Without question, the fire service has seen more emphasis and effort towards the cause of firefighter safety in the past 20 years than in any other similar time frame.Without question, the fire service has seen more emphasis and effort towards the cause of firefighter safety in the past 20 years than in any other similar time frame within the history of organized fire protection. Standards to improve safety have been developed and the apparatus and equipment available to firefighters are better than ever. We now have rehab operations and rapid intervention teams to ensure our firefighters safety. Safety in emphasized in our training and in our daily operations. We have safety officers to make sure we follow the safety procedures.
Yet despite all of this talk and awareness of the importance of safety, the fire service still manages to kill roughly the same number of firefighters every year as they did 20 years ago. This statistic is made sadder by that fact that nearly all jurisdictions report significantly lower numbers of structure fires than 20 years ago. If you were to develop a ratio of working fires in the U.S. to number of firefighter fatalities, you would actually see an increase in firefighter death per "x" number of fires today over 20 years ago.
What is more remarkable is the fact that the manner in which firefighters are predominantly being killed in the line of duty has not changed significantly over the past 20 years either. Every year statistics compiled by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the United States Fire Administration (USFA) consistently indicate that roughly one-half of the firefighter deaths are the result of cardiovascular emergencies. The next biggest cause of deaths is injuries received as a result of collisions while responding to or returning from emergencies. Vehicle collisions account for roughly 25% of all firefighter fatalities each year.
In my personal experience I have found that we have a better chance of getting firefighters (including myself!) to drive safely than to lose weight and get in better shape. So this series of articles will address one particular facet of the issue surrounding safety in responding to or returning from emergency incidents: the safe operation of fire department tankers.
Before getting into the discussion on tankers, it is important to note that the annual statistics kept by the NFPA and USFA indicate that nearly one-half of the fatalities that occur while responding to or returning from incidents are volunteer firefighters operating their personal vehicles (POV). Clearly, the loss of one of these volunteer's lives is too many and we should make every effort to reduce these deaths. However, one should not lose sight of the true scope of the issue related to volunteers crashing their POVs. When you compare the volunteer response to a typical fire compared to the career response, one will see that the odds are stacked against the volunteers.
For example, let's look at the typical car fire. If a car fire occurs at 5th and Market Streets in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at 9 pm this evening, 4 or 5 firefighters get on an engine, respond to the fire, put it out, and go home. This car fire resulted in the movement of one fire department vehicle (Engine 8 if my memory serves me correctly).
If the same car fire occurs at 9 pm this evening in the suburban community of Pennsburg, Pennsylvania, Montgomery County fire dispatch activates Pennsburg's pagers and, on average, 20 "fire department vehicles" begin their movement. Fifteen of these are firefighters heading to the station and five are fire police officers heading to the scene. Once at the station, the firefighters will respond 2-3 fire apparatus to the scene. Thus, the same car fire resulted in the movement of 22-23 vehicles. Simple mathematical odds tell you that the car fire response in Pennsburg is 22-23 times more likely to result in a collision. When you look at it in this context, the fact that 50% of the firefighters killed in collisions are volunteers in POVs does not seem so disproportionate. Of course that also does not mean that they cannot be reduced as well, but that is another series of articles.