Swedish Message, Part 2

In the last few days,  we discussed the presentation by Dr. Stefan Svensson at FRI, who, after watching the presentation myself, made a case that the American Fire Service is taking a path that doesn’t consider facts.  The reaction by many of my American fire service brethren are very obviously based on emotion, not logic.  And frankly, for a group of people who pride themselves on being professional at their craft, maybe the firefighters in our nation do have a little to be desired when it comes to taking care of business in the manner in which it should be done.  

Dr. Svensson pointed out in the very beginning that his observation of the situation is as from the perspective of an outsider.  And while he has experience as a firefighter, he also has experience as an educator and a researcher.  So instead of approaching his discussion from a hysterical standpoint, he used a historical standpoint: that facts are facts and frankly, the methods of changing our culture isn’t working.  Sometimes some tough love is necessary, if we are sincere in wanting to bring everyone home in the morning.

Furthermore, at no point in his presentation (and I have listened to it and took copious notes) has he said that the Swedish fire service is better than any other fire service. In fact, he prefaces his presentation by saying that Sweden also has issues and they are not “better”.  But while data can always be manipulated to say what you want it to say, try looking at this objectively:

What gain do we get from having an increase in firefighter fatalities?  It’s not that we encourage firefighters to die, but the trend is there.  Just based on the data Dr. Svensson shared, firefighter fatalities in America have been slightly reduced, but for the most part, have remained steady.  Put that rate, however, in the context of decreasing civilian fatalities and decreasing fire responses, the ratio of firefighter fatalities per civilian fatality has INCREASED.  Likewise, the ratio of firefighter fatalities per fire has also increased.  Dr. Svensson even stated, this was AFTER pulling out the training and station deaths.  The inference is that even with a reduction in call volume, we continue to see a steady stream of firefighter fatalities.  And based on the language used by some of the commenters, the macho and egotistical feedback has been pretty predictable.  Why do we take so much pride in our injury and mortality rates?  Could it be that we are okay with it that way?   

One issue I really found interesting was his discussion of cardiovascular fitness relative to the job.  I have said on number of occasions that I am appalled by the continued reluctance of the fire service to embrace meaningful fitness standards.  At the same time, these issues are relative to the general population: fitness is decreasing, obesity is increasing, and subsequently, cardiovascular issues are also increasing.  In the meanwhile, the job of fighting fire has not changed, in fact, it has grown more challenging, and is compounded via station closures and staff reductions by having less personnel in many communities to now do the job that many were allocated to before.

Fitness requirements support a simple fact: we need to have an acceptable standard of fitness, therefore we need to have more comprehensive medical screening.  The problem is, as Dr. Svensson observed, in the United States, we evaluate ability, not fitness.  This is directly a result of equal opportunity mandates but has an undesired effect.  In an effort to minimize discrimination, we have embraced ability testing to determine whether a person can do the job.  We say, “If you can do the job, you should be allowed to” because we are trying to be more inclusive.  But the tell-tale issue for whether or not a person is going to stroke out on us or have an MI isn't whether they can or can not pull a ceiling or drag a dummy, it is much more insidious than that.  Cardiovascular issues that are killing firefighters aren’t readily apparent.  And I know firefighters that can whip through an abilities test without too much going on, but it doesn't require a physician to take one look at them and say, this guy's a candidate for the Big One.

But honestly, I could go point for point about the presentation and I'm not.  At least not with you all.

I intend to have my personnel listen to the presentation and view the PowerPoints included.  I also intend to ask them to challenge themselves and ask, "Is he right?  Is he wrong?"  And I'm going to trust that my people are going to listen to what is going on and look past the harshness of the message and evaluate it like grown-ups.  There is importance of having knowledge of the past in order to understand the present.  And we have quite a few people who are okay with romanticizing the concept that it is our duty to die in the line of duty for no apparent reason.  It is okay to be maimed for life for no apparent reason. It is okay to shovel a company into a burning building with deteriorating conditions because if we don't, we are pussies.

Well, it is okay only because the “leaders” in our business hype it as the standard as to what should be.  Their mentality is okay for a future of knuckle-draggers, but what if we gave you a finite number of resources and told you that if you screw them up, you don’t get more, so you’d take better care of them?  Or even better, if you are reckless with those resources, you have to pay for them?  Well, how much longer do you think it is going to be before the lawyers realize that incident commanders sending their personnel into a situation with no control, no coordination, or no meaningful mission (other than "searching" an untenable building) are in fact, killing personnel, and liable for wrongful death restitution?  It won't be long, because it is already happening.

