been the leading cause of firefighter on-duty deaths for years, and although the root causes go far beyond fitness levels, functional fitness is still extremely important. Some may think a gym full of fancy exercise equipment is needed to start a fitness program, yet there are many departments that use their own station layouts and fire equipment to create workout routines without any added costs.

The fire service is now seeing higher rates of cancer in firefighters. Maybe you can’t afford extractors to wash gear, but you can set up procedures where you require a gross decon before heading back after fire calls. Firefighters can also wash their hands and faces while still on-scene, and shower as soon as possible once back at the station. Just those simple acts can remove a significant amount of cancer-causing contaminants with little to no cost.

There has also been an increase in firefighter suicides because of posttraumatic stress injury/disorder. There are many free resources you can offer. First, do you encourage talking after bad calls, or are firefighters told to suck it up and deal with it? Don’t feel comfortable talking? Maybe a local clergy person is willing to be on-call. Have you gotten the NVFC Share the Load materials for your firefighters? They have all kinds of resources, including a 24/7 helpline number you can post for firefighters to call if they need to talk. More information on these free resources is available at www.nvfc.org/help.

As you can see, large sums of money are not always needed to make a significant improvement in your safety culture. It starts with the right attitude and committing to start tackling some of these issues with the resources you have. Yes, there will always be improvements that cost more money than you have; however, my guess is there are many free and inexpensive actions you have yet to take.

Improving your safety culture starts at the top, but it needs to include all levels of leadership, as well as the firefighters. Cultures are not programs. Safety should not be a program. Safety needs to be integrated into the regular routines, policies, and guidelines of the departments and continually evaluated and improved. You won’t see a miraculous change overnight as it will take time, but you need to start somewhere to move forward so you don’t stay stagnant. If the organization never starts moving in the right direction, there will be zero hope for improvement in your safety culture.

Start small. Get creative. Be a champion for safety.

This article is reprinted from the NVFC’s Firefighter Strong newsletter.

Judy Smith Thill has been chief of the Inver Grove Heights (MN) Fire Department since 2007. Her 30 years in the fire service include 19 years as a paid-on-call firefighter and 23 years as a full-time chief officer. She is a board member of the MN State Fire Department Association, vice chair of the MN State Fire Chiefs Association Education Committee, and one of two MN directors to the National Volunteer Fire Council. Judy has a BS degree in safety management from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, MBA (abt) from Cardinal Stritch University, and has completed three Executive Leaders Programs.