Each year we continue to lose an average of 100 firefighters in the line of duty. Looking at statistics from the past 30 years, there has been little improvement in this area with the exception of the implementation of NFPA 1500 in 1985 that brought the numbers down to 100 from a range of 120 - 130 annually. Looking closer at these statistics, we would realize that we as a fire service are just not learning from our mistakes overall. History continues to repeat itself. The leading causes of LODDs continue to be from vehicle accidents and cardiac related events. Outside of these two reasons, according to NIOSH case studies conducted after firefighter fatalities, the most common threads listed as contributing factors to firefighter LODDs are;
- Breakdowns in the Incident Management System
- Lack of or inadequate standard operating procedures
- Breakdowns of accountability systems on the fireground
- Breakdowns in fireground communication
- Lack of recognition of key aspects related to fire behavior and building construction
The most disturbing point of these common threads is that they all can be controlled or prevented to a degree with proper action being taken prior to an incident.
These factors are not the sole reasons however. Other contributing factors that play into the game are factors in which we have little or limited control. Such things as the fact that the number of working fires has diminished over the 30 year time period (this clearly identifies the real score of the game since fires are decreasing and our LODDs are remaining roughly the same). Diminished fires are definitely a very positive note for everyone.
The down side to this however is that the actual street level experience of the fire service has diminished also. With time, we have lost many of the more experienced members of our departments that worked in the busy era to retirement, leaving us with a gap possibly creating an inability to recognize things on the fireground that only comes with experience as well as ineffective command presence due to a lack of confidence from not having the required experience. On the job mentoring as well as solid hands on training in practical scenarios are required to help us overcome this pitfall and should be set as a high priority for every department's training program.
As a fire service, our training must be taken to the next level. Unfortunately in 2006, we were still basing our training programs and fireground tactics on principals that are now outdated for the most part. Most of the principles that we train on were developed during a period of time where most goods were fabricated of natural materials such as cotton, wood, leather, wool etc. In today's world, goods made of plastics and other synthetic materials have overtaken our lives leaving firefighters facing fires that burn both hotter and more rapid than in the past.
The equipment that protects us can be considered a factor that works against us if we do not train with it and fully understand its capabilities and limitations. The protective qualities of gear can allow firefighters to penetrate into fires and high heat situations too deep and can greatly increase the chances of heat stress if not understood.
Knowledge of construction features as well as what "secrets" are contained within the buildings in our response areas remains paramount for us to have the ability to take the proper actions on the fireground. What this means is that we need to get out and look at these buildings while they are "undressed" during the construction or renovation stage. Company inspections or preplanning offer great opportunities for us in this regard but are not necessary to accomplish this goal. Taking a few moments to look at things after a false alarm activation or medical run prove to be invaluable at 3 A.M. when smoke is banked down to the floor level in that same building.