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. "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.

Another priority target area should be driving practices. Driving is one of the areas that education and training efforts will be quickly rewarded. According to NFPA 24% of firefighters killed in the line of duty were responding to, or returning from, alarms. That figure is very likely to increase with the new OSHA mandated ?Two-in & Two-out? legislation. The ?Two-in & Two-out? regulations require that there be two properly trained and ready firefighters on scene before initiating any interior attack. The response of many fire departments will be at add an additional engine company, squad or truck company to the initial assignment. Volunteer fire companies may encourage more volunteers to respond to the scene. This will put more apparatus and fire personnel on the road and will obviously increase the possibility of accidents related to driving. A comprehensive driver?s training program will lessen firefighter injuries and deaths. This program must include classroom and on and off-road drivers training as well as complete Standard Operating Procedures relating to driving. In addition, fire personnel must be held accountable for their actions. An area of high concern should be fire based ambulances or medics. Most fire ambulances are not much larger than a van and are very hard to see in traffic. Medic drivers must be trained to be conservative, defensive and alert in driving practices.

Efforts should also be directed to the daily activities of the line personnel. NFPA 1500 can provide a place to start. NFPA 1500 provides the consensus standard for the fire service as a whole. Special target areas are referenced by individual standards.

Personal Protective Equipment is also a very important consideration. Liability dictates that NFPA should be followed and personnel should be issued protective clothing ensembles that meet NFPA standards. Firefighters should be encouraged to become educated on NFPA and administrators should encourage in-depth research to ensure that all elements of the protective ensemble do indeed meet NFPA. While the actual number of fires has been decreasing, they will become more dangerous and the firefighting ensemble will play a more important role. Over the past decade, lightweight building construction has become the norm. Lightweight construction means that there is failure of the essential structure in a much shorter time than before. With the new ?Two-in & two-out? ruling firefighters will be waiting longer to entry, possibly leading to failure when firefighters are inside.

Another area of focus should be the protective ensembles, both wildland and structural. The structural firefighter's ensemble is not designed to allow the wearer to march undaunted into fire, it is designed to help firefighters get out safely and alive when something goes wrong. The NFPA 1971 compliant structural ensemble will only provide 17-1/2 seconds of protection in a flashover situation. That is not much time, but is enough in most circumstances. The ability of firefighter's to use this precious 17-1/2 seconds can be directly related to training and awareness.

The firefighters of today face more dangers today than ever before. While fire responses are down the fires are more intense and more dangerous. Overall responses are up and apparatus are on the road more than ever. Building construction and legislation place the firefighter at great risk during actual fireground operations. Firefighter stress is also a critical issue. Firefighters need to become safety-conscious in all aspects of their job. This requires education and awareness to the dangers that firefighter's face. If you want to protect firefighter, you must educate them and make them aware of the dangers of their profession.