Improving the Health & Safety of all Emergency Responders

July 2019

Billy Hayes
FDSOA SafetyGram Editor

By now, you’ve probably heard the term of “management by walking around.” It’s simply the practice in which managers and supervisors engage with employees in their workspace/environment by “walking the floors” and observing their actions and behaviors to build relationships, but just as importantly to find if compliance with polices and practices is being demonstrated. While this practice has been effective for those in leadership positions in the private sector, it should also be conducted by those serving in the fire service at all levels.

A trap that a safety officer can fall into is getting tunnel vision by only observing safety hazards, actions, and behaviors on the emergency scene and training grounds. A safety officer’s job is simply to keep members safe. However, sometimes the most obvious safety hazards are right before our eyes and long before an emergency occurs, or crews arrive for a training drill.

Early in my days of training as a fire inspector, I was taught to look for hazards in local businesses within our community that was a code violation. Now in my thirtieth year in this profession, that training continues still to this day, and especially now that I have officially re-entered the profession as a fire chief.

Through my years of traveling, I can recall the number of times I’ve checked into hotels and found smoke alarms in the rooms covered with shower caps or storage bags; or out shopping and the number of times I’ve seen exit doors blocked in stores with merchandise, shopping carts, or trash, and the number of times I’ve driven through areas and seen hydrants blocked by shrubbery and landscaping that is not visible by any means. Are these hazards that affect firefighter safety?

At least once a week now, I get out of my office, get in my chief’s buggy, and “manage by driving around.” Every time I do that, I find something that could be a hazard, and in many cases, it’s something that was before my very eyes that I’ve passed by dozens of times before and never noticed.

For example, I’ve found numerous hydrants that are installed and turned facing away from the street. Can this affect firefighter safety? I go through parking lots of shopping centers to look at access and egress points to look for blind spots of traffic. Can this affect firefighter safety? I drive around the various construction sites to review the stages of construction to look at the risks and dangers of the structure, the property, and access availability. Can this affect firefighter safety? I’ve noticed electrical extension cords going from power boxes on one house to another “stealing power.” Can this affect firefighter safety?

My point is this. Every member of a fire department should occasionally “manage by driving around.” So, what is it your managing? Simple, your own safety and those of your crew(s).

I’ve heard crews on many occasions comment they were looking for something new to train on. Well, this is something you can do that is low risk with high benefit. Challenge yourself to look for potential hazards. If you identify one that you’ve never noticed, then you have achieved success, and it’s guaranteed you will find more. How is this called training? You’re training your eyes and your brains to look for things that aren’t necessarily taught in the textbook.

We know through our experiences that human behavior causes many of the emergencies we respond too. Unfortunately, it is when those behaviors, whether instant or gradual over time, create a system failure with negative results and outcomes. In many cases those results have a direct impact on firefighter safety upon our arrival and/or operation at the scene. During the middle of the night, under stressful conditions, for the first time at a given location, it is inherently more dangerous to operate and observe safety risks.

My challenge to safety officers is to get out and “manage by riding around.” For immediate safety hazards, of course address them right away. However, a good training opportunity is that once potential safety hazards are identified, create a scavenger hunt for the responders to see if they can train their eyes and brain to become more aware of the risks right before their very eyes.

If we truly believe that everyone on the emergency scene is a safety officer, let’s train them to identify risks long before the emergency occurs, and the outcome may be too late.

Thanks, and Be Safe!