Taylor Brings Innovative Safety Climate Science to the US Fire Service
October 1, 2012
Dr. Jennifer A. Taylor, an associate professor in the Environmental and Occupational Health department at the Drexel University School of Public Health, was awarded a three year, $1 Million Fire Prevention and Safety grant from the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The award builds on Dr. Taylor’s current FEMA grant researching and developing the components of a national firefighter non-fatal injury data system (publichealth.drexel.edu/first).
This new award, “Understanding Culture: Assessing Firefighter Safety Climate,” will develop a survey that will be made freely available to fire departments nationwide. The design of this study is based on evidence from over 200 studies across a multitude of countries and industries which concluded that safety climate (the measureable aspect of safety culture) is a robust predictor of safety outcomes, such as injuries. The short-term outcome is the creation of a safety climate survey instrument for use by fire departments and fire safety researchers throughout the country. The long-term outcome is that fire departments will use this safety climate survey as a measure of their baseline safety climate (pre-intervention) and as an evaluative tool (post-intervention) to assess changes brought about by interventions to improve firefighter safety.
This study addresses a major gap in firefighter safety knowledge and will have a high impact on efforts to improve the occupational health and safety of firefighters on and off the fireground. This knowledge gap was identified and documented by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), and that organization was one of many fire service partners who lent their support to this proposal.
“The topic of culture holds special significance to NFFF,” according to Chief Ron Siarnicki, NFFF Executive Director. “In March 2004, we convened over 200 people at our National Fire Fighter Life Safety Summit to discuss line of duty death prevention. From this unprecedented discussion, 16 initiatives emerged. The most fundamental issue that was agreed upon by Summit participants was the need for the fire service in the United States to change the culture of accepting the loss of firefighters as a normal way of doing business. Initiative #1 was: ‘Define and advocate the need for a cultural change within the fire service relating to safety, incorporating leadership, management, supervision, accountability, and personal responsibility.’ Therefore, Drexel’s grant, which will make it possible to measure safety climate in the fire service, is a natural extension of that commitment we made in 2004.”
The research team is led by Dr. Taylor, an injury prevention and control researcher who investigates the relationship between organizational climate and injuries in healthcare settings and in the fire service. Dr. Taylor’s other firefighter research grants include an NIOSH RO3 award in narrative text mining, and a contract from the International Association of Fire Chiefs to analyze the National Fire Fighter Near Miss Reporting System. Dr. Taylor received her PhD from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Department of Health Policy and Management. She obtained her Master’s of Public Health degree in Health Services from the Boston University School of Public Health.
Dr. Taylor’s research team will conduct focus groups and individual interviews with firefighters to rigorously develop survey items specific to the firefighting industry. The resulting survey will be administered to a geographically stratified random sample of US fire departments. The survey results will be examined for the strength of their association with firefighter injuries.
"Public health research is about community need. You do not go to a community with an idea for some pie in the sky research project that you want to do because only you are interested. You listen to what a community wants and see if you can help. The US fire service clearly identified their priorities and their readiness to look at their culture. I couldn't begin to help them if they weren't ready. Indeed organizations that aren’t ready to look at themselves have more immediate issues to address. Since the fire service is ready and we have the scientific ability to assist them in their quest, it is the perfect partnership and the perfect time to begin," said Dr. Taylor.
"My team at the DUSPH will create an industry-specific fire service safety climate survey and test the strength of its association with firefighter injuries. At the end of the development process, the survey and technical assistance on its use will be made freely available to any fire department who wishes to use it. Safety climate has been shown to be one of the strongest predictors of safety outcomes like work-related injuries and fatalities. We just don't normally pay attention to safety climate because it represents complex and systemic attributes about the social environment in which we work that we either don't want to face or feel unempowered to change. This work is funded by a FEMA and Department of Homeland Security research and development initiative that supports synergistic partnerships between the fire service and researchers in order to advance identified safety priorities. We could not provide such specific assistance to the fire service without this essential support," she said.
The co-investigators include national and international scholars. The qualitative phase of the study will be guided by Drexel’s internationally recognized qualitative and mixed methods researcher, Dr. Lisa Bowleg, an associate professor in the Department of Community Health and Prevention at the DUSPH. The survey development will be advised by safety climate expert Dr. Dov Zohar, Professor of Behavioral Sciences and Management in the department of Industrial Engineering & Management at the Technion in Haifa, Israel. Dr. Zohar developed the term “safety climate” in 1980 and has inspired the science behind it for over 30 years.
The project will be guided by both academic and community partners. An Advisory Council has been created of career and volunteer fire service leaders who will advise the project team regarding research site recruitment, survey item development, and dissemination of the project results and survey. In addition to NFFF, the Advisory Council includes representatives from the International Association of Fire Fighters, National Volunteer Fire Council, International Association of Fire Chiefs, FireRescue Magazine, and The Secret List. Additionally, a larger group of Culture Champions will assist in building an informal national network to ensure successful project development and dissemination of findings.