Is Our Safety Messaging Making Us Less Safe?

By Dave Williams

When you think of the word “safety” what comes to mind? If you were to meet a member of an Amazonian tribe who has had no contact with the outside world, how would you explain your understanding of safety to them?

Safety tends to be an extremely personal and sometimes emotional concept almost exclusively defined individually. Beliefs around what the word means and how processes and protocols influence outcomes vary widely. When we survive hazardous situations, do we know why? Is it our commitment to safety? Our personal experiences and competencies? Luck? Does it matter what the percentages are if it’s a combination of multiple factors?

I am currently a Regional Fire Operations Risk Management Officer with the U.S. Forest Service. I have more than 20 years of operational wildland fire management experience on engines, hotshot crews, helitack, smokejumping, and fuels management. I am an ICT3, DIVS, and a SOF2(t). It is because of the close calls, accidents, injuries, and fatalities I have survived that I wrestle with wildland fire’s well intended but perhaps misguided preoccupation with safety.

We are tasked with objectives that are accompanied by hazards often outside of our control. While I look forward to hearing comments, that statement is not up for debate. If you disagree with the fact that wildland fire management is an inherently hazardous occupation, you either don’t have enough slides yet or your ego and luck are combining to provide an illusion of control. The uncertainty involved is why understanding risk and trade-offs is so important.

I like to think that the overall goal, as it relates to personnel safety, is to do everything we can to bring folks home from work unharmed. Maybe that’s something we can agree on. I believe that our messaging around prioritizing safety above all else has two detrimental and unintended outcomes:

  1. “Safety First” messaging can contribute to complacency, or as Mike Rowe describes it in this video, an individual’s Risk Compensation.
  2. Prioritizing safety in hazardous environments presents a conundrum. What do you do if accomplishing protection objectives, such as providing for public safety, requires you to do things that could result in harm to you or those you work with?

If we agree that our goal is to bring folks home unharmed, but we work in an inherently hazardous environment, what is the most effective messaging to ensure intent is understood and achievable? One common incident objective typically found at the top of the list is “Provide for firefighter and public safety”. I understand that this well intended yet meaningless platitude can be found in federal policy. However, as a firefighter, that statement is not useful to me and often its paradoxical nature adds to confusion around missions and priorities.

This might touch a nerve for folks, but to me safety is not an objective to be prioritized, it is a trade-off when you can’t have your cake and eat it too. I recognize one option would be to simply re-define the word “safe” to something more malleable, but I am not interested in a work around. I believe aligning our messaging with our actions and behavior is important.

What if I told you that acknowledging the hazardous nature of this job and being transparent about the risk we’re asking our firefighters to accept in order to accomplish objectives could actually reduce our accidents and injuries? Training and development, preparedness and emergency response capabilities all look different for crews/modules in the years following a serious medical incident. Why is that? Did the hazards change?

I welcome any ideas on how to message our commitment to safety in an inherently hazardous environment. Ideally, something that will resonate with firefighters and provide meaningful intent as we navigate the dynamic and complex nature of wildland fire management.

Here’s my first stab, assuming control objectives aligned with agency mission and values have already been developed:

Manage risk to firefighters by ensuring hazards are identified, assessed and where possible mitigated. Be prepared to accept residual risk when values threatened warrant it and the probability of achieving objectives is high.

17 thoughts on “Is Our Safety Messaging Making Us Less Safe?

  1. “The probability of achieving objectives is high” implies that we know how to measure empirically our probability of success. There are two problems here. First, what is the measurable objective? Second, how do we know that what we did, i.e., the risks we took, were instrumental in accomplishing the objective. For example, would the fire have gone out on its own if we had not jumped it? Would the fire have stopped at the ridgeline if we had not dumped retardant? We don’t know the answer because we have not done the necessary research to get the answers. Why is that? In medicine, which is full of mortal risks, we test pharmaceuticals empirically in controlled experiments to ensure they are both safe and effective. Why cannot firefighting bring the same scientific rigor to protecting its workers?

