Improving the safety culture and climate of the fire service is important to reduce the rate of incidents reported.

Although the number of fire fighter fatalities has steadily decreased over the past 20 years, the incidence of fire fighter fatalities per 100,000 incidents has actually risen.

Each year, in the United States approximately 100 fire fighters are killed while on duty, and another 80,000 is estimated to be reported as injured.
Safety culture and climate issues were spotlighted at the recent National Institute of Environmental Health Science (NIEHS) conference. New York Uniformed Fire Officers Association Local 854 member and New York fire chief Nicholas Del Re made a presentation at NIEHS.

Del Re spoke on fire fighter issues relating to Normalization Deviance — a term to describe the natural human tendency in high pressure circumstance to want to take shortcuts or accept a lower standard of performance. For fire fighters, that could mean not reporting an injury, or to not wear their personal protective equipment properly, etc.

Normalization Deviance is not a unique issue to fire fighters.  But getting at the root of the problem is challenging and calls for fire departments everywhere to examine its institutional culture. The culture explains the how and why things are done in the fire service — ultimately, it can have a positive or negative impact on actions and decisions.

For some, they may rationalize taking a shortcut is the only way regardless of the risk to get a job done. And overtime, given the lack of negative consequences, the shortcuts or unacceptable behaviors become the “normal.”

Del Re says fire fighters can actively challenge this type of behavior by implementing strategies that makes them less susceptible to normalization deviance. They have got to first recognize what type of behavior makes them vulnerable and put a plan in place for them to change habits. Also fire fighters should reflect on how the vulnerabilities could have led them to making a mistake.

“It’s a challenge to overcome something that has become normal in the culture,” Del Re says. “But we have to ask ourselves if we have enough courage to change what we do – it can’t be just for us but the next generation that follows us.”

The IAFF Hazmat and Training Department offers resources and programs to help you make good decisions while on the fire ground. Please contact email [email protected] for more information.