Fire Service Safety: Avoid aggressive ignorance on scene

CarolinaFireJournal -

08/01/2012 -

Several years ago I was at the scene of a 1,000 gallon Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) tank that was laying on its side leaking what was clearly liquid, creating a large white vapor cloud around the tank and creating a Lower Explosive Limits (LEL) hot zone of greater than 500 feet down wind of the tank. 

The fire department personnel went to work setting up hot zones, shutting down a major highway, performing evacuation and tactical strategies for entry to attempt mitigation.  A second alarm for manpower was called for due to the heat and humidity.  At this point you could say we were in the textbook.  The following could be the picture in Webster’s Dictionary beside the word freelancing. 

The county’s assistant Emergency Management Director arrived on scene.  He ascertained information of the situation and a strategic plan was outlined for him (I did this personally from an operational command role).  I guess this was not good enough for him or his ignorance and complacency just took over. 


He borrowed a set of turnout gear (no SCBA), accessed the hot zone from a non-monitored portion of the incident, utilized his limited previous experience of working with LPG and made entry into the large liquid vapor cloud and shut off the leak — all without command’s knowledge.

This all occurred as crews were preparing to make entry with hose lines to do the operation the correct way. 

OUTCOME:  The tank was shut off, the hazard was mitigated, and no one was injured. 

POTENTIAL:  Catastrophic proportions, death comes to mind first.

Aggressive or reckless — you make the call.

Unlike other public safety professionals the fire and rescue service is charged with the responsibility of protecting people and property from the ravages of fire and other hostile forces — both man-made and natural.  Who is going to protect us with acts like these taking place?  We are our own worst enemy when it comes to safety.  Failure to be safe is a human act — ATTITUDE! This is what I call Aggressive Ignorance and we as officers battle this enemy every single day!


More than 100 firefighters are killed in the line of duty each year. Thankfully we are seeing that drop from lastyear. Safety is an issue in every profession and business. The fire service is no different from a construction business when it comes to safety.  Without safe working conditions and safety conscious personnel, there will be an excess of injuries. 

Recent statistics show that for every 40 fire responses and 1,217 non-fire responses there is a reported firefighter injury.  For every 43,875 fire responses and 1,133166 non-fire responses a firefighter loses their life in the line of duty.  The total line of duty deaths for 1999 was 112 — the highest number of firefighter line of duty deaths since 1988. The year 2011 had 83 line of duty deaths. This is probably more astounding than you ever imagined.  However, it is reality and we must strive to change these statistics. 

Last year every 4.39 days a firefighter lost their life in the line of duty. You are probably at this point asking yourself, how we can change these statistics.  What can I do to make a difference? What can my department do that will lower these statistics?  I believe that if you just follow and enact these 10 simple philosophies into everyday practice and emergency responses, we will significantly drop the numbers.  By the way fire chiefs, many of these do not impact your budget in a negative way.

It seems that when a firefighter is seriously injured or killed, the fire service does little to promote positive action to prevent a reoccurrence.  The message spreads quickly of a fallen comrade, but the lesson is slow to follow and is seldom learned.  One area of this is the line of duty deaths that occur as a result of motor vehicle accidents.  It has been shown repeatedly where the “Need for Speed” is not relevant in most cases.  I am not advocating that we not expedite our responses, but the difference between 65 mph and 55 mph is a drastic difference when you look at the handling of a 48 and one-half foot long ladder truck that weighs 73,500 pounds, or a large pumper weighing 45,000 pounds. 

The laws of physics show a drastic difference in the stopping distances, not to mention the external forces that affect the apparatus. Time is long overdue for the fire and rescue services to actively and seriously address the firefighter casualty issue.  Too often we tend to take a cosmetic approach rather than getting to the root of the problem.  We treat the symptoms and rarely the cause.

The fire and rescue services, at all levels, must rise to meet this challenge.  This means doing what is necessary to turn around the seemingly apathetic or complacent attitude about safety which prevails in the fire service today. 

At this point you may be saying to yourself that the fire service is safer today than it ever has been.  This may be true, but times change and we are playing catch up!  Although technology is a necessary ingredient in the safety recipe, it is not the most important.  This is where I feel a lot of professionals are missing the point.  Sure we are dressed well today and our equipment and apparatus are safer.  This aspect is of the utmost importance and is a portion of the recipe.  This is the portion that is most often not left out.  Where we are lacking is the ATTITUDE of both management and the firefighter. 

