Valuing the Culture of Safety

Last month I headed down to Baltimore for an afternoon to visit the exhibit hall at Firehouse Expo.  While I was there I had the chance to sit in on a class about leadership on the fireground that raised some interesting questions for me about the safety of responders and more specifically our regard for that safety.

The instructor took a considerable amount of time out of the class to question the “culture of safety” that we operate with feeling that you need to be willing to sacrifice more to save more, likening his battlefield experience in an extremely admirable and heroic military career to his time on the fireground.  To sum up what I, as an attendee in the class saw as his message, you need to be willing to sacrifice more to save more.  He was saying that many were too cautious by putting the concept of “at the end of the day, everybody goes home” above the mission of the department which generally is to save as many lives and as much property as possible.  He disagreed with the “nothing is worth your life” concept of the culture of safety.

Now, let me start off by once again stating, as I have many times before, that I have zero experience in firefighting.  My personal participation on a fire scene consists of me standing around, waiting for a patient to be delivered to me, or handing out Gatorade and water in an attempt to keep those on the fireground from not becoming my next patient.  What goes on inside that house is something that I have no knowledge about.

What I do have, however, is a great respect for those who do put their lives on the line in those situations.  The angle of this class that I want to discuss is the bleed over from the fire side to the EMS side of the profession since in many communities the two are so closely tied.  Some firefighters might sit in on a class such as this and receive and honor the message that “when you’re on the engine, you need to be willing to risk it all.”  Then, the very next day, they could be told, “When you’re on the ambulance, you don’t do anything until you are told that the scene is secure.”  We need to get ourselves on the same page, or at least in the same book.

The first lesson taught to prospective EMTs is to determine if the scene is safe.  If the scene is not safe you should not be there.  In order to pass any station and get a card put in your pocket at the end of the day, each and every person must utter those magic words “scene safety” or ask “is the scene safe?” to each and every evaluator that they encounter.  We teach safety we hang our hats on the concept of going home at the end of the day.  We do not rush into scenes that are not safe.

The culture is starting to shift though.  While we were previously “old zone participants in major incidents, FEMA is now advocating for warm zone participation by EMS in active shooter incidents.  As an industry we are being asked to risk more to potentially save more, but not without further protection and recommended interoperability training.  “Be aware of more, risk more, save more” is a better statement if you ask me.

Ultimately, what we have is a series of inconsistent statements.  Fire education stating that we must risk more, and questioning the culture of safety.  National Registry and everybody who follows their mode of testing failing anyone not saying the magic words.  Instructors teaching the National Registry curriculum instructing students that if the scene is not safe, do not go in.  FEMA telling us we should be in warm zones of active shooter incidents.  Our peers potentially questioning our dedication if we hold back, and don’t go rushing into certain situations, or chastising us for disregarding the instructions to “stage until the scene is secure” when something goes badly.  The messages are so mixed, and we need to all get on the same page.

At some point in someone’s career, they will ask someone, “is the scene safe?”  And the answer that they will receive will be “No, but I need you to go in there anyway.  Somebody needs help.”  We need to know what we are expected to do, and we need to know that everybody around us is going to be willing to make the same decision or at least backup our personal decision.  We need to all be on the same page.