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The Human Factors, a Contributing Factor in Firefighter Injury and Death, Part III

This article, along with the two previous articles, first appeared when I initially started writing this column, "Staying Safe," 15-years-ago. I repeated it six-years-ago with slight modification, and feel it still holds true today as a leading cause of firefighter injury and death. It can serve as a refresher for senior firefighters and as a safety lesson for newer firefighters.

There are those firefighters who believe they are impervious to injury and that accidents don’t happen to them; therefore they can do and act as they wish. The taking of foolish chances and avoidable risks under the guise of being a “macho” firefighter can lead to injury and death. This is Human Error at its worse and any personnel displaying this type of action requires strong supervision, discipline and additional training to correct the behavior. In most circumstances, the problem will be remedied. Personnel who believe they operate in a protected environment, safe and free from harm, just because of the nature of the service they provide, are setting themselves up for disaster.

Horseplay and practical jokes have been in the fire service from its origin and when done occasionally and in good taste, they can contribute to the morale of the organization while building camaraderie and providing a form of stress relief. It is important that horseplay not get out of control and that it is not demeaning, offensive, or derogatory, and also that it does not compromise safety. The biggest negative factor regarding horseplay is that it has the tendency to get out of control and it is then when stupidity is interjected that the problems and unsafe acts begin. Any form of horseplay at the scene of an emergency should not be permitted because it becomes a diversion of one’s concentration from the tasks at hand and increases the risk for unsafe acts. Supervision and department policy will control to what extent horseplay may be tolerated, if at all.

There is a feeling among many firefighters, especially the newer firefighters, that to seek help in order to accomplish a task or chore is reflective of their inability to get the job done, while in actuality, they may be increasing their risk of being injured. As previously mentioned, “you do not have to know how to do everything," and with that I include, “you don’t have to do everything alone.” There are many functions on the emergency scene that require team effort and if the task you have been assigned to needs more than one set of hands or eyes, request them. You may need someone to assist you with lifting, raising a ladder, or to protect your back when opening a roof. Strains, sprains and falls add to the number of injuries each year that can be prevented, simply by seeking a helping hand. If there are not enough personnel on-scene, call for additional help. If upon arrival it looks like you will need more personnel, call immediately, as you will need lead time before they are on-scene and available to assist. The old proverb still exists, “call for help early, if you don’t need them, they can go back home, but if you do, they are on the way!” Adequate on-scene personnel greatly reduces the potential for unsafe acts and injuries.

Common sense, something that was always the hallmark of the American persona, has been on the decline in our country and has appeared within the ranks of emergency service. Common sense is the basic brain function that helps keep us safe and generally acts as our gut reaction and alarm system, which (should) alert us to danger. If something doesn't look right, it probably isn't. That is how simple it is! You don’t need a ruler to measure how far the distance is between the base of the ladder and the wall in order to check for a safe climbing angle. If it doesn't look safe, it isn't. When you are crawling down that long, smoke filled hallway and the flames start to roll back in your direction, it is common sense that tells you to slow down, open the nozzle, or get the heck out! Common sense, when used in addition to our other senses, is an integral part of our built-in personal alert system. Pay attention to it, as it may very well save your life.

These are just some of the Human Factors that contribute to human error, which in turn contribute to unsafe acts, followed by an increase in accidents and the possibility of death and injury. Until we can control the excitement, speed and adrenaline rush that kick in during emergency response while also overpowering the thought process, we remain at risk. Human error is a behavioral problem that is controllable through training, supervision and thought. Think about what you are going to do, before you do it. Think about what can go wrong in the task you are about to do. Think about the risks involved and weigh them against what you intend to accomplish. Always take the time to think. Just because you put your helmet on your head doesn't mean you have to remove your thinking cap!

Till next time, Stay Safe and God Bless!

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Henry CampbellSenior Correspondent

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