Building a Culture of Safety


Blog by Tim Holman
Chief, German Township Fire & EMS, Clark County, Ohio

The fire service continues to lose approximately 100 firefighters each year. Many steps have been suggested to reduce the number of fatalities. Things such as Rapid Intervention Teams, Emergency Driving Courses, Reading Smoke and other valuable classes have been developed. Unfortunately, until fire departments make safety part of the everyday culture, the firefighter death rate is unlikely to change.

Every organization has a culture. The culture of an organization is related to the environment of the department. Some environments are positive and some are negative. The culture defines how the firefighter operates on a daily basis. The culture is established by the chief officers. Developing a culture of safety requires several steps:

Step 1: Leadership
The leaders of the organization must promote safety from the top down. The leaders walk their talk. They set the example. The chief officers talk about safety and the follow the rules that have been established. I recently witnessed an assistant chief at the scene of a working house fire on the roof operating a ventilation saw wearing no turnout gear. In addition, he had not deployed a roof ladder. What message did he send to his firefighters? It should be no surprise that many of the firefighters at this scene were not wearing gloves, helmets and eye protection. This is a prime example of a poor safety culture and it started with the leadership.

Step 2: Training
The old saying, Train like your life depends on it is exactly what every fighter should do. Do you cut corners during training? Are safety rules followed and enforced during training? Are the leaders participating in training evolutions?

Training is what prepares the firefighter for battle. It should be taken seriously and it should represent real-life situations as much as possible. Training evolutions should be well thought out and planned in advance. During the training session and following training, everyone should come together and safety concerns should be reviewed.

Step 3: Accountability
True accountability is not punishment. True accountability is a mindset of I can’t do my job if you fail to do your job. Everyone must be accountable to each other. This concept is even more important when it comes to safety. Firefighters must watch out for each other. They must correct unsafe actions when they occur. This is not just the officers job this is every firefighters responsibility.

If a firefighter is injured on the fire grounds a minimum of three firefighters are taken out of service, the injured firefighter plus two firefighters to care for him. In addition, the mental and emotional element of fellow firefighters is impacted and they become less effective.

So when does accountability become punitive? When a firefighter repeatedly drops the ball and fails to do what they are supposed to do. In the past it has always been the officers responsibility to hold firefighters accountable. Today, if we are to change the death and injury rate, everyone should be responsible for holding each other accountable.

Step 4: Attitude
Once again the leaders set the tone for the attitude in the organization. If the leaders have an apathetic attitude toward safety they cannot expect the firefighter to have a positive attitude. Negative attitudes need to be addressed quickly and effectively. If the leadership allows negativity, it will spread like a cancer throughout the organization.

Bad attitudes lead to poor morale. Organizations with poor morale tend to have a higher probability of firefighter injury. This is due to the fact that if morale is low, the firefighter is not focused on the right things. Firefighters become depressed and stress levels increase, which is a true formula for careless behavior that can lead to tragedy.

Step 5: Expectations
Every firefighter should understand what is expected of them both on and off the emergency scene. What behavior is tolerated and is not acceptable? Clear expectations allow firefighters to function more effectively.

Step 6: Integrated Policies and Procedures
Policies and procedure must support the previous five steps. When developing policies it is important to make sure the policy can be policed. Many policies look good on paper but may not be practical in implementing or enforcing. Policies must set firm standards and be fair to the firefighter.

A culture of safety starts with an organization’s leadership. Once this culture is established, safety becomes a way of life because it is being lived out by the firefighters each and every day.

About the Author
Tim Holman is a seminar speaker who has conducted programs throughout the United States. Holman speaks and trains on a variety of business, fire and EMS management and leadership issues. Holman specializes in providing fire and EMS officer development programs. Holman was the Fire Chief magazine “Fire Chief of the Year” for 2002. He has also been appointed to the commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. For more information on Holman, please check online at

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