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, 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.

If you think fatalities are isolated, a total of 11 firefighters were involved with the above cities and three more from the DCFD with several common denominators. Their deaths involved violations of safe practices and or SOPs, they were all missing for a period of time and they all were wearing manual PASS devices that were not turned on. All of the deaths involved buildings where all of the occupants were out and this fact was known to the dead firefighters. Lastly, the incident commanders at some point were no longer in command.

The purpose of an investigation is to find out what happened and prevent it from happening again. If your department chooses to "cover up" the facts for fear of legal ramifications or because they spotlight someone's wrongdoing, then stand by, because the repercussions are coming anyway and usually the facts will surface when the evidence is presented - and sometimes others will be killed doing the same thing.

I recently became a Gordon Graham devotee. I saw him present his "Triangle of Potential." The hypothesis comes from a 1924 study that found that for every 300 violations of safe practices or SOPs there will be 30 mishaps or close calls, resulting in three deaths or hospitalizations. The numbers maybe a bit off, but the concept rings true.

Intervene at the first level. Correct behaviors or mistakes as they happen. Whenever there is a death or major accident, everyone in the fire service - from the members, the union and often the department - screams for training. The questions arise: What kind of training? What is it that you want or need?

My department works eight tours a month. That means our drivers, holding compensated positions, operate other vehicles 23 days a month. Many of them are volunteer firefighters who drive apparatus with names stenciled on the side like "Rolling Thunder" or "Red Cloud," or rigs adorned by the "Tasmanian Devil." The roads and streets of rural America or suburbia, where they do this, are a far cry from the congested and contested streets of inner-city D.C. So if we follow the cries for "training," does that mean we need to place these people on skid pans and teach them to operate at speeds of 50 to 65 mph or is it a discipline matter of slowing down and stopping for red lights and stop signs?

Can a cross-country tractor-trailer driver be proficient by working eight days per month or can a cement truck driver operate safely by driving eight days a month? Realistically, how can you hold people accountable for a scenario that you have created? How many departments train on building construction, then teach size-up practices combined with developing strategies and tactics?

I have often disagreed with a certain chief from the Southwest regarding his management theories, but recently I heard him give a presentation on what his department has done since killing a firefighter at a supermarket fire. What he said was right on target, in my opinion. Yes, I apologized to him. When someone is right, I give him or her credit. He spoke about learning when to not intervene - real tough when your culture revolves around aggressive interior attacks. He spoke about being time-driven regarding calling for additional resources and levels of intervention - once again, real tough when your chiefs have no idea what that means because you have never taught them. Finally, he spoke about putting units out of service for training on a regular basis. How would your people react to that, especially if they miss a fire by being at training?

Do your costumes define your department? Do they somehow reflect your paradigms as they apply to safety? Recently, we did a symposium entitled "East Meets West." The guys from the West Coast wear plastic helmets, except for San Francisco and a few others, while New York and others from the East Coast wear leather helmets. A great deal of ribbing went on about this. However, for the record, the makers of leather helmets do NOT stand behind their helmets if the users do not steadfastly and methodically maintain the helmets. The DCFD recently went to black 1010s for all members up to the rank of battalion chief. Before that, members were permitted to wear either a "New Yorker" or the issued 660. What evolved after 20 years of this practice became 15 different helmets being worn with absolutely no accountability for maintenance. Sure we had written SOPs, but after a while why waste time maintaining or inspecting helmets - "If guys want to wear wire and body putty, then let them. After all, they're good firemen" was the excuse given.

Many standards in the fire service call for cleaning and maintaining gear, so why do so many members need to wear every fire they have ever been to on their gear? Is this a red badge of courage or a grist mill for hidden health problems to surface years down the road to their families or themselves?

Another valid point given by this Southwest fire chief was the current misconception regarding rapid intervention teams (RITs). Many in the fire service now believe that a RIT team will save every firefighter who gets into trouble. Some cities give this responsibility to their most experienced and most trained companies. Others believe that if you stage a pallet of equipment in the front of the building, a crew of two or three firefighters will also be successful. What this chief pointed out was that if you have a commercial building over 5,000 square feet and are separated from the line while you are about 100 feet into the building, then it will probably be around 45 minutes before you are extricated, if then.

If you are training and utilizing team members, do you time their drills and evolutions? Remember, a firefighter without air will die in four minutes. Have you had them retrieve a 300-pound mannequin from an area shrouded in dense smoke with the victim hidden or greatly distressed by fallen or collapsed building components? Do your SOPs contain the ability to grow into a large group or division without loss of command and control? Will the other firefighters on the fireground continue to do their jobs while a "Mayday" rescue attempt is underway or will they disregard their primary missions to "assist"? Will your firefighters use good sense when they hear a call for help if they are compromised with low air or are also operating within a large structure without safety precautions?

What is your department's policies regarding vacant structures? Eight percent of the firefighter fatalities in 2000 involved vacant structures. Clearly, we cannot become timid or fail to intervene, but we must realize that when we operate in these structures there should be a valid reason. It is my firm belief that all vacant buildings do not need to be searched. How many times have we read about firefighters being killed in vacant structures while searching for reported possible occupants? Too many times, we discover that the "occupants" were not there. This is a job for the people who wear all of the horns. They need to set the parameters that their firefighters will follow when confronting incidents in these buildings. They also must engage elected officials to remove these dangers or at least to make them impossible for habitation.

How does your department train? Are your SOPs developed by a select group of people who have never realistically tested these SOPs for validity? Is the fire training always done in the sterile environment of a training building with gas-fed fire conditions? Since 9/11, why haven't we lobbied the federal government to remove restrictions on live-burn evolutions? Football teams don't practice for a game with "invisible" men. Police officers don't use cap guns to practice marksmanship. The men with horns and the members of the alphabet groups should promote this agenda at the highest levels of government.

Two of my mentors, from FDNY and Philadelphia, revealed to me that "everyone wants safety; that is, the city wants safety until it costs them money, the unions want safety until it affects their members and the firefighters themselves want safety until it affects their behaviors." Whether this is true for your department only you can answer.

A friend on mine in Rhode Island, Greg Crawford, teaches a course on self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) that I believe should be taken by every member of the fire service before he or she enter incidents involving immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) conditions. His no-nonsense approach asks how long does your bottle last when you are under duress and how long have you been in a building? To rely on a buzzer or bell reminds me of the collapse guys who use a device to detect tremors. If it's you inside a void and a bell goes off, what does that really tell you - make peace with your God?

We don't kill many firefighters on EMS calls or hazmat incidents. They occur at times, but at nowhere near the levels that we kill firefighters responding to and returning from calls, operating around trusses, combating incidents within vacant structures, commercial structures or in deteriorating conditions within a structure without known occupants. Can we change this condition or should we change this condition? My answer to both is a resounding yes. But it will take all of us to do it.

Training is essential, but make sure it is relevant. Driving is a big responsibility; compensate those who do this and make sure they understand that they are responsible for all of the lives on that rig. Develop SOPs by involving the end users and their protectors, unions in the beginning. Don't let the costumes we wear dictate our customs and practices - sometimes "good firemen" can't be identified by their dirty, frayed, burned and poorly maintained gear; it's that company sticker that says more. We really do need to stop killing firefighters. Stay safe!

Michael L. Smith, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 29-year veteran of the District of Columbia Fire Department, currently deputy chief/suppression and shift division commander, commanding all fire, EMS, hazmat, special operations and special events activities in the District on shift. He is a 30-plus-year fire service veteran and is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officers Program at the National Fire Academy. Smith is a Certified Municipal Manger (CMM) from George Washington University; has degrees in fire science, construction management and labor law.