When a firefighter commits an unsafe act, is it solely his fault, or the fault of management, or both?  The origin of the problem has got to be management.  Without the support of management, there is NO safety program.  I know some of you may be shaking your head about the last statement, but think of it ... Unsafe acts start with attitude or the lack thereof.  If a positive attitude by administration demanding safety is introduced the first minute the firefighter comes into the profession, then this is the first impression.  If that attitude continues and is fostered then it becomes a part of the mental capacity.  Thus safety is a paramount in the thought process of firefighters and will take hold.  Division Chief Edward Buchanan of the Hanover County (Virginia) Fire and Rescue recently stated in a program at the Fire Rescue Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada that he could not change his department’s mentality over night, but he could impact positive change every class and every day.  This statement holds exceptional power to the truth.  And guess where it is

Although the development and maintenance of an effective safety program can reduce the firefighter death and injury rate, it is useless if the firefighter is not willing to accept it.  Management and the firefighter must make a concerted effort to promote, support, practice and ENFORCE sound safety principles and practices.  Safety is a way of life; without it, we become highly vulnerable to injury and even death.


Motivation plays an integral part in the success of a department’s safety program.  This motivation should start with the highest management level and continue down through the ranks to the lowest level.  If you don’t have the support of the chief, you don’t have an effective safety program!  Many departments have elaborate safety programs and policies.  It takes more than paper to develop a good safety program — it takes actions!  This action and attitude is what we are missing most.

Each officer is responsible for practicing and enforcing all safety measures both written and unwritten.  He is responsible for the safety and welfare of their subordinates.  This holds true for non-emergency as well as emergency activities. Motivation is necessary in the training environment as well as the emergency and non-emergency ones.  The instructor, like the officer, is responsible for the safety and welfare of the students.  The instructor is charged with keeping safety foremost in the minds of students, officers and other instructors.  The dangers, as well as safety precautions, associated with the practical training evolutions must be emphasized before, during and at the end of each training evolution.  The same holds true for real life incidents.  We must learn from mistakes and never make the same mistake twice.

The firefighter must develop a total awareness of the need and value of safety. He should want to comply with safety regulations out of concern for their own well-being as well as the well-being of other firefighters, rather than out of fear of punishment.

Instructor Considerations

The department must reach the entry-level firefighter and must reach out to change seasoned firefighter’s mentalities.  The entry-level firefighter is the easiest to reach since they know very little about the hazards of the occupation.  They can develop a positive attitude about safety with little to no bias. 

It is up to the instructors, officers and administration to get the message across. The instructor, officer and administration must approach and deliver the subject with enthusiasm, interest and conviction.  Remember, the firefighter’s reaction to what you have to say will be influenced by how well you deliver the material (i.e. how you come across).  You have to be a great sales person.  You must sell the product — safety. 

How much of the “product” is bought by the firefighters/students is going to depend largely upon you — the officer/instructor.  The officer/instructor must reach every level of firefighter.  The entry level is especially important as a target audience due to the fact they have no preconceived ideas or knowledge as to what safety is and have very little knowledge about the hazards of the occupation.  This makes it easier for them to develop a positive attitude about safety.  It is up to the officer/instructor at the outset and throughout each day, week, month and year to focus on this concept of safety.

Aggressive Ignorance

Why are we still getting firefighters killed or injured?  Why do we do what we normally do?  Are you calling yourself or department aggressive?  Are you really aggressive or are you reckless.  These and more toe-stomping topics will be covered during Chief Cline’s program at the North Carolina Fireman’s Association and Fire Chief’s Association annual conference Friday, Aug. 10, 2012.  If you don’t have tough skin, steel toe shoes, or even a strong heart you probably need to check your insurance because this program is designed for hard core straight talk of what we are doing that is not really the right things to be doing.  We triple dog dare you to come to this program!!!

Douglas Cline is a 32- year veteran and student of the Fire Service serving as Assistant Chief of Operations with Horry County Fire Rescue. Cline, a former Fire Chief, is a North Carolina Level II Fire Instructor, National Fire Academy Instructor and an EMT-Paramedic instructor for the North Carolina Offi ce of Emergency Medical Services. Chief Cline is President of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI), the Immediate Past President of the Southeastern Association of Fire Chiefs (SEAFC), a member of the South Carolina and North Carolina Society of Fire and Rescue Instructors. Cline serves on the FEMA grant criteria development committee, Congressional Fire Service Institute (CFSI) National Advisory Committee and is a peer reviewer for the Fire Act Grants.
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