  2. Very well said and, as a PSC2, I’ve always been frustrated by that incident objective. I knew it never resonated with me, it’s not anywhere near measurable, and it’s pretty much useless. It gets included, usually first, because managers (both fire and Agency) feel we should put safety ‘first’. It becomes a balance between acknowledging risk, mitigating risk, and not sounding glib. Here’s my modification of yours:

    Minimize risk to individuals by ensuring hazards are identified, assessed, communicated, and to the full extent possible, mitigated. If the probability of achieving objectives is high, and identified values are at risk, be prepared to accept the residual risk.

  3. Thank you for your authenticity and vulnerability. Your leadership to challenge the status quo is much needed and inspiring.

  4. Morning–If I may–I am not a firefighter, although I dabbled in my younger years. I am a former combat arms soldier and a former deputy sheriff. That said, I agree with your assessment. Safety becomes one more block to check in mission planning, and it’s often then overlooked, because “We covered it”. So –three points…first, Safety MUST be communicated. One of your last assertions is to assess, then accept or mitigate. The piece missed is that the risk acceptance piece must be communicated to the operator. That operator MUST understand and accept the risk as well. The second thing–the idea of safety must be simplified. It must be the single syllable risk–“FIRE BURNS ARE BAD” seems too simple, but if you overcomplicate the expression of the risk with academic ideas, people blow it off and may miss the important piece. And third–make them look forward to the safety piece each time. Allow black humor…allow outlandish expressions of risk–My FS supervisor has a safety brief every week during our team meeting and we all try to bring something, even though we are all office lard butts these days. If we can make people laugh, I have observed that someone else is often able to play off that and recognize a real, and close at hand risk. Thanks for your writeup and please be safe out there–as one of my sergeant majors would say during our first month in Iraq–‘keep your head on a swivel”.

  5. Dave-excellent piece. I served 25 years on Type 1 IMT’s with the US Forest Service and a OSC1 and SOF1. Currently retired in 2009 after a wonderful 35 year career. I remained on IMT’s until 2016. I looked at the “objectives” in a different manner. In reality, the overarching safety objective “Provide for firefighter and public safety” in reality a goal. “Manage risk to firefighters by ensuring hazards are identified, assessed and where possible mitigated. Be prepared to accept residual risk when values threatened warrant it and the probability of achieving objectives is high” is the objective. So-I was in the school of thought that just setting an objective is an empty statement since there is not any goals to achieve. NIMS made an attempt to clean this up when the acronym of “SMART” was adopted from the US Coast Guard into All Hazard incidents. Your spot on and thank you.

  6. -Manage risk to firefighters by ensuring hazards are identified, assessed, communicated and where possible mitigated. Be prepared to accept residual risk when values threatened warrant it and the probability of achieving objectives is high.-
    I like the intention of this exercise, thought I personally feel like the “be prepared” smacks a bit of action bias, when what I think what we’re looking for is a neutral summation statement.
    What about replacing “Be prepared” with “Individually determine whether”. This implies personal responsibility/accountability when stretching out a wee bit over a cliff

    -Manage risk to firefighters by ensuring hazards are identified, assessed, communicated and where possible mitigated. Individually determine whether to accept residual risk when values threatened warrant it and the probability of achieving objectives is high.

  7. In this context, it might be useful to revisit a quote from the “FIndings of the Human Factors Workshop” in 1995: “Good crew supervisors do not focus on safety, but rather on good supervision, crew cohesion, and work ethic. Safety is the result. Supervisors who constantly talk about safety have more accidents than those who focus on working relationships.”

  8. Great article Dave! You have given us a lot to think about and hopefully inspire more conversations about not just this topic but other difficult questions about how we balance goals with risks personally, and as an organization, that for all intents and purposes is providing a service to others outside of the organization. Others outside of the organization who’s expectations and perceptions about risk are likely to be considerably different. Especially when we talk about “residual risk” and accepting that “residue” on part of others.

    One might even say that risk acceptance is a personal thing and varies from person to person. If they did say this, they would be correct. Firefighters accept residual risks for many reasons, and typically not for just one reason. It seems to me that residual risk is accepted due to a multitude of influences, and these influences are always changing. This coupled with an natural environment that is never static, makes for some interesting questions to ponder.

    What is “risk”, is it something that exists out there? Or is it another human
    construct, as is “safety”?

