Firefighters and First Responders across the World are susceptible to multiple elements that can cause injury, illness, disease, or worse; even death. Some of those threats may not appear to be an immediate danger to life and health, but after repeated exposure and years of service they ultimately become a danger to our well-being and can have negative impacts on our career and ultimately leave you to being exposed.
As public servants we perform our duties around shared values such as “selflessness”. We understand that we have an inherently dangerous profession and accept the threats that we’re exposed to day in and day out; month after month; and year after year for the span of our career. Now more than ever, we have an ethical and moral responsibility to promote safety and health. As Firefighters, we have an obligation to return home to our loved ones after our shift is over. It’s with duty, respect, honor and pride that we serve our communities, but we shall not forget to serve our most valuable asset; our Firefighters so we can continue to serve and then be rewarded with positive reflection of not only serving those that call us in their time of need, but also serving those that save others.
A well developed Safety and Health Committee can be the vehicle that drives the Organization to a new culture of safety and health. We simply cannot afford to turn an eye and be in denial or have one lack the desire of making a culture that will promote safety and health. The time has come that we begin creating 20/20 foresight and putting safety and health to the front of everything we do from fighting fire, running medical calls, building fire stations, designing new pieces of apparatus, selecting our firefighter ensemble, firefighter physicals, and to the way we build our safety and health programs. If we begin to build effective programs, our fire service will begin to see fewer mishaps, and allow all of us to avoid predictable surprises and keep firefighters on the job doing what they love to do, because after all, prevention is better than correction.
As you know, research has shown for many years that firefighters have a high incidence of suicide, cancer, heart disease, and other issues that lead to our own to not being able to serve a full career. This alone can bring significant hardship, illness and death. If we begin to think with the end in mind, we can begin to save firefighter lives. Geographically, some Countries have become leaders in researching and developing best practices to mitigate the threats against Firefighters across the World. It’s with that 20/20 foresight that we can all begin building effective Safety and Health Programs that focus on all fire department members. Having a safety committee in your fire department sets the stage on how you’re valued and how you value others in your Organization. The key is to show every member of the fire department that their safety and health is in the hearts of every member from the newest recruit to the Chief Fire Officer and the administrative staff. Having a progressive Safety and Health committee means you can soon be on your way to having a safety culture that promotes greatness to the firefighters and the Organization.
The key to greatness
The key to greatness is building a committee that is member driven and management supported. Before we can achieve greatness, we must ensure that we have the three key fundamentals in place: communication (vertical and horizontal), servant leadership, and trust. Labor and Management must align their intent and understand it’s with transparent communication and servant leadership that trust emerges and provides an opportunity for an organization to begin building a culture of safety, health and wellness. When providing servant leadership, you put authority where the information and it now allows your Firefighters to drive the safety committee, develop and implement policies/procedures, and focus on problems lying in wait in your organization. The greater the impact you want to make, the greater your influence needs to be into your Firefighters.
Coming full circle and making positive results
Once you believe labor and management have aligned desirable objectives and have agreed to a way forward you can find your committee in one of the three stages: Incipient, Growth or Decay. In each one of these stages, you must implement a process to achieve greatness.
Incipient: The development and implementation stage
Just like a new firefighter on the job, the foundation he or she builds will make a positive impact or negative impact on their future for many years after. This stands true for the beginning stage for the safety and health committee and how the foundation is paved and if growth will be sustained due to a strong foundation, or crumble due to a lack of stability and support. All committees regardless of the stage they find themselves in should perform an initial assessment and perform a continuous ongoing assessment. When performing the assessment and you identify positive growth, continue course; if you face an IDLH, you should quickly perform a size up and identify root cause(s) and begin managing the negative causes appropriately and prevent the extinguishment stage.
Growth: Avoid complacency and the drift into failure
Once you have reached the growth stage, we have to ensure the organization avoids complacency and having a drift into failure by allowing the normalization of deviance to occur. Once you’ve reached your goals and objectives, the commitment doesn’t stop. The drive must continue to always create and achieve new goals and objectives. It’s very easy for an organization to fall into complacency. Here are the ABC’s of complacency = Attitude, Behavior and Culture. The fire service knows all too well how attitudes, behaviors and cultures lead to toxic environments. The committee should have a term no more than two years and this can help with continuous growth, and give others an opportunity participate.
The fully developed stage isn’t listed as the Safety Committee never truly “fully develops”. The committee should continuously grow and promote. If you feel like the safety committee has “fully developed”, then what else is there to achieve?
Decay Stage: Recovery stage
If you have an unengaged committee that has went into a drift of failure, you’re in fact in the decay stage. If you don’t have a committee yet, don’t place yourself in any phase other than the incipient stage.
