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Straight Talk: February 2013

Last summer, just like in each previous one, there was a period of several weeks during which every newscast included stories about injuries or fatalities to people involved in some form of an incident.

February 4, 2013  By Kevin Foster

Last summer, just like in each previous one, there was a period of several weeks during which every newscast included stories about injuries or fatalities to people involved in some form of an incident. I have chosen the word incident quite purposefully; one of my pet peeves is the overuse of the term accident – it ranks right up there with false alarms, but that’s another discussion.

I believe the word accident implies that whatever happened was unavoidable, an act of fate. I strongly disagree. Most people will argue that all accidents are entirely avoidable and occur only due to a choice of action or inaction. For example, a worker climbs the side of a rack storage unit to get an item from the top shelf but loses his footing and falls to the floor; had the worker taken the time to use the proper equipment such as a ladder, the incident would not have happened, therefore it was avoidable. A vehicle, driven by an impaired driver collides with another; had the driver not been intoxicated and had he paid full attention to the road, or had he not driven at all, the collision would not have occurred – therefore, this, too, was avoidable. Both situations are predictable and preventable. I am open to accepting that to another involved party, the incident may indeed be an accident because that person may have had no ability to alter the circumstances; however, the event itself clearly could have been prevented.

When hearing the word accident used on the local radio station one day, I contacted the news director to ask if the station could use another term – incident, event, crash, or collision? Something. Anything. The response struck me: the news director said that earlier in his career it was quite common for him to receive alerts and information about accidents from the emergency-response agencies, and it was, in fact, the response agencies that used the term accident – the media was really just using the language provided by the professionals. The news director understood my position and said he would do what he could to limit the use of the term, which was great; really that was what I was asking for.

Changing human behaviour takes time and persistence. Sustained social change can take three generations. We are, after all, creatures of habit, and habits are extremely difficult to break because they are so deeply engrained that they are almost automatic. Remember Pavlov’s dog experiment?


As I continued to ponder the news director’s comment, I realized that there is clearly a message here, which is that it is the responsibility of the professionals to ensure that we talk the right talk: do as I say, not as I do, isn’t the most professionally responsible approach. One needs to go no further than the social-media network to see that public-safety agencies are perpetuating the use of the word accident. In fact, a quick Twitter search while I was writing this showed the word was used 13 times in 30 seconds, and about half of those incidences were by public-safety agencies.

We have spent the last 30-plus years promoting the life-saving value of smoke alarms, and although we have yet to achieve the desired effect of everyone being protected by one of these properly installed and maintained life-safety devices, we have made significant progress. We are somewhat on our way to changing the public attitude toward safety, but in order to create a true culture of safety, a solid leadership role is required by the fire service.

So, I challenge you to make a small but significant change in your approach. As fire-service professionals across this country, stop referring to these occurrences as accidents and correct others who do. With this one simple step we can begin the next 30 years of encouraging Canadians to look at events and say, that didn’t have to happen, I won’t make that same mistake.

When an incident, crash or event occurs and you are speaking with a television or radio journalist or issuing a press release, please find another word to describe the situation, and we will be well on our way to altering the perception that these events are beyond a person’s control. Although this initiative won’t change the outcome of the situation at hand, this subliminal messaging may, over the next three generations or so, result in a new attitude that these events are preventable.

Kevin Foster is in his 25th year in the fire service, having begun as a volunteer firefighter in East Gwillimbury, Ont., in 1987. For 11 years Foster was a firefighter with the Richmond Hill Fire Department and in June 1999 he became the first full-time fire chief of the North Kawartha Fire Department. Foster was appointed to his current position as the chief with the Midland Fire Department in November 2001 and is Midland’s community emergency management co-ordinator. Foster is president of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs, a certified municipal manager, level III with a fire-services executive designation, and is enrolled in the Ryerson Polytechnic University public administration program. Contact him at

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