Why Are We Dying?

It's with a real heavy heart that I continue to review the stream of line-of-duty-death notifications that pass through my computer. My review of the statistics indicates that more than 50 firefighters died during the first six months of 2001. The list...


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Having said all of this, let me issue a challenge. If an old-time, big-city lug like me can find my way back to health, what excuse do you younger, healthier types have? How about joining me on a journey to better health? My goal is to be at the college graduation of each of my three children, dance at their weddings, and then live long enough to say that I collected my pension for as long as I worked on the Newark Fire Department. That would require me to live another 23 years. Come to think of that, I want to be on the "Today" show on Friday morning, July 29, 2047, celebrating my 100th birthday. Want to join me? Maybe we can begin to have an impact on heart-related fire deaths one exercise session and one healthy meal at a time.

Let us move on to the area of driving-related deaths. There is no excuse for an accident caused by the fire apparatus operator driving too quickly, running red lights, speeding or doing any of the myriad other dumb things a driver can do. Maybe you cannot totally eliminate those accidents caused by being smacked in an intersection collision by the boob who is more attentive to his cell phone than his driving, but you can be sure that you are not the boob.

We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on complex firefighting equipment. We spend hundreds of hours on pump operations, hose relays, aerial operations and a whole host of similar operational subjects. But we don't train our people to drive safely. I have seen people drive as though they are immune from the laws of physics. Whether you are in the right or in the wrong at the time of an accident is of no consequence. Dead is dead and crippled is crippled.

The same holds true for the world of the fire police. These are the people who direct traffic and route cars around our operations during times of emergency. Maybe you do not have dedicated fire police in your area, but there is bound to be someone out there directing traffic for you. The training for these people ranges from pretty good to non-existent.

A number of deaths have occurred involving people who were struck by motor vehicles. One of the most notable was the death last year of Chicago Fire Lieutenant Scott Gillan, who was struck by a car at the scene of a highway emergency.

We need to create an awareness of highway safety issues in our people. We must train them to understand that we constantly need to be on guard against the people around us. Without a serious, conscious training effort, we will continue to read about the people who died when their pumper was struck while passing a red light. There will be more dedicated young people who will be mangled in their personal vehicles while enroute to a fire or emergency medical call. This will not stop of its own accord. We must work to minimize the number of response-related problems.

The training function is another area where we should see zero deaths in the normal course of events. There are standards to govern how we perform live-fire training. There are textbooks to assist us in becoming knowledgeable training personnel. Absent the periodic unforeseen heart attack, the training function should not be a death-dealing arena. I would have to say that these deaths come as a result of complacency, more than anything else. People adopt an attitude that training is not the real thing. Consequently, they fail to pay attention to what they are doing. There will be injuries. Some people are just naturally clumsy. Don't ask me how I know that one, I just do. But a strict adherence to proper training methods and policy will limit the incidence of lost-time training incidents.

Live-fire training is serious business. The fatal training-related incidents of the 1980s led to the formulation of national standards that govern this critical element of our training programs. In the early 1990s, the sheer stupidity of one training incident that severely injured three firefighters was the impetus for the stringent regulations governing live-fire training in New Jersey. Where problems exist, they come about as a result of ignorance. These regulations have been in place for years, yet there are still people calling up the state Division of Fire Safety and pleading ignorance.

Let me now focus on the glory part of our business, the actual firefighting operation. Why are people dying during active firefighting efforts? I realize that the environment wherein we operate is dangerous, and that controls are minimal. But are we ignoring the signs that will keep our people safe? Are firefighters rushing into situations where angels might fear to tread?