South Carolina fire service embraces cultural change

CarolinaFireJournal - Carter Jones
Carter Jones
10/18/2009 -

For a number of years the national fire service has experienced some 100 plus firefighter line-of-duty fatalities annually. Additionally, injuries sustained by our firefighters linger around 80,000 each year. Providing solutions to the fatality and injury issues seem easy in light of the tremendous data base of information relating to the causes. However, the solutions become clouded when we begin to apply those lessons learned to the cultural environment in which we, as a service, have been reared.


Over a period of many years, the fire service has attempted to curb line-of-duty deaths and injuries with “technological fixes,”- SCBAs with integrated PASS alarms, thermal imaging cameras, seat belts, etc.

In March of 2004, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation launched a nationwide initiative to change the way we do business as firefighters and emergency responders. A summit was held in Tampa, Florida, to address the need for change. The participants of that summit developed the “16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives” that fire service agencies have been encouraged to embrace in their training programs with the goal of avoiding needless risks and the subsequent tragic consequences.

Then in March 2007, fire service leadership gathered once again for yet another Life Safety Summit in Navato, Calif., with the intent to advance those initiatives and to develop more concrete approaches through which fire service agencies could possibly impact our LODD and injuries. Again, the central conclusion of the 2007 Summit identified the need for a fundamental cultural change and the development of a new value system within the fire service as the greatest challenge to overcome.

Sadly, on the heels of this summit, nine of our own died in June at the massive Sofa Super Store fire in Charleston. Many lessons were once more learned as a result of that terrible tragedy and reinforced the relevance of addressing our culture and the way we do business.

In 2008, a committee was appointed by the Executive Committee of the State Firefighters’ Association and Past President, Chief John Bowers of Camden. The purpose of this committee was to explore ways South Carolina’s fire service could best embrace and put into practice the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives recommended by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

After months of research and collaboration, the study committee reported to the Executive Committee that the weakest link to the successful implementation of these worthy goals lies in the very first initiative: Define and advocate the need for a cultural change within the fire service relating to safety. It was noted by the committee that real progress can only be made when fire service folks define our values, beliefs, traditions mindsets, and behaviors. In order to seriously address the recommendations put forth by the Fallen Firefighters Foundation, the South Carolina State Firefighters’ Association sponsored a one-day conference at the South Carolina Fire Academy in May 2009. State/national fire service speakers and leaders set the stage by offering a broad perspective of information and ideas for breakout sessions formatted to create those actions needed to curb our fatalities and injuries. The program agenda included morning presentations by Carter H. Jones, retired Chief of the Clarendon County Fire Department who addressed the difficulties and issues of moving to a new culture emphasizing safety as a way of life; former Montgomery County (MD) Battalion Chief John Tippett who spoke on the subject of near misses and the dire need to make a definitive change of culture in order to positively impact fire service safety; and Bill Pessemier, former Chief of the Littleton (Colorado) Fire Department who shared his research on cultural issues as they relate to fire service safety. Also, making brief comments on current cultural issues was J. C. “Robbie” Robertson, former State Fire Marshal of Maryland who helped broker Congress to locate our National Fire Academy in Emmittsburg, Maryland.

A summary report, based on conference objectives, is being compiled and will be available for review in the coming weeks. Conference objectives

  • To provide conference attendees with opportunities to hear state and national fire service leaders who will assist in practically defining the concept of fire service culture;
  • To identify those traditional value systems that contribute to firefighter deaths and injuries;
  • To articulate a new value system that supports health and safety;
  • To design a course of action which blends cultural change concepts with current state strategic planning projects.

Subjects covered were many and included issues relating to health and wellness, funding, education, availability of training, leadership, standards, certification, recruitment and retention, codes enforcement, fire prevention, public fire education, expectations and image, risk management, personal responsibility, and the list goes on and on.


The study committee recognizes that with conferences having this format, it is reasonable to expect the “spin-off” projects and initiatives afterwards to be significant.

For example, there will likely be a legislative component providing direction for an agenda for the coming years. There will most assuredly emerge a training and education component giving direction to the Fire Academy, regional and local training programs. Additionally, leadership and risk management initiatives will become apparent. The products to be generated from this conference are at this time unimaginable. The potential benefits for South Carolina and the nation are encouraging as well as thrilling.

In conclusion, the words of Machiavelli are very appropriate and suited as South Carolina’s fire service addresses the issues of cultural change: “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”

Carter Jones joined the fire service in 1966 as a volunteer with the Manning Fire Department. He served a number of years as a Training Specialist for the Office of State Fire Marshal and later accepted the position of Chief for the Clarendon County Fire Department where he served for 22 years. He now is the Loss Control Director for The Bruner Agency, an Agent for ESIP, in Summerton, S.C. Jones is a former member of the State Fire Commission, Past President of the State Firefighters’ Association and serves as Co-Chairman for the “Alliance for Change” Committee studying the issues and need for a cultural change within the fire service of South Carolina. The former Chief is author of several articles and publications.
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