The tradition of the fire service I had passed to me from my father, who got it from his father, and got it from his as well has been established that we must do whatever it takes to save lives.  But there is a profound disconnect: Have we in fact created these expectations ourselves?  Maybe this is where we ask the public: What is it you want from us?  If you read any of the civilian comments in these communities where they are struggling with funds, there is a certain amount of "screw the firefighters" being said and not a whole hell of a lot of support.  Perhaps we need to really educate the public and seriously ask them: "If you are expecting us to sacrifice our lives to get you out, there needs to be some relational support.  Otherwise, f*&# off."

If we keep repeating traditions that don’t make sense and cause us unwarranted pain, what does that make us?  Stupid?  I think that's what Dr. Svensson said that some of you all are upset about.  If you had a son who was pledging a fraternity, and the traditional hazing was to get painfully burned over a percentage of his body because hey, that's the tradition, I'd bet you'd tell him he's nuts.  The only tradition I am buying into is that as a firefighter, I am willing to take a risk to save someone if I have the possibility of saving someone.  But we aren't even doing that.  We won't even buckle our seatbelts, and where is the tradition in that?

The most telling part of the presentation came in the discussion on survival training.  While I don't necessarily agree with some of the issues, the real focus was this: Right now we focus on how to get out of problems.  Maybe we need to be re-focusing on how to stay out of trouble to begin with.

They don’t think about safety because it is simply a part of what they do.  It is not a thought, it is ingrained in their culture.  It's not standing outside a house quivering because we are too scared to fight the fire.  It is taking resources, defining the problem, and using the resources wisely and to the best effect to create a solution.  We are letting our egos get in the way of facts. Instead of getting cranked up about what was said, listen to what he is saying. There are other approaches that make sense, yet we continue to ignore them.

I'm not even going to suggest that we should have a safer work environment.  I'm just going to say that instead of pointing at the Swedish guy and being offended at what he said, perhaps we should listen, take what we can from the discussion, and learn.  He used that language for a reason: to make a point.  He isn't over in Sweden right now rubbing his hands gleefully because he has offended the Americans.  He made it clear that as an outsider looking in, he sees a problem and wants us to be aware of it.  However, he is also concerned that we are ignoring the issues based on our emotional reaction to the problem, rather than the rational explanation of how to solve it.  I don't like being called stupid either, but as I have been told before, if the shoe fits, wear it.


  • Shane says:

    Great post Chief! I have been having some of these same conversations with my colleagues for awhile now and I'm constantly amazed at the responses I get. I've worked with firefighters that rail against management because RIT wasn't emphasized enough but turn around and brag about fighting interior fires in mobile homes as a volunteer and falling through the floors! No wonder RIT is so important to them, they need to be saved from themselves!
    It goes on and on, recently another colleague thought I was out of my mind for mentioning I see no need to risk agressive interior attack for no confirmed lost individuals in an untenable environment. Perhaps he didn't fully understand "untenable"? All I know is that I was once again on the defensive for stating that firefighter safety is more important to me than wordly possessions. Now before others get the idea I would never make an interior attack the reality is that I still see a need for it; like everything else there is a time and a place. My point is that I recognize we are still putting firefighters into situations they don't need to be in.
    Maybe if this topic gets more discussion people will really start to see what's appropriate and what isn't. Great discussion Chief! Let's hope this gets people talking in a proactive manner.

  • John says:

    Finally, ..someone is listening…and understands what Stefan Svennson was talking about…if only there were more out there like you guys.. First listen and then jugde
    I have been speading the links from Stefans speech around a few forums..but I guess only a few actuallly is listen to what is said…
    Spead the links please..
    Greetings from across the waters…Take care

  • John says:

    Cant help but to post the links to the presentation again on this follow up – just in case anyone missed them:
    All the best, Take Care

  • John,

    Thanks for doing that. It actually was my plan and I took the easy way out and just linked to the previous article. So I’m lazy.

    Thanks for taking care of that.


  • Looks like I’ll be making a presentation on fire fighter safety at FDIC next year. That might be interesting….

  • Stefan,

    Kicking and screaming, the unenlightened will be dragged into the 21st Century.


  • I feel like I've heard all this before…

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