Improving the Health & Safety of all Emergency Responders

Editor’s Note: It is my honor to have been asked to resurrect the “SafetyGram” for the distinguished membership of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA). Over this next year, I will be publishing inserts submitted by a wide array of individuals on topics that while are current, but are also those that may currently not be receiving an abundance of industry recognition and/or attention. I am a student of history and I believe it is often difficult to define the future without reflecting on the past and where we’ve been. As such, I felt compelled to publish the following submission, Shifting the American Fire Service Safety Culture – Then and Now, from Ron R. Dennis, who was awarded the very first FDSOA, Safety Officer of the Year in 2005. To submit topics and ideas for future editions of the SafetyGram, please email me at

February 2018

Ron Dennis – Director of Training and Development at Columbia Southern University 

Shifting the American Fire Service Safety Culture – Then and Now


In 1987, when the National Fire Protection Association(NFPA) first published NFPA 1500: Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Programs, the American fire service turned its attention to many long-term issues adversely affecting the safety, health and survival of firefighters. During that time, an average of 100 firefighters a year died in the line of duty, with 100,000 being injured. A priority was placed on determining the causes of firefighter deaths and injuries, and finding effective solutions to reduce them.

Though controversial, the standards established by NFPA 1500 were clearly aimed at addressing the most common issues associated with firefighter deaths and injuries. Incident command, risk management, personal protective equipment, physical fitness, proficiency certifications, rehabilitation, physical and medical standards, training, respiratory protection, and incident safety officer certification, were among the most prominent of these standards.

For two decades, fire and emergency services organizations tried to figure out how to comply with the provisions of this standard, and how to take proactive steps to protect the lives of their members. Many national organizations such as the United States Fire Administration (USFA), National Fire Academy (NFA), International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), and of course, the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA), developed training courses on implementing programs that focused on firefighter safety and health.

Despite all efforts, national statistics had not improved much by 2004, when an unprecedented group of fire service leaders gathered in Tampa, FL, to address the firefighter safety dilemma. That dilemma was that of the most common causes that were what they had been since the 1980’s; heart attacks, vehicle collisions, caught and trapped, and other fire ground operational events.

Hosted by the NFFF, the 2004 Summit focused on how best to get the fire service to universally commit to changing the existing culture of accepting the ongoing loss of firefighters, to one of taking personal and organizational accountability for health and safety, and for promoting a philosophy of zero tolerance of deviation or failure to follow, published safety standards and best practices. Out of this historic event came the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives and the bold goals of reducing firefighter line-of-duty deaths by 25% in 5 years, and 50% in 10 years.

Once again, the fire service developed momentum for addressing firefighter health and safety through the launching and re-energization of numerous safety and health programs. Examples included Everyone Goes Home, Courage To Be Safe, the National Seat Belt Pledge, Incident Safety Officer Certification, and Emergency Vehicle Driver Training.  In 2005, the IAFC Safety Health and Survival Section and FDSOA joined up to co-sponsor formal recognition for organizations and individuals who have made significant contributions to promoting safety and health in their organizations and/or the fire service as another way to actively promote the importance firefighter safety.

In 2014, 10 years after the initial Safety Summit, the NFFF hosted a follow-up summit, “Tampa 2.” Participants reviewed information regarding statistical trends and the progress over the previous 10 years, and then in groups, reevaluated the issues associated with ten major safety areas addressed by the 16 initiatives. Following Tampa 2, a summary report of the findings was completed and published.


So where are we today? Over the past three decades, firefighter safety, health, and wellness has come to the forefront as a major priority in the industry. As a result, there has been measurable progress in addressing some of the most critical challenges and concerns.  However, the results are sporadic in other areas. What has changed?

Incident Safety Officer and Health Safety Officer Certification classes fill up every year at the FDSOA Safety Forum and other venues. Not only have the knowledge, skills and abilities (KSA’s) of the Incident Safety Officer changed dramatically over the past decade, but so has the demand to educate and certify fire personnel based on these critical competencies to maintain credibility, as well as to improve firefighter safety and health.

