"Get'er Done": Take Drastic Actions To Reduce Line-of-Duty Deaths

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...


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Not much change seems to happen without some type of significant external motivation. I would characterize most organizations as traditional outfits that tend to keep most "things" just as they are/were; in other words, resistant to significant change. There are many, many examples to illustrate this point; it is tough to pick just one.

I became a volunteer firefighter in the 1960s, when diesel-powered fire apparatus was just starting to be purchased and gasoline engines were being phased out of service. Interestingly, the Hyattsville, MD, Fire Department purchased twin 1968 Ward La France pumpers; one was traditional in that it had a Walkashaw gasoline engine with an open cab (no roof!) and the other was a diesel-powered (Detroit), closed-cab engine. As if you couldn't have guessed, the older members related to and admired the gas burner, and not many took to the truck with the roof (how dumb that sounds today). Again, please let me overstate the obvious — we resisted (fight, hate, avoid) change at most levels.

Consider that most other layers of government have the same outlook toward significant change and I would submit that you have a prescription for only more of the same (continued firefighter deaths and injuries). I firmly believe that it must be more difficult (painful) to continue to stay on the same path before we (organizationally) are willing to risk substantial change.

Somehow, the key elements of firefighter safety (which are the same list of items that allow us to provide best operational customer service for the "Smith Family") have to be ground into public law. There! I said it! We need to be regulated, by law, to make the required organizational changes that will have impact. As a firefighter fatality is investigated, if the results clearly indicate that basic standards were set aside, then criminal charges should follow.

Let me try a few examples to explain what I am saying: A firefighter is killed in the line of duty because there were not enough personnel to properly handle this incident, based on the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1710 standard. Criminal charges should be waged against the person or persons who failed to provide an adequate firefighting force. Another example could be when a member is killed as a direct result of substandard personal protective equipment; once again, criminal charges should be directed at the person or persons who failed to provide turnouts that meet national specifications.

I have intentionally not identified the person or persons who would have to withstand judicial scrutiny. Perhaps the fire chief has failed to budget for or provide the needed gear aforementioned; that fire chief is held accountable. However, most chiefs will likely request the needed material goods to operate, so accountability would be ratcheted up the organization to the level that refused to provide the required persons or things to meet minimum standard.

The concept is simple: We need to determine a mechanism to make following the rules a regulated process with accountability and a level of consequence. Further, personal accountability needs to be installed as well. As an example, if a firefighter perishes because of being ejected from a crashed vehicle and he or she has failed to wear the required seatbelt, that person chose this unacceptable behavior, so no Public Safety Officer Death Benefit should be provided.

I understand how harsh both of these notions are and just how difficult either one or both would be to enact. However, until we are willing and committed to make the required changes, the American fire-rescue service will continue to lose 100-plus members each year. Our history and culture points to the fact that we make significant changes only after disasters and then reluctantly by legislation. One only needs to reflect back to the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory fire in New York City in 1911 or the Our Lady of the Angels School fire in Chicago in 1958. Simply, put "no pain, no change."