Improving the Health & Safety of all Emergency Responders

“Raise What You Got”

Billy Hayes – FDSOA SafetyGram Editor

For decades, turnover in a fire department was rare as most members considered it a job of a lifetime. However, times have changed with a new workforce. Today, it’s more common to see individuals routinely move from one fire and emergency services department to another. The reasons vary from pay, benefits, desire to work for a busier or slower department, and so on.

With that frequent mobility, some may view that employee, or even fire chief, negatively in them not being committed to the organization or couldn’t cut it somewhere else. However, it could also be a positive aspect in that the individual is bringing experience in from outside the organization that could help it grow or change it in a positive manner. As always, we must get past perception, and deal with the reality of the situation.

So how does this impact the Safety Officer?

In many departments, the safety officer position serves as a dual role of the training officer. When new members join the organization, it is imperative for the safety officer, whether it be the training officer or not, to evaluate the individuals’ ability and experience. Obviously, it will take time for an individual to learn SOG’s and SOP’s; however, what basic skills do they bring and what can they do in an emergency? The safety officer must be in the know.

I bring this up as I have been a mobile member of this profession and have served in various roles to observe how turnover and new members impact an organization.  I entered the fire service over thirty years ago as a volunteer with no experience and two months later found myself as a career firefighter with no experience or certifications, riding the engine on my first shift. My Lieutenant told me to stay on the truck, sit down, shut up, and don’t get off the truck until he told me too. While it seems brutal in today’s sensitive world, he was looking out for my well-being as he quickly assessed and understood my limitations.

Having served in the Metro Atlanta area in suburban full-time career departments for much of my career, I saw considerable turnover of individuals coming and going to the organization, for all the reasons I stated above. However, most of the time, individuals coming into our departments possessed certifications, but also the skills and experience to have a positive impact and to fill a void. Their time to transition was much shorter as vacant positions in smaller departments have a greater impact simply from a number scenario.

When I was honored to serve with the District of Columbia Fire and EMS Department, it was a much different world that I was accustomed too. Regardless of your certifications and experience, you went to months of recruit training to learn the DCFD way. When you exited the academy, the expectation of company officers, and the safety officer, is that if you are assigned to a house, you have the basic skillsets to understand risk and safety.

Now, I serve as fire chief in a smaller combination department in WI. We, like others, have turnover both in our full-time and part-time membership for the same variety of reasons. However, I have found that our part-time members, the reasons to leave or transition are more of a personal commitment outside the organization as the fire service is not main source of income, and/or interest. But, when we have vacancies here, the impact can be devastating, especially if the vacancy comes from an experienced member leaving. We are often positioned to hire individuals into full-time positions who possess the required certifications but lack the experience of on the job training. In many cases, their certifications are acquired in technical schools utilizing only simulations or resources that are not realistic. However, it is still imperative for our officers to understand the limitations of new members to reduce risk on an emergency scene.

I titled this SafetyGram, “Raise What You Got,” as the context reminds me of a story told by a Federal Court judge when I was attending a leadership conference. He told the story of having an individual to be sworn in by the bailiff before getting on the stand. The bailiff told the individual to raise their right hand, and the man said he couldn’t do that. The judge intervened to advise the man to once again raise his right hand, in which the man responded again that he couldn’t do that. The judge asked what the reason was, and the man simply responded, “I don’t have a right arm! I lost it in combat.” The judge humbly responded, “Well, raise what you got.”

My point is that we can assume that individuals possess the skills, abilities, experience, and certifications to perform at the required level. We can assume somebody joining the organization coming fresh out of the academy, technical college, or another department, will be ready to respond, but until we take time as an officer, or safety officer, to either validate what we believe they can do, or identify what they can’t do, we risk the likelihood of something going wrong. In our profession, raising what you got is not good enough.