Apparatus safety, roadway safety and Emergency Vehicle Drive Certification programs have become commonplace, and in high demand. As a result, firefighter fatalities resulting from vehicle collisions have decreased over 75% compared to the previous decade. More impressively, LODD’s from accidents involving POV’s has also dropped by 87%.

Fatalities due to overexertion/stress/heat attack remains at an average of over 50%. This data however, includes new criteria established in the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefit Act, implemented in 2003.

There is an increasing emphasis on firefighter behavioral health, firefighter suicide awareness and prevention, firefighter cancer awareness, and revised tactical procedures in both structural and wildland firefighting operations

Between 2004 and 2016, the annual average number of firefighter fatalities was 102 compared to an average of 117 from 1990-2003 (excluding the 343 firefighters who died on 9/11/2001).   Over the past 3 years, the average has fallen to below 90. Additionally, since 2005 there has been a steady downward trend in firefighter injuries from 80,000 to 62,000 in 2016. Injuries on the fire ground have decreased from nearly 42,000 to just over 24,000 in the same timeframe, over a 40% decrease.


We are closer to our goal of a 50 percent reduction in fatalities, but we must still recognize the impact that has been achieved. We should be proud of the sense of urgency that we have collectively fostered, and the tremendous efforts that have been made. More and more, fire service leaders at all levels, have demonstrated a cohesive commitment and sincere accountability to firefighter health and safety. We must continue to expose and celebrate our successes while staying focused on the vision and the strategy. Fatalities and injuries have decreased in critical areas where we have had the ability to generate short-term impact, like vehicle incidents and fireground operations.

As we celebrate more successes, we are able to generate consolidated gains. Now, we must intensify our energy on those more complex issues like heart attacks, firefighter cancer, fire prevention, and behavioral health. We already know the root causes for most firefighter safety issues, and we need to continue to direct our efforts and resources on developing solutions and empowering everyone to freely identify and implement safe behaviors and actions.  Through these consolidated efforts, we can continue to effect a positive cultural change that keeps firefighter safety as high priority in our mission to protect lives and property in the communities that we serve.

For this change to continue to occur, someone must continue to lead the way and serve as a role model for others to follow. I was honored in 2005 to receive the first FDSOA/IAFC Safety Officer of the Year award for our collective efforts in Arizona at the state and local level. I ask you, what are you prepared to do to carry the mission?

Take-away Tips

  • Learn and understand the history of where safety in the fire service has been, and use the lessons learned regarding the culture of safety to advance the mission of reducing responder injuries and deaths. Firefighters need to know that safety and survival has been a serious issue for decades and should always be in the future.
  • Use history lessons of knowing industry threats and vulnerabilities so we strengthen our ability to implement strategies to prevent/minimize those threats in the future.
  • Understand the evolution of the newly focused hazards and threats that have emerged such as cancer, behavioral health, research, etc.
  • Forecast hazards and threats on the horizon, and formulate strategies for addressing them. In ten years from now, now will be then.
  • Take steps to revitalize the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives back into the mainstream discussion as they provide a structured checklist for our call to action to address them.



Resources for review:

National Fallen Firefighter Foundation:

Firefighter Cancer Support Network:

Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance:

Firefighter Near Miss:

United States Fire Administration:

International Association of Fire Fighters:

International Association of Fire Chiefs:


Ron Dennis is the Director of Training and Development at Columbia Southern University. A 33-year fire service veteran, Ron retired as the Assistant Chief of Avondale, AZ Fire Rescue after serving as a firefighter, company officer, training officer, and command officer with three previous departments. Ron also served as President for 2 years and as Executive Director for 3 years for the Arizona Fire Chiefs Association. He has presented locally and nationally in the areas of firefighter safety, officer development, instructional methodology, succession planning, and leadership. Chief Dennis is a graduate of the national Fire Academy EFO Program, has a bachelor’s degree in Fire Administration, a master’s degree in organizational Leadership, and a graduate certificate in Human Resources Management