Needed: Changes In Attitude

Cynthia Verburg, Jeremy Chandler, Devin Weaver, Harry Ford, Jim Clingenpeel and Joe Vargason all have something in common. They were all recently listed in the U.S. Fire Administration's notification list for line-of-duty deaths. They ranged in age from just 21 to 69 years old. Their deaths occurred in different ways. One was killed while working at a wildfire. Another by cardiac problems after a training session. Still another by a building collapse after an explosion. One collapsed and died from unknown causes at a field fire and a civilian vehicle at an emergency scene struck another. In the most unusual of the deaths, a tree fell onto the roof of the ambulance while returning from a call, crushing the victim.

Three were members of career fire departments and three were volunteer firefighters. In total they had over 85 years of experience in the fire service. They are part of the approximately 100 firefighters who are killed every year in the United States.

Firefighters have been dying in the line of duty at the rate of approximately 100 firefighters per year for the last several years. Occasionally, the tally will dip to 90 or creep up to 105. But the average is usually around 100. A nice round number that doesn't seem to cause any of us a lot of concern.

Instead of shaking our heads in disbelief at the human carnage that we experience, we wear that number like a badge of honor. Firefighters are quick to tell others that we belong to one of the most dangerous occupations, if not the most dangerous profession in the world. We argue how our jobs are really more dangerous than other occupations such as coal miners or race care drivers who occasionally beat us to the top of the list.

The numbers each year and the tragic stories of firefighter deaths associated with those numbers don't seem to stick with us for very long. True, there have been improvements in protective equipment and updates in apparatus safety. And, at least on paper, we have implemented incident command systems to improve incident control. One thing that is lagging behind is the change in attitude that the fire service needs. The fire service has to stop accepting an average of 100 line-of-duty deaths a year as an acceptable benchmark.

In the past few months, I changed careers and moved out of the fire service and into healthcare safety. In my new capacity I have seen how another section of the world views safety issues. Let me give you an example.

Recently, a young boy was killed in a freak accident while undergoing a MRI test. The incident occurred at a hospital in New York State. While in the MRI chamber, the boy was hit in the head by an oxygen tank that had been accidentally brought into the scan room. Magnetic resonance imaging machines produce an extremely strong magnetic field around the unit. The magnetic attraction is strong enough to pull a halligan tool out of a firefighter's hand or, in this case, to attract an oxygen tank from across the room. The tank became a projectile, flying through the air, drawn into the magnet chamber and striking the boy, causing massive head injuries.

When we learned of this incident at my health system, it prompted the safety department to contact the radiology department at each hospital to immediately review safety procedures. Procedural reviews, meetings with clinical and non-clinical staff, and other activities are underway to ensure that the risk of a similar event at our hospitals is minimized. The response to another hospital's event has been serious and purposeful. The attitude of all involved has been to examine our own MRI areas and see if we need to change or improve our procedures to prevent a similar occurrence.

The fire service should have the same attitude. When an incident occurs that results in death or injury, we need to examine that incident in light of our own surroundings and ask how we can prevent a similar occurrence. However, my fear is that we will trudge along, acknowledging the tragedies, but never really changing our attitudes. We will view these incidents as someone else's unfortunate event and not as something that can befall us. And then the event slips from our conscious, filed away in the story-telling folder, perhaps to resurface as an anecdote when the next tragic death occurs.

Think I'm kidding? OK, here's a test. Without looking at the top of this column, repeat out loud one of the names of the victims mentioned in the first paragraph.

See what I mean?

Bernard D. Dyer, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the director of safety management for the University of Pennsylvania Health System in Philadelphia. He spent 28 years in the Philadelphia Fire Department and retired in December 2000 as a deputy chief. Dyer holds a master's degree in public safety from St. Joseph's University, is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and has completed the Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. His e-mail address is