    I have heard risk as being defined as “the effect of uncertainty on objectives”. Which makes sense to me. We can statistically calculate the “odds” of the rolling of dice, cards being dealt, or of a coin landing “heads or tails”. But this is exceedingly difficult to do for calculating “risk” in Wildland Fire. For some aspects of Wildland fire it can be done, and in fact it is done. But for much of intricate details of Wildland fire response, determination of risk is not accomplished mathematically. We all know this, so I apologize for influencing readers to think “Duh!”

    How do we make decisions about risk with all of the “uncertainty” that is
    effecting “objectives”?

    Is “uncertainty” and “residual risk” the same thing?

    What does “being prepared to accept residual risk” look like operationally?

    These are rhetorical questions, meant to further the conversation. I am sure that they will have varied answers and hopefully generate even more questions. Maybe not though…there is some uncertainty about whether that will happen, but the risk of asking these rhetorical questions seems small, and any residual risk I am prepared to accept.

    Thank you Dave for sharing your thoughts and getting this important conversation started. I hope many others read your article and join in.

  9. Right on Dave – as an objective – and the top (in ICS meaning the highest priority) objective, “Provide for firefighter and public safety” is unachievable and therefore, as you said, it’s meaningless. Empty words taking up valuable space. Because the only way to achieve it is to stay in camp. If anything, they are priorities, and again, that’s problematic as they are two different priorities. Often you have to assume more risk with one in order to protect the other. I always liked the genius of the Phoenix Fire mission under Chief Brunacini. “Survive, Prevent Harm, and Be Nice.” Perfect order of priority. I appreciate your voice right now Dave, we’re on the cusp of being able to make a major evolution in how the wildland fire service thinks, communicates and acts in balancing risk versus gain.

  10. Great discussion Dave. I too have struggled with the objective of “provide firefighter and public safety”, too often, they feel like they are words that have to be said but provide little context in how to achieve them. The work that we do to manage and support an incident is inherently dangerous to all incident personnel, including support personnel. The moment that we commit resources to managing an incident we are assigning risk to accept (the work to be accomplished). We will never manage an incident that is free from risk, accidents and injuries, but we can manage an incident to reduce the risk to responders and public and the likelihood and severity of the accidents and injuries when they do occur.

    I am a SOF1 and on our Team we utilize a strategic risk assessment, strategic operations process, and risk management assistance products to engage agency administrators, local fire managers, and IMT members. Through conversation and the use of these products we are more deliberate in how we develop incident objectives and manage the incident, in turn these yield safer outcomes by only assigning necessary risk (purposeful work) to incident personnel.

    Our objective generally reads – Provide for responder and public safety by implementing a deliberate risk management process to identify incident hazards, implementing mitigations that reduces exposure to acceptable levels, and commiting resources to missions that have a high probability of success.

    As a firefighter on the ground, I appreciate the above objective, or something similar. The words of firefighter and public safety are still there, but now there is context to them, and I know what I and others should be doing to provide for that increased safety.

  11. Our job as supervisor is to train our people. Train the “why”, then the “how”. Safety comes with a properly trained crew. Always train the basics and fundamentals. Professional athletes perform more reps on the basics than the advanced. If you are trying to be fancy, you end up being unable to focus on the cognitive and associative and then lose the autonomy of professional. Being well trained enables you to fight fire aggressively. An untrained firefighter cannot fight fire aggressively. Aggressive firefighting is not the problem, it’s the answer. Aggressive firefighting is about making decisions considering context and application. Safety is a byproduct of training, knowledge, and skill acquisition. Both firefighter and civilian safety are assured when these ingredients are equally mixed. No usually gets hurt sitting in a lazy boy. You can’t focus on too much knowledge, then you lose context and vise versa. Keep smiling, keep digging, keep sweating, keep working, do well.

