Firefighter Fatalities

J. Gordon Routley, Reade Bush and Jeffrey Stern recommend measures that help prevent line-of-duty deaths.


Over the past two decades, we have made tremendous progress in improving firefighter safety which has resulted in a downward trend in the number of firefighter line-of-duty deaths. The total number of deaths has been reduced from about 150 annually in the 1970s to around 120 in the 1980s to around...


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Unfortunately, when we look at those specific incidents and many others, we do not find any common, easily recognizable factors that might have provided such a warning. In fact, the most notable similarity in fatal incidents is that most of them appeared to be fairly routine situations, where nothing unusual was recognized until something went wrong. The investigation usually reveals several causal factors, showing that there was not one single "thing" that went wrong but a whole series of little things!

Preventive Actions

Some fatal incidents involve circumstances that would have been very difficult to anticipate or prevent but even in these cases the analysis often points out safety and operational procedures that were overlooked or are commonly neglected. Some of those procedures are intended to keep us out of trouble and some are designed to get us out of trouble when things go wrong but none of them work when they are ignored.

Many factors have been identified in several line-of-duty death investigations over a number of years that should be emphasized. These are notable because they appear again and again and because they point out things that could be done differently to change outcomes.

We could save lives if every incident was managed from the outset by a qualified incident commander using a standard incident management system. This should also involve everyone working in organized companies which go where they are assigned to go and do what they are supposed to do. Every company should be supervised by a company officer who supervises the members, ensures their actions are consistent with the incident commander's plan and coordinates their activities with other companies.

Every member operating in a potentially dangerous area should be tracked by an effective accountability system. (An effective accountability system actually keeps track if the individuals, not just the tags that represent them). That system should continuously identify who is where and what they are doing and should regularly check to make sure that everyone is still OK. When something goes wrong, the incident commander should be able to find out if anyone is missing, who is missing and where they should be within two minutes or less.

The great majority of firefighters are wearing personal alert safety system (PASS) devices when they enter burning buildings. Our next challenge is how to make sure they are turned on. A tremendous amount of money has been spent on PASS devices that false alarm so often that most of them are not turned on and no one has ever been saved by a silent PASS. A PASS that is less prone to false alarms and is automatically activated by the air pressure of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) appears to be the best answer.

In this age of communications, at least one member of every entry team should carry a portable radio. There should be a standard "mayday" procedure to request emergency assistance and there should always be somebody on the fireground channel listening for that message. At every working fire there should be a rapid intervention team standing by, ready to respond (see related stories on pages 54 and 58).

The radio system should provide enough channels to endure that every working incident has a clear channel without having to compete for air time with everything else that might be going on at the same time. When we check our breathing apparatus, we should not be satisfied if it just flows air. We should insist that it must be maintained in perfect working condition as if our lives depended on it. When was the last time your SCBA was checked, tested and calibrated by a certified SCBA technician?

We should not have to explain why we didn't know anything about a building that has been standing for over 50 years a block from the first-due fire station. We should know which buildings have truss roofs or hazardous contents or complicated interior arrangements. We should know which buildings are interconnected and which ones have ground-level entrances on different sides that lead to different floors. We have the technology available to give the incident commander a briefcase with a laptop computer and tens of thousands of pre-fire plans. Do companies have something more important to do between calls than to get out and gather information about the buildings they are supposed to protect?

Thinking Safety