To most people, YouTube might not seem like a hub for scientific research.
But Vanderbilt University surgery instructor Steven A. Kahn realized that the website could serve an educational purpose – and perhaps even save some firefighters’ lives. Along with several firefighters who served as co-authors, Kahn conducted a study in which he scanned 50 YouTube videos of working firefighters to see whether they were wearing equipment properly and showing safe behavior.
Long story short: Not so much.
What it found
Exactly half of the videos showed firefighters practicing unsafe behavior. The most common safety violation was failing to properly secure a self-contained breathing apparatus when necessary, followed by failing to wear a helmet, a hood or approved gloves.
The study was published in the September-October edition of the Journal of Burn Care & Research.
“From talking to firefighters in our injury prevention course, we noticed that this was something that was happening, and it was something that in various summits the fire department has called attention to,” Kahn told me during a recent interview. “So, we decided we’d sit down and analyze the videos we had available.”
In other words, they searched for “firefighting videos” on YouTube and took careful notes.
“It was a fun study to do,” Kahn said. “I enjoyed collaborating with the firefighters. It was much less cumbersome and boring than traditional medical research.”
Kahn and his team had access to the videos, but they didn’t always know the origin of those videos. Some appeared to be taken by passers-by with camera phones as firefighters fought the blazes.
Not knowing every location or every fire department involved in the videos made it difficult to reach definitive conclusions, Kahn said.
“An important point that I really want to drive home is that I really don’t think that this represents the practices across the board,” Kahn said. “I think there’s selection bias when it comes to YouTube because people tend to post things that are a little more shocking. If all of the routine fires were videotaped, you’d probably see a much lower incidence of problems.”
Kahn plans to follow up the study with an anonymous, self-reported survey asking firefighters about their safety habits.
“One of the advantages of a survey is that it will give us a better [indication] of the actual prevalence of this sort of behavior,” Kahn said.
Still, analyzing firefighter practices in mainstream media has value.
As quirky as many YouTube videos may be, they can offer a glimpse into our personalities or preferences. If half of the firefighting videos in the study show unsafe practices, maybe that says something about the culture of firefighting and our attitudes toward taking proper precautions.
Of course, that’s not to say half of all firefighters are unsafe. But even if it applies to a small percentage of firefighters, a dangerous (and preventable) problem exists.
Kahn said the study could prompt discussions about safety culture in fire departments.
“I think that individual fire departments should take a look at their own practices and make sure that people are using gear properly – that the gear is in accordance with the standards that are out there – and examine the culture in their individual department,” Kahn said.