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Every time I teach a class or do a presentation, I ask this question: Why do you think we lose about the same amount of firefighters in the line of duty each year? I remind everybody that in 1950 we lost about 100 firefighters in the line of duty and in 2006 we lost a reported 106 firefighters in the line of duty.
The answers are always the same: heart attacks, vehicle accidents, building collapses, being overrun by fires and so on. Some say it's because we wear too much protective clothing and we put ourselves too close to the fire, or that it's because of the risks we take or that it's because fires are hotter nowadays. The excuses start to roll off the tongue as though they are facts and there is nothing we can do about the problem.
But what are really the root causes of firefighter deaths and injuries? I have three:
Before you get all excited and upset about how those are the three things that make up the fire service and it is what we do, believe me, I have heard it all.
Let's start with the first one, "politics." My definition of politics is "when good decisions are made only after bad things happen." Remember the Oakland hills firestorm in California where one chief officer and 24 civilians were killed? Where 2,500 structures burned in a single day? After the firestorm, the Oakland Fire Department pretty much got what it wanted â€” engines, training, enforcement for clearances around structure, overtime for "Red Flag" days and weather stations.
If you recall, local fire departments could not connect to the Oakland fire hydrants and all of a sudden the problem was fixed after that fire. Mutual aid and automatic aid programs came into effect, they were able to get grants and better equipment to fight wildfires.
Let's talk about the South Canyon fire, where 14 firefighters were killed on Storm King Mountain in Colorado. The local fire departments and civilians watched that fire burn for three days. Even a local resident said, "One firefighter with a shovel could have put that fire out." However, because it was on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land and the local fire departments had no responsibility for wildfires fires in that area, they did not respond.
Even between the jurisdictions that had been responsible for fighting that fire, politics got in the way. In his 1999 book Fire on the Mountain, John Maclean describes how "the cooperation between the wildland fire agencies was virtually nonexistent; instead, there was competition, jealousies and outdated policies and thinking." Even though the local fire departments had received the call to fight that fire, they refused because they had no legal responsibility to fight the fire. The federal agencies were skeptical about the ability of any volunteer fire department to help them. Can you imagine what would have happened if the local fire department had the training, tools and cooperation with automatic and mutual aid in place? The fire would have been put out and those 14 firefighters would still be alive today.
My next cause of firefighter fatalities and injuries is "complacency." My definition of complacency is "how we act when nothing bad has happened in a long time." In other words, if you don't learn from the past, it is destined to repeat itself. In the case of the Oakland fire, there had been several major fires in the same area over the years. One fire that started in the same area almost burned down the City of Berkeley.
Just down the mountain range from the South Canyon fire, three firefighters died in 1976 in a similar situation. If you look at a comparison between the South Canyon fire, the Mann Gulch fire in 1949 (13 deaths) and the Cramer fire in 2003 (two deaths), you see frightening similarities in terrain, fuels and slope. At each location, there had been very little training with other agencies, multiple fires had been burning at the same time, and fire activity was extreme day and night. Firefighters had been above the fires with no anchor point. The incident command system was not utilized correctly.