Should – Or Can – The Fire Service Be Safe?

The high number of FDNY members who were killed on 9/11 has fixated us. To lose 343 members of a department is in itself not only catastrophic, but also worthy of causing changes to the paradigms, mores and culture of the fire service. In 1997...


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The high number of FDNY members who were killed on 9/11 has fixated us. To lose 343 members of a department is in itself not only catastrophic, but also worthy of causing changes to the paradigms, mores and culture of the fire service.

In 1997, Carol Chetkovich, an Oakland, CA, firefighter, wrote a book about women entering the fire service. The book dealt with race and gender stigmas and the attempts for assimilation by these groups. But she also dealt heavily with the culture of the fire service. The following quote is contained within that book: " 'OSHA (sic) and others are trying to make the job so safe that eventually you won't be able to leave the station. It's ridiculous,' he said, 'it's not supposed to be a safe job.' "

How many members of your department feel this way? Is the standard line for violating good, safe practices and or established standard operating procedures (SOPs) that "It's part of the job" or "Don't be hard on them, they are good guys, at least they fight fires."

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and others collect data regarding fatalities and injuries to the fire service. One such data study was contained in the NFPA Journal, July/August 2001, on pages 67-75. The breakdown of fatalities compared volunteer and career services, but all were contained within the empirical structure.

The major cause of death by both services is heart or cerebral attacks. The average is 42% of the total figures per year, approximately. I feel these members should be referred to as having died on the job.

The next-largest groups of fatalities involve returning from and responding to alarms and operating on the fireground, but not involving cardiac instances. These numbers represent 50% combined on average. I feel these members were "killed" on the job. By assignment of rank the largest percentage were firefighters (68%) with company officers the next closest (25%). The number of years of experience, however, is a surprise: those with fewer than five years represented 28% for both volunteer and career while those with 11-25 years experience represented 60% for career members and 28% for volunteers. Remember, these last figures DO NOT represent cardiac mishaps.

Any fool can manipulate numbers - look at the ways in which municipalities use them around budget time - but this is not about just numbers. In these cases the numbers represent real people going down real hallways or riding in real apparatus going to or coming back from such events. If you, the reader, or others in your department believe as that guy in Oakland does that this job is supposed to be dangerous, then you need to find another job, in my opinion, before you deny some kid a father or mother or some spouse a mate.

A wiser man than me penned the following: "Those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat." When members of the fire service die or are killed, a tremendous amount of documentation is developed as to the how and why. What do we do with the information? For almost 25 years, documented cases have occurred every year with firefighters dying on or under truss roofs. Some of the best minds in the fire service write and speak prolifically about this topic and yet year after year firefighters are killed doing the same misguided and in some ways stupid practices.

In the March 2002 issue of Firehouse®, I wrote a Chief Concerns column regarding the words "routine" and "size-up." The column was intended to illustrate that these words are contained within 90% of all after-action fatality reports not cardiac associated. Even though I quoted directly from the after-action reports from our own DCFD members being "killed," the hoopla created was amazing. I have the utmost respect for Charlie Dickinson and Jim Crawford of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire, also for the guys from Seattle, Memphis and Philadelphia, who have marched back and forth across this country to explain what happened to their members. It is painful to point out that behavior, culture or bad discipline can kill firefighters, but that is what happened and these individuals are attempting to not let the rest of us continue being stupid.

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