Life (And Death) In The Fast Lane: Part 2 – Preventing Harm

Dennis L. Rubin explains why the worst day that a fire chief can have is when a member is harmed, and why every fire officer and firefighter must prevent avoidable harm to everyone who pins on the badge.


The worst day that a fire chief can have is when a member gets harmed. Our business is often referred to as a brother/sisterhood; therefore, an injury to one translates into damage to all. Chief officers - nope, make that all officers and members - must prevent avoidable harm to everyone who pins on...


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The worst day that a fire chief can have is when a member gets harmed. Our business is often referred to as a brother/sisterhood; therefore, an injury to one translates into damage to all. Chief officers - nope, make that all officers and members - must prevent avoidable harm to everyone who pins on the badge (actually everyone and everything).

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Photo courtesy of the Plano Fire Department
This Plano, TX, Fire Department pumper has reflective tape and paint enhancements for all weather and lighting visibility.

During my first seven years as a fire chief with two great agencies, I had a few close calls. One incident that has been impossible to forget involved two firefighters being struck by an automobile on Interstate 64 in Norfolk, VA. Part one of this series (March 2003) described the accident, the emotions and the damage that a vehicle traveling 50 mph can do to a healthy young firefighter. This segment will take an in-depth look at our four input factors to best determine ways to prevent similar highway accidents from occurring when we are performing our duties in the street.

By way of a brief review, Firefighter Nick Nelson and the other three members of Engine 14 "A" shift responded to a report of an automobile on fire on Interstate 64 at the Norview exit. It was 2:21 A.M. on March 13, 2002, when this disaster began to unfold. Within minutes after dispatch, Engine 14 reported on location with a working auto fire on the interstate. After a tactical size-up, our members began stretching a 13/4-handline to attack the engine compartment fire. Nelson positioned his hoseline at the left front wheel well to start fire attack while the other firefighters entered the passenger compartment to unlatch the hood-release mechanism. By all indications, the plan, at first, seemed to be working well and the vehicle fire would be rapidly contained and extinguished.

Without warning, a vehicle traveling past the burning car struck Nelson at an estimated speed of 50 mph. Just before the car smashed into Nelson, the firefighter who was attempting to pull the hood-latch release lever received a glancing blow from the same car, brushing him into the passenger compartment and out of harm's way. Nelson, however, was lifted up on the hood of the passing vehicle and carried about 50 feet from point of impact.

The ever-diligent firefighter, Nelson hung onto the attack line during this wild ride. Once the hoseline was stretched out tight, he was pulled from the car's hood. It is at this point that he received the worst of the injuries as the car ran over the backs of both of his legs. The indelible tire marks on his turn out gear are a depressing and tangible reminder of this event.

When the accident was investigated, several "lessons learned or reinforced" surfaced very early into the review. The "links" in the safety-and-survival chain were breaking all around Nelson, and this allowed his injuries to occur. The contributing factors ranged from the previous evening's rain causing fog and low (poor) ground visibility, to Nelson being in an active traffic lane without barrier protection, to no warning signals for oncoming drivers. Noteworthy was that a second vehicle crashed into the still-burning car, almost striking all four members of Engine 14 as the balance of the crew provided aide to their injured brother. We were lucky that night.

As the situation concluded, one member (Firefighter Milton Odem) was treated and released within hours and Nelson, after a long hospital stay and rehabilitation process, returned to full duty. (I do worry about him though; soon after his return to full-duty status was achieved, he left the fire department to pursue a police career. Go figure.) The accident has cemented a lifetime bond between Nick Nelson and me. By now, you have realized that part two will be taking an in-depth look at how to prevent the chief's worst nightmare.

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