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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Firefighter injury and fatality statistics indicate that nearly 30% of all line-of-duty deaths occur while we are responding to, returning from and working in the street at alarms. This horrible statistic seems to remain constant from year to year, indicating that we (fire service leaders) are doing very little about this looming problem. Research has been conducted producing "Best Practice" behaviors and programs, but there does not appear to be a rush to implement even the simplest of controls to lessen the impact of this problem.

Right after the Norfolk interstate accident, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) conducted a video training teleconference. Many attended and participated, but most departments did not take advantage of this great opportunity. Further, the U.S. Fire Administration produced an excellent "white paper" on the topic, but I would submit that most department leaders are unaware of this invaluable, no-cost federal resource. (Knowing that Firehouse® readers are among the best and brightest in the business, I hope that this writing will help most departments work safely in the streets. And while I am "soap boxing," you can meet now-Police Officer Nick Nelson and see his turnout pants - with tire marks - at the July 2003 Firehouse Expo in Baltimore.)

Before I leave the background section, I want to report that police agencies incur about 50% of their line-of-duty deaths responding to, returning from and operating out in the streets. Perhaps both fire and police agencies need to work on this critical area of improvement together. With Nick becoming a cop and my namesake (Dennis, II) working for the U.S. Secret Service, I felt a fatherly need to get the PD plug in as well. Think about it, a speeding auto on the street should/must fall into the IDLH category - immediately dangerous to life and health.

ACCIDENT CAUSES

Perhaps the best way to discuss "best practice" guidelines is to use the four categories that actually cause accidents. The four major causes of accidents are:

  • 1. Engineering controls
  • 2. Administrative controls
  • 3. Environmental conditions
  • 4. Human action and performance

Accident investigators are usually able to identify one or more of these factors as the direct cause of accidents. In most cases a series of factor failures will precede a negative consequence (firefighter death or injury). A recent LODD review of 50 fatalities revealed that the fewest number of factors that occurred prior to the mortal firefighter injury was four. The average number of factors involved in these 50 untimely deaths was seven. Finally, some cases took 11 "links" of the safety chain to fail before the members lost their lives.

Incidents involving a single causative factor do happen, but they are rare. An example of a single factor (not necessarily ending in disaster) might be a firefighter failing to wear a seatbelt when the vehicle is underway. Just because a poor behavior (actually stupid) was applied, it does not necessarily spell out death or even injury. However, when the rig gets intimate with Mr. Telephone Pole, the poorly behaved and trained member could become a statistic, even though the injury could have been easily prevented by clicking the seatbelt.

ENGINEERING CONTROLS

Engineering controls deal with design and maintenance of all of the mechanical items. An example of an engineering control would be the application of an anti-lock brake system. By design, ABS will not allow a wheel to "lock-up," but will rhythmically impulse to slow and slightly rotate the tire to prevent the loss of steering control.

There are many engineering controls that must be included at every alarm to avoid accidents and injuries. Once the apparatus is properly spotted and tactically placed (a very big deal), the drive wheels must be chocked. The driver should be assigned this duty and the chocks are now being stored (by design) near the rear wheels for very easy and rapid application.

Next, don't get off of the truck without a reflective turnout coat or traffic vest. The fire-rescue service has the neatest dark-blue T-shirts in existence. However, when these are coupled with dark-blue pants or shorts, we become nearly invisible to the motoring public who are focusing on the overturned car or the smoke-covered Cape Cod. Wear reflective outer garments on every call, not just the ones unfolding out in the street. If your department always follows this rule, this safety behavior will become second nature and a habit (which chiefs will love). Perhaps one of the best incident safety officers that I have ever met, Chief Donald Grant of Norfolk, visualized a time in the future when the entire turnout gear ensemble would be reflective. I think Grant may be on to something with this idea.