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Never before in the history of the fire service has as much attention been paid to firefighter safety as what has occurred over the past six years. In March 2004, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) and U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) held the first Firefighter Life Safety Summit. This was a gathering of various fire service leaders, industry experts and other concerned folks who were apparently tired of killing more than 100 firefighters every year.The outcome of this meeting was a set of goals and a document. The goals were simple enough - reduce firefighter deaths by 25% in five years and 50% in 10 years. The document that resulted was the "16 Life Safety Initiatives."
The output of this meeting excited a lot of people in the fire service, and why shouldn't it? It sounded great. Who wouldn't want to save 25 firefighters per year in 16 easy steps? A community sprang up determined to make positive changes in the fire service. The fire service was engaged. Mini-summits occurred. Programs were created. Funding was established and everyone was confident. This was the action that was going to save the firefighters. Fewer tears would be shed, happier firefighters would be created and the Final Call would toll fewer times. We were going to put the black mourning band people out of business.
So how are we doing? To put it frankly, not well. Line-of-duty deaths fell slightly from 2004 to 2006, then began rising again in 2007. This can hardly be considered a success. Although 2009 did post 93 deaths, the lowest since the 93 fatalities recorded in 1998, the overall trend is flat or slightly increasing. Why is this the case? Given a clear, 16-step program, plenty of funding, intense focus and the backing of multiple national organizations, the fire service was unable to change the fire service. Firefighter safety was not some federal mandate or insurance requirement. No, the decision to reduce firefighter deaths was born of the fire service, by firefighters and fire chiefs. So why was this group unable to find even a shred of success? Because it failed to consider the customer.
The customer in this case is the fire service itself. The fire service itself hates change and the average firefighter resists change. The average firefighter does not travel to a different city to contribute his or her thoughts on firefighter safety. The average firefighter does not consider firefighter safety a real and pressing concern. The average firefighter may talk safety, but does not walk safety. The average firefighter, while certainly smart enough to understand the concepts, also rationalizes the disregard of those same concepts when on the fireground. The average firefighter lives comfortably in the "it won't happen to me" world. The average firefighter does not have a natural fear of dying, so the thought of surviving is not enough of a motivator to effect change. The truth is that even though so many people care about the prevention of line-of-duty deaths, the average firefighter does not.