The Missing Link in Safety

The battles over safety have gone on for far too long

By Timothy E. Sendelbach

In recent years, much of the training we’ve received as firefighters and provided as instructors has been focused on performing the tasks of firefighting safer. The foundation of this effort has always been, and rightfully so, the reduction of line-of-duty deaths and injuries. Since 1985, when I first joined the fire service, I can’t recall a single training session where the word safety wasn’t mentioned, again, for good reason – it’s important.

Like most, I’ve reluctantly taken and imposed some extreme measures, worn some ridiculous hats, helmets, oversized glasses, harnesses, etc., all in the name of safety. At the same time, I’ve experienced a number of preventable close calls throughout my career where I or a fellow firefighter overlooked a safety measure and we (collectively as a group) experienced the repercussions of not taking the right safety precautions on the front end. Fortunately, the injuries we received were minimal, but the opportunity for something far worse was painfully clear.

Today, with the advancements of fireground research, the technological enhancements of tools and equipment (to include PPE, TICs, etc.), countless hours of training, and several decades of intense focus on safety, the fire service has achieved an identifiable reduction in fireground LODDs, specifically, combat-related fatalities. And as expected, the immediate question begins to surface, “Can we now start to focus on something other than modifying our fireground operations?” To all who read this, I would strongly state, no!

Are safety zealots trying to pacify the American fire service? No! Is research the end of aggressive interior firefighting? No! In fact, I would suggest just the opposite is true. And the most controversial statement of them all, are we putting the lives of firefighters before those we are sworn to protect? Yes!

Simply stated, a dead firefighter can’t save a trapped or injured civilian. Does this mean we will not take extreme risks, risks that may ultimately cost us our lives to save those we are sworn to protect? No! It simply means we will use and apply the safest and most effective tools, techniques, and technologies to perform the tasks.

We all know that the roles and responsibilities of serving as a firefighter include the assumption of risks, but the missing link, the term or phrase that is commonly left out of safety discussions, is effectiveness. The training we do, the tools and technologies we employ, and the lessons we’ve learned from LODDs and modern research should not be applied or suggested solely as a means to improve firefighter safety, but rather safety and operational effectiveness.

The “effectiveness” of an operation is the driving factor that puts the civilians we are sworn to protect at the forefront of our operations. If we can apply a tactic or a tool that increases the safety and effectiveness of our operations, we perform our jobs safer and provide a more effective outcome for the civilian in need. Thus, the employment of the most “effective” tactics and techniques prioritizes the service provided to those we are sworn to protect as priority number 1.

The battles over safety have gone on for far too long. The unfortunate truth is that the pursuit of safety should never be divisive, for it is the very essence of what we do. To dismiss our personal safety with the mindset of prioritizing the life of a civilian over a firefighter makes for a courageous conversation, but an operationally ineffective fireground. Our safety must be at the forefront so we can safely and effectively mitigate the hazard. When the hazards we face exceed the limitations of our established safety measures while the potential exists for a life to be saved, the true firefighter, willfully, and without hesitation, takes a calculated risk (which in extreme cases might cost him or her their life) to save a life.

Safety is not and should not be viewed or demonized as a means of lessening the aggressive nature of firefighting. At the same time, our aggressiveness must not be based on our personal desires or a quest for kitchen table accolades, but rather a coordinated effort to quickly establish or enhance the probability of personal survivability and operational effectiveness.

Safety is and must always be a critical part of our training and forward progression. And we must never lose sight of the fact that our operational effectiveness is directly linked to our personal safety and the safety of the civilians we are sworn to protect.

Safe operations can and will produce the most effective outcomes.

Tim Sendelbach is a 29-year student and educator of the fire and emergency services, currently serving as the editor-in-chief for Firehouse. He is responsible for the content and editorial direction of Firehouse® Magazine,, Firehouse Expo, Firehouse World, and related products. He has served as an assistant fire chief with the North Las Vegas, NV, Fire Department, as the chief of training for Savannah, GA, Fire & Emergency Services and as assistant fire chief for Missouri City, TX, Fire & Rescue Services. He is a credentialed Chief Fire Officer and Chief Training Officer and has earned a master’s degree in leadership from Bellevue University, bachelor’s degrees in fire administration and arson, and an associate’s degree in emergency medical care from Eastern Kentucky University.