Protecting Firefighters

As a suppression captain with over 25 years of fire service experience, the notion of protecting firefighters comes down to one simple fact - Firefighters must be protected from themselves.

As a suppression captain with over 25 years of fire service experience, the notion of protecting firefighters comes down to one simple fact - Firefighters must be protected from themselves. "It will never happen to me" is the common misconception. Bravado will not stop firefighter deaths or injuries. Firefighter injuries and deaths do happen. In 2001, there were 99 line-of-duty deaths (not counting the line-of-duty deaths on September 11th) and 84,550 line-of-duty injuries. It is obviously happening to somebody. In April of 1999, 13 San Francisco firefighters were injured on the same building fire.

The summer issue of the NFPA Journal is always a sobering issue for firefighters. That is the issue where the firefighter fatalities are reported and reality strikes home. The line-of-duty deaths have declined since 1977, but firefighters have also responded to fewer fires. The rate of injury per fire is holding steady. The modern fire service remains a very dangerous place. Firefighting is an inherently dangerous and stressful occupation and is complicated by lightweight construction, high fire loads of synthetic furniture and interiors, routine exposure to blood-borne pathogens, and the requirement to go from rest to anaerobic capacity in a few seconds. Firefighter stress is the number one killer of firefighters followed by internal trauma. In order to protect firefighters, you must start by concentrating on promoting a healthy life style that includes educating firefighters on the inherent dangers of the occupation. The cornerstones must be training, education and awareness.

The number one priority for protecting firefighters must be a fitness/wellness program. It is essential that firefighters maintain a healthy active lifestyle that includes a department sponsored fitness/wellness program. A comprehensive wellness program is the keystone to the long-term wellness of firefighters. This program should include aerobic conditioning, strength training, and stress management. Over the past few years the International Association of Firefighters in concert with the International Association of Fire Chiefs developed The Fire Service Joint Labor Management Wellness/Fitness Initiative. The goal of the initiative was simply to improve the quality of life for all uniformed personnel, on and off duty. Stress related and heart related deaths can be reduced with fitness/wellness programs. Incident stress must also be addressed. Every fire department should have a trained, critical stress, debriefing team to deal with the issues that will arise from time to time, including deaths of other firefighters, or other emotionally traumatic incidents.

With 38.6% of the deaths occurring on the fire ground, it should also be given primary focus. There were also 43,065 fire ground injuries in 2001. The second area of focus should be with Standard Operating Procedures. Firefighters are known to be ?cowboyish? and the only way to curb this tendency is with standard operating procedures. These procedures must rooted in NFPA 1500 Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program and NFPA 1561 Standard on Fire Department Incident Management System. These Standard Operating Procedures must include some type of comprehensive fire ground accountability system. It is very important that the fireground incident commander know where all personnel are at all times. There are several ways to accomplish this from the simple, passports with crew names, to the complex, radio transmitting personal alarm devices. All firefighters should use the Personal Alarm Device also known as a PASS. NFPA 1500 requires that each fire or rescue personnel be provided a PASS device. The use of the PASS device should not be limited to interior structure firefighting, but should also be used for nighttime operations, wildland operations and confined space. NFPA 1982 details the PASS design requirements and firefighters should only purchase NFPA 1982 compliant devices. Standard Operating Procedures should be developed dictating the use of PASS devices.

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