Firehouse Magazine

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Instructor John Dixon

Passionate, Relevant, and Current Knowledge Sharing For Your Department

The Human Element in Firefighting


FIREHOUSE | Health & Safety Report | 2019


The human condition is often the most overlooked factor when examining fire service outcomes. At the street level, very little is discussed or understood of what makes us human. In taking a deeper look into our attitudes, behaviors, and culture, however, we can truly work at creating a positive environment for professional growth. The improvement of the human condition within the emergency services is relative to our specific paradigms. The Tampa Safety Summit in 2004 gathered many fire service stakeholders at various levels in their careers under one roof, in the same room, with one goal. After much deliberation, the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives were born and published industry-wide. While the context of each initiative is vital to understand, the one common factor that binds them together is the human element and our ABCs.


Our personal attitude is synonymous with our personal accountability. We must become better at accepting our roles within the organization as vital ones. The times of simply acting as a drone or a good foot soldier must come to an end. We must expect and demand the utmost in our people’s attitudes. A positive mindset can only be fostered by empowering others with positive surroundings such as access to quality training, formal education, and progressiveness. We are all in direct control of our attitudes, but we are also greatly influenced by the level of empowerment we receive from our leaders. The trickle-down effect of a positive culture will be a huge return on investment.


Our behaviors are a direct result of our attitudes. It is impossible to have positive outcomes with our behaviors if our mindset is not cultivated. This is where a divide within the fire service can be seen. The behaviors of the older generations of firefighters differ in many ways from the newer generations. For example, Crew Resource Management may be understood as a direct challenge of authority. While the younger generation has been indoctrinated to ask questions, the older generation understands this to be a lack of a willingness to comply, thus the appearance of entitlement is born.

Personal growth comes from our attitude, behaviors, and culture!


For some time now, modern fire service culture has been gravitating toward the organization itself rather than the citizens we are sworn to protect. We are trying to remain relevant to our mission of life safety, incident stabilization and property conservation all at the same time as we are fighting one another on how to provide that service. We are creating an entirely new culture of self above others. The 2015 National Safety Culture Change Initiative found that “The culture of unsafe practices may be so deeply ingrained that efforts to change are viewed as challenges to fundamental beliefs, while other unsafe practices are created by the culture of the fire and emergency service as a whole.” This new paradigm of self above others would suggest that our emotions are still in control of our behaviors, therefore furthering the argument that our culture shapes our actions. This is why it is imperative to take caution in how we shape the future of the fire service.


To understand change, we must examine the differences between incremental change and transformational change. Each type of change is a profoundly different experience. Incremental change is the result of rational planning with clearly defined goals. This change can usually be reversed if needed, which gives us the feeling of being in control. Incremental change involves using our knowledge and abilities. Deep change requires new ways of thinking and, most importantly, behaving. This change is generally irreversible and creates a situation in which we realize we don’t have the knowledge or ability. This requires that we lose control. How do each one of us understand and apply our actions?

The 16 Life Safety Initiatives provide a roadmap. How we choose to reach the destination is on us. The absolute constant in being human is that change is inevitable. Utilizing and implementing the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives in our decision-making matrix will provide clarity to our mission.

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Accountability Issues - Who are we accountable to?


FIREHOUSE | Health & Safety Report | 2018

We need not listen too hard before we hear the loud beat of the proverbial accountability drum in today’s fire service. There are many organizations devoted to ensuring that individuals and organizations alike are emphasizing the importance of accountability. But are we all on the same page? What actions are attributed to the path of continuous improvement? Let’s analyze how we are accountable, not only to ourselves but also to the organizations to which we belong and, ultimately, the public we swore an oath to protect.

Personal Accountability

Mission, vision, and values comprise the foundation of a solid fire department. Naturally, one of the hardest, yet most rewarding, accountability actions an individual can perform is completing a personal mission, vision and values statements. Not many emergency service members have them, but developing these statements is the first step among many others toward holding ourselves accountable.


Enhance the personal and organizational accountability for health and safety throughout the fire service.

It can be said that the fire service is a large jigsaw puzzle of which we are only a small piece. So how do we know where we fit? We must remember that, first and foremost, we are accountable to ourselves. We are faced with many trying decisions during our careers. It is therefore vital for our future success that we know our “why,” as this must serve as the backbone of our decisions. 

Organizational Accountability

Sometimes we focus so much on our service delivery to the public that departments can forget that their greatest assets are the people. Organizations can enhance accountability through three primary approaches: 1) education, 2) physical and psychological health and 3) ownership.

Education: Knowledge is power. Is the organization doing everything it can to ensure that its members are learning, on and off the fireground? If your department doesn’t have the resources to provide continuing education and training, there are free tools available. The Fire Hero Learning Network
( offers free virtual training programs on topics like Stress First Aid, Communication and Mentoring for Company Officers, and a newly released module on Automatic Fire Sprinkler and Alarm Systems.

Physical and psychological health:
Physical and psychological health is vital for accountability. The NFFF has partnered with outstanding organizations to enhance our understanding of the physical and psychological needs of firefighters.

Ownership: We must hold our organizations accountable for prioritizing our ownership of our health and safety. Are we willing to accept that our organization may be vulnerable or drifting toward a preventable injury or LODD?

The Vulnerability Assessment Program ( is a tool to help organizations identify gaps in resources and service capabilities, with resources to address those gaps. Developing protocols to help eliminate exposure to carcinogens is a must. Final thoughts Do you wash your gear often? Does the organization provide methods of control?

Final Thoughts

Do you wear your SCBA during overhaul? Does your department mandate it? In order to improve personal and organizational accountability, we must challenge ourselves and ask tough questions. If it feels uncomfortable, good; that means there is room for improvement.

Accountability takes courage—a trait firefighters pride themselves on. That courage works both ways, to hold ourselves and our organization accountable for getting everyone home.

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