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Oct. 8, 2006, marked the 25th anniversary (1981-2006) of the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend Program in Emmitsburg, MD. I have had the personal honor and pleasure of attending and assisting with about a dozen ceremonies over the years; how time does fly!
After being absent for a few years, I returned to pay my respects to the life of a former colleague, Fire Engineer Carl Shoemaker. Carl worked at Mesa, AZ, Fire Station One and died in 2001 from injuries he sustained in a vehicle accident on June 30, 1986. An overloaded, poorly maintained dump truck hauling sand busted a red light and collided with Truck 1 (now Truck 201). I was a training instructor awaiting Truck 1's arrival to a SCBA/PASS device drill that day. Needless to say, the drill was never held and I responded to the disastrous scene.
When I arrived on location, Firefighter/Paramedic Ward Fleger (now a battalion chief) and other members were extricating Captain Jack Stevens and Engineer Shoemaker from the severely mangled tower cab. What a slap in the face it was to realize that the largest vehicle in the fleet (a 100-foot rear-mount platform) could be so vulnerable. Captain Stevens died from injuries (I was honored to attend the NFFF Service for Jack in 1987) and Carl died several years later.
In October 2007, I plan to return to Emmitsburg to be a part of the escort of the family of Fire Apparatus Operator Russell Schwantes of Atlanta Fire Rescue. Russell was a very capable firefighter and bright man at age 39. He left a beautiful wife and two wonderful daughters behind as he fell victim to a massive heart attack. FAO Schwantes was assigned to our Airport Fire Station 24 and he experienced a severe myocardial infarction just after turning out for Engine Company 24's response to an automatic alarm activation. I will be headed north this time as the chief of department, and the burden will be a little heavier and the need to be present on the first weekend in October a little stronger. The feelings of uselessness and sorrow will be more pronounced for me. Those family members left behind will be difficult to face that day. Russell was one of mine and I wish I could have somehow prevented this horrible tragedy.
With the above experiences as my personal point of reference, I want to see and be a part of a fire-rescue service future that can eliminate the need for this wonderful and respectful ceremony once and for all! The national bar has been set at a 50% reduction of fire-rescue line-of-duty deaths over a 10-year window. What a wonderful and laudable goal. However, the first two years of this goal have seen no decrease in firefighter fatalities; the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) reflected that 117 members died in 2004 and 115 more brothers and sisters fell in 2005.
I am of the very firm belief that the American fire-rescue service must take an entirely different approach to lowering these numbers. Continuing to do more of the same is not going to work to reduce deaths and injuries. To add focus and emphasis to our national safety initiatives is great, but it will not make the type of reductions that we need to see to reach the expressed goal of lowering deaths by 50%.
A true transformation that we need to adapt is crew resource management (CRM) as used and perfected by the commercial aviation community (see my September and October 2006 columns in FirehouseÂ®). This radically different way of thinking and human performance is a major key to reducing the bleak statistic. Part one of this series discussed the basics of the system components that need to be put into place for CRM to be widely used throughout our industry. Part two took a practical look at how many of the CRM principles can be integrated into the day-to-day operations of your fire department. This column could have focused on the motivation and need for this revolutionary operational process. However, I think that I will pursue an entirely different direction that would greatly reduce firefighter deaths and injuries.