Applying Findings from NIOSH Investigations: Incident Command, Safety Officers and Rapid Intervention

In 2006, NIOSH comprehensively assessed whether their core group of recommendations have improved safety practices in the fire service.


Each year, about 100 U.S. firefighters die and at least 80,000 are injured in the line of duty. Even though a 30-year overview prepared by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reveals that the death rate at structure fires has dropped steadily since 1999, recent events remind us that...


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Each year, about 100 U.S. firefighters die and at least 80,000 are injured in the line of duty. Even though a 30-year overview prepared by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reveals that the death rate at structure fires has dropped steadily since 1999, recent events remind us that the need for diligent safety efforts is critical when responding to fires in residential and commercial structures ("Firefighter Fatalities Studies 1977–2006" by R.F. Fahy, P.R. LeBlanc and J.L. Molis, NFPA Journal, Vol. 101, No. 4, pages 48–55). Lessons learned from these tragedies, if acted on, may prevent future deaths.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program (FFFIPP) investigates firefighter line-of-duty deaths. Investigators visit the scene of each incident to take photographs and measurements and to diagram the area. Investigators travel to the fire department to interview emergency personnel who were on the scene at the time of the incident and review all applicable documents. Each investigation results in a report that describes what happened and includes recommendations for preventing injuries or fatalities. (Investigators from NIOSH's FFFIPP may review documents such as department standard operating procedures (SOPs), dispatch records, training records for the victim, the victim's medical records, coroner/medical examiner's reports, death certificates, blueprints of the structure, police reports, photographs and video. NIOSH may also work closely with other investigating agencies.) Since the FFFIPP program began in 1998, NIOSH has issued hundreds of recommendations based on scientific findings and recommendations adopted by other experts, such as the NFPA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Among the most frequent FFFIPP safety recommendations are those that involve the way resources are managed at the fire scene (NIOSH, 2008). NIOSH recommends that fire departments:

  • Establish and implement an Incident Command System with written SOPs for all firefighters
  • Ensure that the incident commander maintains close accountability for all personnel at the fire scene, conducts an initial size-up of the incident before initiating firefighting efforts and continually evaluates the risk versus gain during operations
  • Ensure that the incident commander appoints a separate incident safety officer at all significant emergency incidents
  • Immediately upon arrival at the scene, establish a rapid intervention team (other NIOSH recommendations address such topics as training, SOPs, motor vehicle safety, personal protective equipment, radio communication, risk versus gain, apparatus specifications, radio communication, and firefighter fitness and wellness)

In 2006, NIOSH comprehensively assessed whether such recommendations have improved safety practices in the fire service. To inform this review, RTI International, under a contract with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), surveyed more than 3,000 fire departments nationwide to learn whether officers are aware of and compliant with the recommendations (NIOSH is part of CDC). The respondents for the fire departments were fire chiefs or their designees, usually a safety or training officer. In addition to surveying officers, RTI conducted a series of focus groups to learn what frontline firefighters had to say.

As a safety research agency, NIOSH encourages fire departments to adopt and follow FFFIPP recommendations; however, individual fire departments choose whether and to what extent to adopt and adhere to them. (NIOSH publishes Alerts, which briefly present new information about occupational illnesses, injuries and deaths, as well as other documents that summarize patterns and lessons learned from similar incidents. NIOSH periodically mails the line-of-duty-death reports, Alerts and other documents to the nation's fire departments and makes them available at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/. A full list of reports appears at http://www2a.cdc.gov/NIOSH-fire-fighter-face/state.asp?state=ALL&Incident_Year=ALL&Submit=Submit.)

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