The latest number of line of duty deaths occurring at structure fires is not encouraging. In fact, as fatalities are concerned, it sadly appears that the U.S. Fire Service is once again heading to another record breaking year. If one were to observe and compare the actions that were taken during several of the more recent structure fires, a similar chain of events, which lead to fatalities, can be clearly seen. But the encouraging aspect of this situation is that fatalities can be prevented if firefighters were only made aware of the problem.
In response, immediate action must be taken to ensure that the loss of firefighters does not occur in your department. No one else can do this, only you.
There are many risk management strategies that may be used to reduce the risk on the fireground. One commonly cited in firefighter fatality investigation reports is the need to follow standard operating procedures or guidelines (SOPs/SOGs). Another risk management strategy involves solutions proposed by the US Firefighter Disorientation Study published in 2003. The study determined that in several fatality cases the very SOPs that were in use at the time and at specific types of structures and spaces, were actually ineffective, unsafe and needed operational revision.
When findings of case study analysis exist, firefighters must consider their use in practical ways to prevent the traumatic fatalities that are occurring across the country today. Before departments can get to that point firefighters must know about the type of structure determined to have the greatest chance of taking their life and about the degree of safety their tactics provide.
What's Going On?
It has been definitively determined that structures and spaces with an enclosed structural design are directly linked to firefighter disorientation which typically leads to serious injury, fatality or narrow escapes.
The disorientation study, which examined 17 structure fires nationwide over a 22 year time period, determined that, in cases when a fast and aggressive interior attack was initiated into an enclosed structure, firefighter disorientation resulted 100 percent of the time. Additionally, the study noted that a review of the United States Fire Administration's (USFA) 2002 Firefighter Fatality Retrospective Study showed that there were also approximately 27 past cases of firefighter disorientation which took place at the scene of enclosed structure fires.
The most recent examination of structural firefighter fatalities, involving one of the largest numbers of cases to date, determined the degree of risk associated with opened and enclosed structure fires. The degree of safety associated with the tactics used during these fires was also determined.
The study involved traumatic structural fatalities that took place nationally over a 16 year time span, January 1, 1990 through December 31, 2006. The Analysis of Structural Firefighter Fatality Database 2007 (Mora) examined 444 traumatic firefighter fatalities which occurred at the scene of structure fires. There were 123 structure fires which resulted in 176 traumatic firefighter fatalities during an aggressive interior attack. Of 176 firefighter fatalities, 135 (77 percent) occurred in an enclosed structure fire while 41 (23 percent) occurred in an opened structure fire. The multiple firefighter fatality rate was found to be even more disproportionate. Of 38 multiple firefighter fatality structure fires, 32 (84 percent) occurred in an enclosed structure fire while six (16 percent) occurred in an opened structure. In light of these significant findings and at a minimum, chief, training and safety officers should consider the future safety of their current strategy and tactics at enclosed structure fires.
What Do We Do Now?
Firefighters should recognize and immediately take action to correct the problem. This should involve training in the identification of opened and enclosed structures and an understanding of their associated risks. Also, a change in strategy and tactics must be made when enclosed structures are encountered.