  12. “Survive, Prevent Harm, and Be Nice.” Provided by Mark T. Smith seems to me content in the thread that most closely represent actual objectives in that it is possible to measure them. As far as the Humans are concerned these work. As far as land & property they become much more subjective. The real objective in firefighting is to put the fire out, or minimize spread when and where possible. Another commenter referenced medicine; they have a directive that’s more like the priority someone else mentioned. “First do no harm” works pretty well considering medicine is a dynamic environment and not an exact science, and neither is fighting fire. Some directive of priorities given an actual objective that can be achieved might spur the conversations to help decision making that results in survival, preventing harm, and even provide time for nice; in that poor decisions often result in higher stress levels that degrade quality of decisions over time (we often speak of margin of safety). Leadership then bears the burden of responsibility and risk for knowing when the conversation has reached the best course of action to manage possibly conflicting priorities with the objective(s) in mind. Thanks for bringing up this conversation, It has been a long time coming.

  13. Thanks for bringing this conversation into a new forum Dave. As an Agency Administrator I have long been challenged with this idea that we can make fire-fighting, or many of the other activities I ask people to undertake, “safe”. Its inherently risky out there and by asking people to do a job, I am accepting risk that they may not come home. Its disingenuous to do otherwise. As a line officer, I have to recognize that my employees are taking risk on my behalf. I need to write objectives that identify the values at risk , explain the why and articulate that I want fire-fighters to use risk-informed decision-making to develop strategies and tactics that reduce impacts from fire to those values.

    I have struggled with finding the perfect verbiage to describe the risk that I am willing to have responders take on my behalf. They can take less, but not more, because they are working on my behalf and I OWN the outcomes. In that context, I am not asking firefighters to “protect” property, I am asking them to reduce impacts of the fire on such, within the risk/hazard mitigation framework. I am asking them to always understand why they are doing whatever action they are taking so that they can make informed decisions at their level. I am asking them to be students of risk-informed decision-making and apply it at whatever level they find themselves in. If we use sound thinking to make decisions, as your objective lays out, that is all we can ask. The outcomes will be what they will be because sometime ^%&%& happens. Bad outcomes don’t mean a bad decision, or series of decisions, were made just as good outcomes don’t mean the decisions were good ones. Ever heard the saying “I’d rather be lucky than good any day”?

    I’d add another thought to the string from my good friend Smiley. Through him I’ve learned the importance of having a system that allows us to fail safely. Because again, %$#%#$ happens and it happens even more when the human element is combined with the hazardous environments we operate in. Perhaps instead of focusing on the perfect plan to avoid failure, we focus on the plan that provides the safest environment for failure.

  14. “Safety First!” has always struck me as a lie. In my lived experience, “Safe Enough” is closer to the accurate truth of how we go about our work and our lives. I know “safe enough” sounds like I’m making fun of safety slogans; I am. “Safety first” is generally thrown around as a dark humor joke within fire. Saying “safety first” and meaning it, like it’s leader’s intent that can actually be implemented in the real world, that’s a sure way to have folks in the ranks believe that you as a leader do not understand how the work gets done.

    I also used to jokingly say “Safety Third”, so yes I enjoyed the Mike Rowe video link. Mike’s reference to risk compensation and risk equilibrium concepts rings true. I can think of many times in my life I have either taken more or less risk based on how hazardous I thought the situation was, how effective I believed the safety equipment/mitigations were/weren’t, relative amount of certainty versus uncertainty, etc. There is also a lot of research that seems to support this concept of each individual settling into their own comfort zone, or risk homeostasis, making adjustments up/down based on how much risk they perceive. So yes for sure, Dave, I do believe that people will make “safer” decisions for themselves and their folks the more transparent and accurate we are about acknowledging the risks.

    Borrowing from Mike Rowe: I could get behind the most-posted safety slogan being “Your safety is Your responsibility. Being in compliance does not necessarily mean that you are out of danger.” Put that slogan at the top and bottom of every page of the IAP, and also change the standard safety objective to something like “Identify and discuss hazards. Plan your mitigations. Evaluate if risks are worth it. Add a dose of margin to account for uncertainty. Repeat process as conditions change.”

    (I added the “worth it” clause as a bonus. we absolutely have to be more deliberate in fire about linking the level of residual risk to ‘is this mission necessary’ etc…but that’s a whole different worm hole to drop into…)

  15. This is an excellent topic; far overdue; and very appropriate in the environment we are facing.

    My thoughts come with a slight bias, my thirty-year career was spent in an All-Hazards fire department, but I spent 20 plus years on national teams including time as a DIVS, OPBD, an OSC1, and (what seemed like an eternity) a PSC1.

