What Is Killing Our Firefighters?

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:

  1. Politics
  2. Complacency
  3. Tradition

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 — 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.

The last cause of firefighter fatalities and injuries is "tradition." My definition of tradition is "something we have always done, but don't know why." Don't get me wrong; I love tradition just as much as any firefighter. I have a leather helmet and my office is packed with firefighter lore and books. However, fire service tradition is getting our firefighters killed! We have made it "acceptable to take unacceptable risk." It is our culture to risk all to save life and property. We have created an ideology and environment that makes it OK to not wear seatbelts, to not wear all of our protective clothing and to take risks without risk assessment. We assume we would not be firefighters if we did not risk our lives for life and property.

There were times when we argued about wearing a breathing apparatus, and I remember how we were considered less than manly if we could not breathe smoke and take the heat. Then, firefighters used their skin as thermocouples — the indicator of when to leave a burning building or away from a wildland fire was when your skin started to burn.

It was tradition that had federal agencies make the first Smokejumper out of a plane the person in charge, even if that person was not the most qualified member of the team. It was tradition that killed those firefighters on Storm King Mountain, who mentioned 17 times prior to the entrapment that "they were in a bad spot" and "this is going to be another Mann Gulch fire" and how most of them felt that they were fighting a losing battle — but none of them spoke up or denied an assignment, even when they knew it was wrong. That's because traditionally we follow orders at all cost. We teach our young firefighters that we are a paramilitary organization. We are not allowed to question or disobey orders, ever, no matter what the risks are. None of the firefighters wanted to be the first one to say no to an assignment. They felt it would be a sign of weakness. Even if they did question the assignment, would anyone who could make a decision listen to them?

So what is survival in the fire service? How do we change this trend? What is the answer that will keep us from going down this path again? In November 2006, we lost five firefighters at one wildland/urban interface fire. The answer is culture. Survival is a culture. Change the culture of the fire service and you will see the survival rates go up and injuries and fatalities go down. Changing culture means several things:

  • Being accountable for your actions.
  • Not sacrificing firefighters for structures or vegetation.
  • Changing the rules of engagement.
  • Assigning positions on the fireground according to qualification rather than rank.
  • Making it unacceptable to take un-necessary risk.

Every action should be based on risk management. Risk a lot for a lot, risk a little for a little and risk nothing for nothing. According to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, the risk-management process at a wildland/urban interface and wildland fire involves five steps:

  1. Situation awareness
  2. Hazard assessment
  3. Hazard control
  4. Decision point
  5. Evaluation

At the very least, LCES (Lookouts, Communications and Escape Routes, and Safety Zones) should be in place before engaging a wildland and wildland/urban interface fire. I would like to add an "A" for anchor point. An anchor point is "an advantageous location, to start constructing a fireline." The anchor point is used to minimize the chance of being flanked by the fire while the line is being constructed. No fire should be engaged without a proper anchor point from which to start.

We need to make our incident commanders and officers accountable. Teach our firefighters from day one how to make decisions that will keep them safe. Build an environment that makes it acceptable to say no to life-threatening situations with little to be gained.

PHILLIP L. QUEEN started his fire service career in 1968 and has held the ranks from firefighter to acting battalion chief. His career included the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF), Alameda County Fire Department and Lake Tahoe, Orange County and Santa Clara Ranger Unit. He is the author of the textbooks Fighting Fires in the Wildland/Urban Interface and The Visual Dictionary of Firefighting Tools and Resources. Queen's overhead qualifications include Safety Officer, Division/Group Supervisor, Strike Team Leader, Field Observer, Training Specialist, and Display Processor. He holds a bachelor of Vocational Education in Fire Science degree and has lifetime teaching credentials for the states of California and Nevada. Queen is the owner and CEO of Fire Management Consultant, a consulting service that focuses on incident command, safety and survival, and fire officer training for structure and wildland/urban interface fires. He may be contacted at 209-612-8832 or via his website at www.firemangementconsultant.com.