You may think the headline on this article is an oversimplification. Or maybe you think the idea of fire prevention being good for firefighters is a bit off-base. But think about it. If we are making the homes and businesses in our communities safer, aren’t we making our firefighters safer as well? Fewer fires mean fewer opportunities for racing to fires, which means fewer chances for crashes. Fewer fires mean less stress, and less stress surely is easier on our hearts.
The National Volunteer Fire Council’s (NVFC) Health and Safety Committee has compiled a set of priority areas where firefighter health and safety can be impacted and the best practices to follow for avoiding tragedies. We can choose to ignore this document or we as a fire service, and individually, can adopt these concepts and bring them to life in our fire departments. The Volunteer Firefighter Health and Safety Priorities are divided into four areas – Behavior, Equipment, Standards and Codes, and Training (B.E.S.T.). The list of B.E.S.T. practices is available on the NVFC website at www.nvfc.org/health_safety.
Let’s look at another aspect of fire prevention contributing to firefighter health and safety – the economics of fire prevention and firefighter safety. Bottom line: It is less expensive to provide fire prevention education than to provide fire suppression. It is by far better for the citizens we serve – and that includes financially better. Review your mission statement. Does it say you will prevent fires? If it doesn’t, it should.
In 2008, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), an estimated 79,700 injuries and 104 deaths in the line of duty impacted the U.S. fire service. An estimated 15,250, or 19.1%, of those firefighter injuries resulted in lost time. Injuries to our members impact the fire department budget and the city, town or district budget as well. Here’s some simple math: If we reduce the number of fires we responded to in 2008 (1.45 million) by 3%, then we can reduce the number of responses by 43,500 and our firefighter injuries by 2,391. How much money could we save? Is a 3% reduction attainable? Absolutely!
What are the monetary costs, direct and indirect, that we must consider when a firefighter becomes injured? Of course, we have the obvious costs of the medical bills, loss or reduction of income, overtime wages to cover the responsibilities of the fire department, and whatever the costs may be to investigate and do the paperwork required because of the injury. But do we also understand that disability costs may be a part of that and perhaps there will be some litigation costs as well? Wouldn’t any opportunity, including effective fire prevention, to help manage and possibly eliminate these injury events be a good idea?
There are other costs you may not think about. When the fire service continues to prove to the outside world that we don’t learn from our mistakes and we continue to have the same inexcusable injuries and deaths occurring to firefighters; what happens? We continue to receive greater regulation forcing us to do what we should be doing on our own – e.g., two-in/two-out rule, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) rules, etc. All of these drive up the cost of doing business as equipment manufacturers continually must upgrade safety equipment to meet new standards. For example, new apparatus standards require every new unit to be equipped with a seatbelt-monitoring device alerting the driver that not all passengers are belted in. Imagine that – we need an electronic device to tell us we must fasten our seatbelts
Added to that, of course, is the cost of the training and maintenance that goes into using new equipment. We also must keep better records to track personnel, equipment, and how it is used and maintained. The cost of injury recovery continues to climb.
We must also talk about the actual costs of incident response. Those costs escalate annually, consuming larger portions of already stretched budgets. Some city and town governing boards feel volunteers in the fire service are free and our response costs only encompass the fuel and necessary after-fire repairs. Why aren’t we educating the councils of our municipalities to the real costs of doing business? Why aren’t we out in the community demonstrating the value of fire prevention?
Fire departments must show the money holders the measures that could be taken to reduce the portions of our budgets going to response. Fire prevention should be at the top of the list. We must strive hard to have ordinances and regulations enacted in our communities requiring automatic fire sprinklers in commercial and residential applications. We will reduce civilian and firefighter injuries with fire sprinklers.
One way that makes sense – economic, moral and business sense – is to reduce the number and the severity of the fires we respond to. Is this a great revelation? Of course not. The U.S. fire service knows this to be true, but we downplay the importance of fire prevention. We spend money responding to incidents, training and buying the equipment necessary to maintain that response capability. Money should be placed in an equally fruitful and cost-efficient manner by going toward fire prevention activities that directly impact people where they are dying – in their homes.
The U.S. fire service must reconsider what is really important in the fire world. We are never going to keep every fire from occurring. It is not physically possible. But we must change the way we do business. An effective and inexpensive method of reducing firefighter injuries is to quit ignoring the common fire station problems we see on a daily basis. It is less costly to fix them before they cause a firefighter injury. Why don’t we fix them? Firefighters are notoriously the worst offenders when it comes to dealing with fire and life safety issues for themselves and their families. We must work to change this mindset from the inside out.
Injury recovery is not fun for anyone, not the people affected by the fire where the injury occurred, not the firefighters on scene who had to witness and react to the injured firefighter, not the fire department administration or the governing body of the community or district who have to deal with the direct and indirect costs to the department or municipality and, most assuredly, not for the family of the injured firefighter. Do we take them into consideration when we assess the priorities of our department? Do we wonder how they will survive financially if the breadwinner is injured? Even a short-term disruption in income during these trying financial times can harm a family for years or even forever. If the injured volunteer firefighter is a business owner, is that firefighter’s family prepared for a loss of income? Worker’s compensation is only a supplement. A self-employed firefighter may not be covered by anything except what worker’s compensation the department offers. Will that be enough for his family to live on? I doubt it.
I have said it before – fire prevention is much less expensive than fire response. It is as simple as that. We must take this new approach; research, develop and implement a home safety survey program that makes sense and provides many opportunities to be a positive factor in your community, all while you are doing everything you can to watch your bottom line.