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Study: Firefighters avoid using safety gear because of peer pressure and risk-taker image

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A new study by Drexel University shows that younger firefighter recruits sometimes feel pressured by colleagues at the senior level to shun their safety gear.

PhD Jennifer Taylor and her research team discovered that firefighters often refrain from using personal protective equipment (PPE) in dangerous situations because they feel pressured by  more experienced co-workers and also because they feel the need to uphold the public image of the firefighter “as a daredevil.”

The study– which used data from over 100 firefighter interviews –was featured in the American Journal of Health Behavior.

One firefighter who was quoted in the Science Daily article said: “Our society has a romanticized notion of what firefighters do, which is kill themselves and we do everything we can in the fire service to reinforce that.”

It also doesn’t help that films like “Backdraft” and or popular TV series like “Rescue Me” reinforce this notion that running into a burning home without proper support is somehow ok.

Another firefighter who was interviewed for the study– who has more than 30 years experience– says he once witnessed the rescue of a woman where the firefighter removed his self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) in the smoky environment, in order to give the woman air.  While Hollywood makes this look like a heroic act, he says this is “pure foolishness.”

“Because it would look good in the press, he takes his SCBA off … Now both of them have been exposed exceedingly long compared to how quickly they would have both made it out [had he not wasted his time and air].”

The Drexel study also found that some veteran firefighters influence the younger ones to go in without their apparatus. “When I started as a firefighter — I mean, my experience was that you got frowned on for wearing your breathing apparatus,” said another firefighter with more than 30 years of experience. “[They said,] ‘Come on, don’t be a sissy, you don’t need that.'”

Many have also said that they will sometimes take their gear off during overhaul – the period “when the main fire is extinguished but more work needs to be done to prevent fire hidden in walls or other areas from spreading.”

Even though smoke and other carcinogens remain in the air during this ‘overhaul period’, many firefighters don’t use their breathing apparatus at that point. Some firefighters told the Drexel team that wearing packs during overhaul is hot and cumbersome, so they often remove it. This falls under the category of what’s known as “goal seduction”– the desire to achieve a goal or finish a task.

There are those who are refusing to cave in to the peer pressure and are going about their firefighting in a smart and safe way.  Katie, a 33-year-old firefighter who’s been on the job less than a decade, says: “If you’re going to make fun of me, you’re going to make fun of me… But I’m not going to use an inhaler later on in life.”

Dr. Taylor found that, “If the overall gestalt of the group is to protect themselves from the known hazards of the job, then most people in the group will follow that behavior.”

Taylor and her team believe that administration in the firehouses should place more emphasis on “creating a culture of safety.”  This starts with the use of personal protective equipment, she said.

The Firefighter Injury Research and Safety Trends (FIRST) organization is using a $1.5 million grant to help train 100 safety officers in firehouses around the nation. The FEMA-funded grant will also pay for new surveys of approximately 500 fire departments to better understand barriers to safety culture.

 

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