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Size Matters in Fire Department Safety Climate

In a survey measuring management commitment to safety among 125 fire departments nationwide, volunteer firefighters report feeling more supported by management when compared to career firefighters.

The findings were recently published in a paper entitled 'Size matters: How safety climate and downstream outcomes vary by fire department organization type' in Injury Epidemiology led by Ashley Geczik, MPH, a PhD candidate at the Center for Firefighter Injury Research and Safety Trends (FIRST) at the Dornsife School of Public Health.

Safety climate - the shared perceptions of employees regarding their organization's safety protocols - is a known predictor of injuries, burnout, job satisfaction, and adherence to safety protocols. To date, over 600 US fire departments have taken the FIRST Centers Fire service Organizational Culture of Safety (FOCUS) survey, empowering them with important data for resource acquisition and policy change.

Using data from FOCUS, the FIRST Center evaluated differences in safety climate by fire department organization type. Findings indicate that management commitment to safety - how supported rank-and-file feel by management - varies by fire department organization type. A dose-response was observed, with career departments showing the lowest scores, combination departments in the middle, and volunteer departments at the top. Career departments tend to have larger employee roster sizes, call volumes, and population served than combination or volunteer departments. Therefore, the authors posit that rank-and-file may be less likely to interact with management regularly and this may be driving lower scores.

The study also compared department scores on supervisor support for safety, which indicates how supported rank-and-file feel by their supervisors. In contrast with management commitment, supervisor support scored were 10 points higher on average and did not vary by organization type. While future studies will investigate why management commitment scores decline in career departments, the authors conclude that supervisors, also known as company-level officers, are doing a good job regarding safety no matter what department type they are in.

These findings point to important organizational opportunities for change. As fire departments get larger and more complex, their safety may be at risk if new ways of communicating safety as a priority are not implemented.

This article was a collaboration between the FIRST Center's Ashley Geczik, MPH, Andrea Davis, MPH, CPH, and Jennifer Taylor, PhD, MPH, CPPS, from Drexel University, as well as Jin Lee, PhD, from Kansas State University's Department of Psychological Sciences and Joseph Allen, PhD, from the University of Utah's Department of Family & Preventive Medicine.

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