On the Eve of Safety, Health, and Survival Week: A Visit with Oscar the Cat

Doctors were perplexed. Nurses were befuddled. Researchers were baffled. Nearly a year ago a simple and ordinary cat by the name of Oscar made a name for himself by accurately predicting the deaths of 25 patients at a long-term health care center in Providence, RI. Oscar seemed to know when people were ready to die, usually within a four-hour window, and he would quietly sit beside them on their bed until they passed. His story was documented in a July 2007 article in the New England Journal of Medicine and many specialists could not explain it.

How did Oscar know that someone was near death? Could he see it in their eyes? Could he smell death coming? Did he have an innate capacity for predicting the passing of someone? No one knows for sure how he knew but Oscar's uncanny prediction of death has become legendary.

Death is also legendary in the fire service. Numerous tragedies abound in the fire service annals and despite advances in every area, especially concerning equipment, tactics, and training, the loss of life continues. We seem to average over 100 firefighters killed each year, nearly 80,000 injuries, and, these statistics occur all while structure fires are declining. Already at the mid-year mark for 2008 we have logged over 50 firefighter deaths. This is where Oscar the Cat comes in.

As the American fire service embarks upon the Safety, Health, and Survival Week of 2008 the question concerning this harbinger of a cat is: if Oscar the Cat visited you in the fire station, in the emergency response vehicle, or at the emergency scene what would you do, if you had the power to do so, to prevent the premature demise of a brother or sister firefighter?

Would you think long and hard about changes that could be made to make a difference? If you haven't done so already: Would you make everyone buckle up? Would you make the driver slow down and obey stop signs? Would you "pack-up" when confronted with toxic and lethal atmospheres? Would you adhere to incident command policy and procedures? Would you follow standard operating guidelines? Would you initiate an exercise program? Would you implement a healthy diet? In short would you change?

For sure, change is difficult. Volumes have been written on the psychology of change, how to affect it, and how to endure it. But, if the fire service is to have a positive impact on the number of deaths in the profession change must occur. A cultural change is incumbent and necessary if this great profession is to positively affect the annual death rates.

The change must also start on a personal level. Therefore it is a must that each and every person answers the questions above and follow-through with the conviction of seeing them become a reality. Until that time, we will not significantly impact the annual firefighter death numbers. In other words, Oscar the Cat will continue to visit us and bring a death notice, one at a time.

So, here is a challenge! Take it upon yourself to answer the questions posed and influence others to also do so. Your own example of how you live out your answers will be a model for firefighter safety. But it doesn't end there! You must also model and communicate the safety example to others that you would not normally influence. That means taking your safety message to perhaps firefighters in another station, another battalion, or even another fire department. Does that sound corny? Well, maybe that is what is needed because it does not seem that other approaches work!

In this way, if you accept the challenge, change will eventually come and then one day we will all look back in absolute astonishment at the unsafe things we used to do. And, visits by Oscar the Cat will happen no more.

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DAVID PETERSON, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is a 28-year fire service veteran who serves as a lieutenant and training officer in Madison, WI, and as the training coordinator for the department's regional Level A HazMat team. David founded the Wisconsin Association of Hazardous Materials Responders, Inc. and teaches, presents, and authors articles on a wide variety of fire and hazmat topics. David is also a National Fire Academy instructor of chemistry and a Master Instructor for the International Association of Fire Fighters HazMat and Terrorism training programs. To read David's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. You can reach David by e-mail at dcnkm@charter.net.

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