Improving the Health & Safety of all Emergency Responders

Left to right: Barry Balliet, CEO, Provident; Jeff Siegrist, Regional Director, Provident; Jeffrey Merryman, Deputy Chief, Alexandria, VA; and Scott Kerwood, Chair, IAFC SHS.
Photo by Kathy Whitehead, FDSOA

Merryman wins Executive Safety Award at FRI

The FDSOA’s Eastern Regional Director Jeffrey Merryman was presented the Alan Brunacini Fire Service Executive Safety Award by the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ Safety, Health & Survival Section and sponsored by Provident Insurance.

Merryman, deputy chief of Health, Safety & Risk Management for Alexandria (VA) Fire Department, commented, “My thanks to the awards committee, the board members of the Safety, Health and Survival section as well as the entire organization of the International Association of Fire Chiefs of which I am proud to be a member.  I also want to thank Provident Insurance for their generous support and sponsorship of this award, they have been extremely supportive ”

According to Lieutenant Steve Tullis, chairman of the Awards Selection Committee, this year’s list of nominations clearly indicated the bar has been raised on firefighter health and safety. Tullis said, “The individuals and organizations who have received the national safety awards are pioneering new ways for our profession to not only promote better health and safety, but to also produce encouraging and impressive results.”

Merryman has served with Alexandria for 31 years. He joined the FDSOA when he became a shift safety officer in 2008. Merryman is also active with his peers in both the northern Virginia area as well as those who serve in Maryland and Washington D.C. within the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments Fire Chiefs- health and safety subcommittee.

Reflecting on receiving the award Merryman said, “Although I am receiving the award, it has been and is truly a team award that comes from a team effort. From our current, past and back-up Shift Safety Officers who willingly deliver the message of safety where the boots hit the ground each and every day and to our department personnel who believe in and have invested in the value of their own safety and health as well as that of their  teammates.”

Merryman explained there is a great emphasis on risk management in the Alexandria Fire Department, with risk assessment from the firefighters to the company officers.

“We’ve had an assigned safety officer since the mid-90s,” said Merryman. “Back then it was just one person, starting a new program and laying the foundation. Twenty years later, I inherited the job and it’s been an ongoing growth process ever since.”

Merryman has three shift safety officers on the street. “The shift safety officers are very integrated at the tactical point of operations as well as from a strategic perspective as part of the battalion management team.”

Alexandria’s safety officers have quite a bit of authority since Merryman works directly for the Fire Chief Robert Dubé. “From the fire chief to me to the safety officers’ this authority has been a learning curve but for the most part has been accepted by our members especially over the past five years,” he said. “They have demonstrated a level of trust in this hierarchy.

One element Merryman thinks has worked at changing the behavior of the personnel, is not just dictating orders. “It’s beyond ‘you should have your SCBA strap buckled’ and it’s more explaining why,” he said. “Being able to educate and train our folks and backing it with case studies. It went from static to operational, but it didn’t happen overnight.”

As the responsibilities of a safety officer expand, Merryman acknowledges the challenges. “I think the most challenging aspect is changing the views on behavioral health and cancer—you have to effect change at the beginning when folks first come in to the department, but it’s also our senior members too.” Merryman said, “Ever since our own have been diagnosed and the stories of cancer in firefighters abound, it’s ‘you know why you wear your SCBA, because he has leukemia or non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma or he died from colon cancer.’ In the fire service you just can’t go out there and preach, although I don’t deny being on my soapbox every now and then, you have to have pictures and reasons in the fire service to make changes, you have to tell the story.”

Merryman describes his job as part salesman. “Within the fire service there is no other job where you can affect an employee for the better,” he offered. “You can be a training officer, but a safety officer can affect one-on-one and you have somebody’s back, but you have to want to put yourself out there.”

Merryman’s advice for new safety officers: First, have thick skin and if it’s presented in the correct way, people will appreciate what you do. You can be in a position to make some changes to have their back and it’s a rewarding position.

Second, Merryman has watched safety officers from across the country and believes you cannot flip the concept of health and safety overnight. Initially, he told the chief and the city risk manager that it would take 2-3 years. “It has to be ingrained and in the woven into the fabric and philosophy of the department.”

Merryman concluded by saying, “The phrase ‘It starts at the top’ has been spoken many times but this is truly the model in our department. Without the leadership, direction, support and guidance of our Fire Chief Robert Dubé, our department wouldn’t be successful in developing our safety culture and I would not have received this award. The chief has made health, safety and wellness one of–if not the top priority–for our department. He has believed and trusted in my ability to pursue and implement change which has led to this prestigious award.  I am honored to receive this award especially an award named in honor of one of the all-time great fire chiefs at the same time as working for our department’s great fire chief.”