A holiday message to give and receive!

by Chief Sam DiGiovanna

Ah, the holidays. No matter what you celebrate, these weeks are packed with activities, from fire department parties to community parades to family gatherings. And don’t forget those last-minute trips to the store!

Amid the hustle and bustle, danger awaits. As travel spikes and amateur chefs try their hand at Christmas hams, as co-workers clink glasses together and our houses are filled with lights and decorations, we face risks to our safety and security. Consider a few numbers: Christmas trees lead to about 160 home fires each year, and holiday decorations lead to about 780 home fires. Christmas Day is one of the top three days for home structure fires caused by cooking. An average of 343 people die in traffic deaths each year during the three days surrounding Christmas, and about 373 die over the three-day New Year holiday.

As firefighters, we have a responsibility to educate our communities about the dangers associated with this time of year. But we also have an obligation to keep ourselves safe! Following are a few thoughts on how you can do both.

Community Safety
Firefighters are community ambassadors of safety, and the holidays are a great time to spread the message. Your station sign board and social media messages are a great place to start, but don't stop there. Maybe you can pass out Christmas tree tags or gift tags with safety messages (see the link at the end of this section for some downloadable options). Going on an EMS run or responding to a false alarm? Stop to check the residence for unsafe decorations or lighting.

You're probably well-versed in community holiday safety messages, but here are a few key points to pass along to your customers:

  • Check lights for frayed or damaged wiring before installing
  • Always unplug lights at night or when leaving the house
  • Keep live Christmas trees well-watered
  • Replace candles with flameless candles
  • If you must use real candles, place them in suitable holders and keep them away from curtains
  • Ensure decorations, cards and tinsel are not located near a fire or heat source
  • Only use your fireplace if it's been recently serviced. Use a fireplace screen to contain embers and don't burn wrapping paper or Christmas trees.
  • Check smoke alarms
  • Ensure all houseguests are familiar with your emergency escape plan
  • Never drink and drive!

Here is a great resource to print and distribute safety messages to your community.

Firefighter Safety
So now your community has the message — but are you following your own advice? The holidays introduce a whole new set of risks for firefighters, including:

  • Driving. The roads are busier with shoppers and holiday revelers, and in many parts of the country snow, rain, ice and wind can make roads even riskier. Take time each shift to ensure your rig is prepared for the weather. When responding on calls or driving around the neighborhood, expect heavier pedestrian and vehicle traffic. Slow down — in almost every case, the few seconds you gain through speed make no difference in the outcome of a call, but they just may make a critical difference when it comes to a potential crash.
  • Fatigue. Offering to pick up another shift for a crew member? Be careful not to stretch yourself too thin. You may want to push yourself to handle all the family holiday obligations AND make some overtime money, but going to work when you're not properly rested can put you and your crew members in danger.
  • Department Celebrations. Most fire departments will hold parties for members and their families. Exercise caution to make sure these gatherings are successful. Limit your alcohol intake and stay professional — it's too easy to ruin your career by saying something you will later regret. If alcohol is involved, ensure everyone has a safe ride home. And follow safety guidelines when allowing children or family members to climb on or ride in fire apparatus.
  • Carbon Monoxide. Suspect the "silent killer" when responding on calls involving people feeling nauseous and headachy, or reports of unconscious people. Get them and yourself to fresh air as soon as possible. Carrying a portable CO monitor can eliminate guesswork and limit your exposure.
  • Complacency. If you're in a busy department, it can be easy to lose the sense of risk as you respond to your fifth "fire on the stove" call of the day. Conversely, if your department doesn't go on many runs, the holidays can lull you into a false sense of security, as though nothing bad can happen. Both attitudes are dangerous. Do your best to fight complacency. Inspect your equipment at the start of every shift. Get proper rest and stay hydrated. Don't skip those workouts — they can help you stay focused and fight the holiday bulge. Practice gross decon after every fire. Review relevant policies and procedures such as 360-degree assessment and safe winter driving.

Although it's been said many times, many ways, safety is a message that never gets old. This holiday season, I hope you can both give and receive it!

Sam DiGiovanna is a 35-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as Fire Chief at the Monrovia Fire Department and currently serves as Chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale. He also is VP of Fire Operations for www.Cordico.com