Safety is usually enhanced by changing our culture. As a fire bureau, we have an old joke: 125 years of tradition unimpeded by progress. But the fact is there is always room for improvement in the way we do things. Just because something has always worked in the past doesn’t mean that it will work in the future. A good example of this is our new Operational Guide on overhaul (what we do once the fire is out to make sure it stays out and doesn’t rekindle). For years and years, as soon as the fire was extinguished, our Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) came off and we started breathing smoky air. Research showed that this was the most dangerous time to be breathing air inside of a fire building – and this practice could be responsible for many chronic health problems with fire fighters – namely cancer and cardiovascular disease. The new Operational Guide stipulates that in order to fully protect ourselves, we need to wear our SCBAs during most overhaul situations. This new guideline is bound to meet with some resistance, but it makes sense that we should protect ourselves with the equipment we have and are trained to use.
There are several national organizations including the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA), the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and the labor organization for fire fighters known as the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) who conduct studies and make recommendations as to safe practices to enhance fire fighter safety. Part of my job as the full-time Chief Safety Officer for Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R) is to digest these reports and recommendations and pass them on to our officers in PF&R.
Any changes are bound to be met with some degree of resistance. As fire fighters we firmly believe in training as realistically as possible – we “Train Like Our Lives Depend Upon It – Because They do!” Sometimes, national standards seem to limit our ability to conduct realistic training – but there is usually a good reason for it. One of the best examples of this is in the field of live fire training. When we acquire a structure that we can burn for practice, we plan a serious of small sets and let our newest most inexperienced fire fighters have a chance to make an entry on a real fire in a real house and see what it is like to extinguish an actual house fire. Several years ago, after a series of tragic events, national standards were changed to recommend using only wood and straw to start these fires. Believe it or not, in the old days trainers used kerosene or diesel and real furniture to start training fires. There was a lot of pushback when mattresses and flammable liquids were outlawed. But time and experience have proven that realistic, valuable training can be conducted using wood and straw inside of a donated structure.
Whenever we train our firefighters, we need to conduct a risk vs. benefit analysis. Most any fire fighting training can be hazardous, but by analyzing the danger we can make informed decisions about what level of risk is acceptable. We ask ourselves if training can be conducted in a safer manner, and still be effective. As the Chief Safety Officer, I rely on the NFPA, the IAFF, and IAFC to make recommendations and bring to light safety concerns. We can’t live in a bubble and just assume that certain practices are safe because we have never had any issues with them.
I straddle two worlds: the world of how Portland Fire & Rescue operates and the world that exists beyond our City of Roses. National trends, standards, concerns, and tragedies come across my desk and part of my job is to incorporate what I learn into the way we operate.
The only way this process can succeed is if I have support from the top down. It is my duty to pass on safety concerns, but ultimately the administration has to follow through with policy changes. One great example is the recent creation of Operational Guide 4.12 on Overhaul Procedures. It provides for the consideration of advanced respiratory protection for our fire fighters and investigators who are operating in a building after a fire is extinguished, but before all of the poisonous gases have dissipated. Study after study has shown that the gases at this stage of the fire are extremely hazardous and the only way to avoid exposure is to wear our Self Contained Breathing Apparatus. This new Op Guide has been embraced by our chief officers and will hopefully limit our exposure to toxic gases.
As I come across safety concerns and issues that could possibly affect our employees – I need to examine the validity of the threat, develop a plan for mitigation, and try to change our safety culture. Sometimes it can be a hard sell, but the benefits for our employees outweigh any inconvenience. Safer fire fighters mean a safer public – and that’s really what our job is all about.
Until next time – be safe!
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May 5, 2010