    Mark T. Smith stated, “I appreciate your voice right now Dave, we’re on the cusp of being able to make a major evolution in how the wildland fire service thinks, communicates and acts in balancing risk versus gain.”

    The gold nugget Mark gave is at the end of his point. I think what is often being missed is the balancing risk versus gain. Using the phrase of Cory T., The action bias. Any action should be justified or warranted. Mark Smith quoted one of Bruno’s phrases, but I believe that one of his others is even more contextually appropriate. “Risk a Lot to Save a Lot, Risk a Little to Save a Little, and Risk Nothing for What Is Already Lost.” His thought was that firefighters will risk everything when lives are at risk, but that they will do so in a calculated manner and be smart about their actions. He never advocated being passive about risk management; he advocated being a smart, risk-oriented firefighter. His original thought was further simplified or “single syllabled” into a risk management “Bruno-ism” All-Hazards fire departments lived by. Although more applicable to All-Hazards, it emphasizes the risk versus gain we are trying to balance in the wildland fire discipline.

    1. Risk a lot to save a life.
    2. Risk a little to save property.
    3. Risk nothing to save nothing. The property is already lost.

    Trying to make a major evolution in how the wildland fire service thinks while taking into consideration the great comments and potential improvements or considerations is not easy. I’ll admit my take on it at the end might be getting too verbose for impact.

    My thoughts are.
    1) In the second sentence, placing the statement regarding values first emphasizes what this is about. The value threatened is more important than the objective and might be worth the risk.

    2) If the value is worth the risk, and action is warranted, that doesn’t mean the risk management cycle ends. Folks need to continually identify, assess, communicate, and to the full extent possible, mitigate risks during any action taken.

    3) I also (possibly splitting hairs) do not like using the plural term “objectives” in this instance, only because I am concerned it might be equated to the overarching Incident Objectives. When you are putting folks in harms way there ought be specific tactical reasons. The (tactical) objective being discussed must be directly correlated to the risk and the value threatened. Maybe my PSC1 background is polluting my thoughts and making me concerned that someone will state “well, ‘keeping the affected public, stakeholders, and elected/appointed officials informed on the incident and its potential affect to them’ is also one of our objectives.” I get that, but it should never be part of the discussion in the context we are in. I wanted to clarify focusing on a specific tactical objective, not overall incident objectives, so I used “objective(s).”

    My take on blending some of the ideas…

    Minimize risk to individuals by ensuring hazards are identified, assessed, communicated, and to the full extent possible, mitigated. If identified values are at risk, the probability of achieving the objective(s) is high, and if assuming the residual risk is warranted, communicated, and prepared for, take appropriate action while continuing to mitigate risks.

  16. As an Agency Administrator, I am often the one identifying the objectives for an incident. I have long been uncomfortable with the standard ‘provide for firefighter and public safety’ objective. I appreciate the incorporation of the risk assessment and mitigation piece into that language as Dave has suggested. That is really the part that we have any measure of control of. The problem with identifying safety as an objective is that so much of what is hazardous about wildland firefighting is outside of our control. The most we can do is assess the hazards to the best of our ability, inform others of the potential risks or hazards, and identify potential mitigations. But even in our risk assessment, mitigations typically do not remove the hazard, they either lower the potential likelihood of it occurring or lower the potential consequences if it does occur. We rarely have the ability to remove a hazard completely. The other key piece of the puzzle which we do not control is the human factor. People make decisions about risk based on their own risk tolerance, comfort level, or previous experiences. We can identify a hazard and mitigation but like the old saying goes you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. People are people and everyone’s personal belief system and experiences are unique. What one person views as a serious hazard may not be so serious to the person working next to them. So, while it is nice to have as an objective that everyone will come home safely – it is impossible for us to actually make that happen. We can outline expectations and leader’s intent – but in reality we do not control the hazard or the humans.

  17. I think that reporting on safety inspections and recording incidents at enterprises on a regular basis will significantly reduce the work for firefighters. With modern software it is easy to do, it will give a sense of safety trends and minimize risks.

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