If your organization finds the committee in this stage, immediate action is required to ignite your potential and begin building a committee that will work through the challenges, and overcome the problems that led you to the extinguishment. Performing a SWOT analysis is a critical step to help identify problems your organization may be facing. At times organizations find the need to hire a team to provide leadership and employee engagement training, or a consulting company that focuses on occupational safety, health and wellness training specifically for Public Safety Organizations. It’s critical that you overcome this stage and begin progressing to a more productive and influential committee.
The climb to success
This ladder analogy is to help you understand the process in how to develop an effective safety program. As you can see, the supporting beams are connected by the rungs; therefore the supporting beams can be viewed as Labor and Management. Both Labor and Management are the supporting members that work to build an opportunity to harness and promote the Safety Program. During the climb you’ll go rung by rung to reach and achieve your goals. Prior to the climb, we must perform safety checks to guarantee we will have success throughout the process and to create a culture with communication, coordination, and consistency. Ground obstructions: These obstructions typically can be seen from the operations division such as showing a lack of support and respect, lack of willingness to participate in the safety committee, a lack of desire to learn a new knowledge set of risk management. Overhead obstructions: The obstructions seen here are typically a lack of support, not providing resources/training, encouragement, not providing adequate funding, and not allowing the committee to be member driven-management supported. Regardless of the rank you hold, we must all maintain personal and organizational accountability to encourage and support the Safety Committee, and embracing the positive changes that impact the team as a whole.
Once the Safety checks are completed, both Labor and Management take the rung one by one and begin achieving a culture that shows their respect to the safety and wellness of the entire team.
Rung One: Team Building
Start by building a team that will effectively develop your Committee. You may want to have a quorum and from there determine the roles and responsibilities of each member, such as the Chair, Co Chair, Secretary and individual Member(s). The members need to know that their part of this committee for a reason that is greater than just for them, it’s for the greater of the good of the whole.
Rung Two: Training and Development
You now want to create a mission statement for your Committee so it allows you to always know why your committee exists, and its purpose. Ensure that all members are familiar with State codes, regulations and/or standards. You may want to create a Safety Committee guidebook for each member of the committee, so they can now utilize this as a reference sheet before, during or after conducting safety meetings. Once the committee members have clarity to their purpose, and understand what is required, you can now communicate vertically and horizontally with all members of the Organization of the Why, How and What. Why the Committee is needed and the reason it exist, How the Committee will conduct business, and What the committee will provide to the Firefighters and members of the Organization. You have yet another opportunity to have transparent communication, show servant leadership and begin to build trust.
Rung Three: Risk Assessment
Take this opportunity to bringing all members of the Organization together and complete a risk assessment and SWOT analysis. This will help facilitate discusion on what are the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. This can help you understand if your Department is in a particular stage such as fully developed or decay stage that requires immediate action. Another resource that is worth checking out is the U.S. National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Vulnerability Assessment Program (VAP). Visit the site at www.firevap.org After completion of Risk Assessment/SWOT and/or the VAP review, it’s time to create a strategic plan on both short term and long term focuses. Once you have this critical information, develop a strategic plan for controlling the threats and determining what you need to begin your climb for continued success. Ensure you’re always getting closer to the goals. If you take this rung by rung, you’ll have a systematic process that is realistic to follow.
Rung Four: The Safety Meeting
Now is the time to begin hosting your safety committee meeting to review and discuss safety and health concerns your members may have. Check to see if you have a law governing a specific requirement. For instance, the State of Florida (USA) Administrative Code 69A-62.042 states “the committee shall convene its scheduled meetings at least once each quarter during the calendar year”. Prior to the meeting, you should post the meeting date, time and location, and as a best practice, an agenda should also be made available so everyone has an understanding on what’s going to be discussed in the upcoming meeting and that the meeting stays on track.
Initially your committee may be managing several immediate safety and health concerns that take time, money and resources to help mitigate, but eventually the committee must create a 20/20 vision that can be proactive and create a true culture of safety and health.
Rung Five: Sustainability and Review
If you desire for a committee that is respected, and sustains for years to come, you must be open to feedback from all members of the organization. One method to receiving feedback is by making a survey that is available to all members that have a few short questions and allowing for an opportunity for your members to write down any concerns they have, but also inviting members to make written suggestions/comments that are placed in a “Safety Box” in specific area that is known to all members. You must accept the feedback in a graceful manner and allow the committee to review the notes each time you meet and decide on how to manage the suggestion.
If you follow these simple recommendations and put deep commitment into reducing exposures to your members, you will begin to develop a cultural enhancement that creates opportunity to living and continuing to serve others for many years to come.
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Top image: Every day hundreds of First Responders respond to crashes, car fires, and other emergencies on our roadways. The Safety Committee can help facilitate the need for training when we identify risks.