Firefighting in the great state of SC
Greatest hazard volunteers face is often themselves
from the Post and Courier
Firefighters proudly call their job the most dangerous profession. The unglamorous truth is that what makes it so dangerous is not the infernos they fight, but the firefighters themselves. Especially volunteer firefighters.
Heart attacks on duty and traffic accidents that occur while they're rushing to answer alarms kill far more volunteers than fires.
Heart attacks and strokes killed nearly half of the 789 volunteers who died on duty from 1990 through 2003. Motor vehicle crashes killed nearly one out of four. Fires took the lives of about one out of five .
Many volunteer departments put no restrictions on the health, fitness or age of those who join. And few strictly enforce health, fitness and safety programs, officials say.
In South Carolina, volunteer departments are supposed to require physical exams of recruits and make sure they meet minimum fitness standards set by the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration. However, enforcing these requirements is strictly up to the volunteer chiefs. Some chiefs say they can't afford the cost of physicals, and because it is so hard to get volunteers, they can't afford to be too picky.
All too often, volunteer firefighters are under-trained, ill-equipped or physically unfit for the rigorous job of battling blazes and saving lives, a review of 15 years of data and studies shows.
Firefighter fatality investigation reports by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health are filled with examples.
-- Too old
In Greenville, Ill., Ralph Loyd was the only volunteer firefighter near the station on the morning of Feb. 3, 1999, when a fire broke out at a grain elevator just south of town. Loyd sped to the fire in the department's equipment truck. He arrived first, stepped from the truck and collapsed. He died of a stroke.
Loyd was 90.
On Jan. 27, 2000, Capt. Walter Gass of the Sealy, Texas, volunteer fire department was one of three firefighters to arrive at a house fire. No one was at home. Gass took a fire hose and advanced into the blazing home, while the other volunteers fed him additional hose. Gass was overcome by intense heat and killed.
Gass was 74.
One third of the 57 volunteer firefighters who died that same year were older than 60, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Nearly half of the volunteers who have died in the line of duty since 1990 were older than 50.
-- Too young
In May, 2002, Christopher Kangas, a junior firefighter with the Brookhaven, Pa., volunteer fire department, heard a fire alarm, jumped on a bicycle and hurried to respond. A car hit and killed him. He is believed to be the youngest firefighter to die in the line of duty.
Kangas was 14.
-- Lack of training
On May 14, 2004, Michael Martin, an 18-year-old high school senior from Belton, S.C., detoured from his usual route to school to answer an alarm. His new Ford Explorer, a graduation present, ran off the road and into a tree. Martin died of multiple injuries. He was a week from graduation at Belton-Honea Path High. Police say he was traveling 65 mph in a 45 mph zone and was not wearing a seat belt.
On Aug. 31, 1999, Timmie Dawson, a 34-year-old firefighter with the Center Creek Volunteer Fire Department in Anderson sped his department's pumper truck to an alarm. Dawson, a one-time firefighter of the year for his department, reached speeds estimated at 55 to 60 mph on a two-lane residential road with a 35 mph speed limit. The right side wheels of the pumper, loaded with 1,000 gallons of water, dropped off the road. When Dawson steered back onto the pavement, he overcompensated and the fire engine rolled off the road, went into the air, rolled again and broke apart. Dawson's head was crushed. Two firefighters with him were injured. None wore a seatbelt.
Dawson had passed an emergency driving course required by his department in 1992. But, a federal safety investigation found that he had not had any additional driving training and had not taken a more rigorous state fire apparatus driver training course. The investigation report also urged the department to force firefighters to wear seatbelts.
Fire officials say many volunteers receive little or no emergency driving training. And many of the volunteers who die going to or from alarms do not snap on their seat belts.
-- Poor equipment
On April 11, 2002, Chief Justin A. Frye of the Paradise, Kan., volunteer fire department, raced his company's 22-year-old, 500-gallon tanker truck to a traffic accident. He crested a hill at 62 mph, spotted the accident and stepped on the brakes. Nothing happened. The brake pedal went to the floor. Frye slammed into Russell Fire Chief Earl Hemphill, who was directing traffic. Hemphill died. A federal safety investigation found that the tanker truck had a history of mechanical problems and that the brakes failed because of an oil leak and because debris from a broken and patched dust cover partially jammed the brake.
A HERO'S DEATH
Early this year, on April 22, Bruce E. Rogers, a volunteer with the Chesterfield Fire Department rushed to the scene of a fire at a community center. He collapsed with a heart attack and died.
The death of the 56-year-old is an all too common occurrence for firefighters, and volunteer firefighters in particular. Of the three South Carolina firefighters who died on duty this year, two died of heart attacks linked to stress.
Heart attacks have been the leading cause of all firefighter deaths every year but one since the U.S. Fire Administration began keeping records more than 20 years ago. The only exception was 2001, when 344 firefighters died in the collapses of the World Trade Center towers.
Rogers' name joins those of hundreds of dead firefighters listed on the "Fallen Firefighters Memorial" at the U.S. Fire Administration in Emmitsburg, Md.
The dead firefighters certainly deserve hero status for their willingness to risk their lives for the lives and property of others. But their deaths were not always heroic.
Reports show that many of the deaths could have been avoided if fire departments, volunteer departments in particular, strictly enforced recommended training, medical, and physical fitness standards. The U.S. Fire Administration hopes that by pushing for such strict standards, firefighter deaths can be cut by 25 percent within five years.
Philip Stittleburg, head of the National Volunteer Fire Council, acknowledges that too many of the volunteers' deaths are unnecessary. He blames the nature and culture of volunteer firefighting. "They're volunteers. It's hard to put requirements on them. Especially now, when it's difficult to find and keep volunteers," he says.
More safety requirements, especially for medical and physical fitness, could save the lives of dozens of volunteers, according to a medical researcher for the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health in Washington, D.C. "This is where you get a big difference between volunteers and paid," the researcher said.
As a group, firefighters have a much greater risk of dying of heart attacks on duty than other major occupations. For example, heart attacks cause about one of every five on-duty police deaths. Heart attacks are responsible for about half of all on-duty firefighter deaths. The risk of fatal heart attacks among volunteer firefighters is higher than that for career firefighters. That's partly because about two of five volunteers are more than 50 years old, compared to one of every four career firefighters.
Ed Roper, director of the South Carolina Fire Academy in Columbia, says he suspects that the days are numbered for the use of older and out-of-shape firefighters. You've got to be in good shape. It's a younger man's job in my mind."
Firefighters tend go from long, stress-free periods to sudden intense action when jolted by fire alarms. "If they are not in adequate physical condition, the results can be deadly," a 2001 Texas A&M University study of firefighters shows. The Texas A&M researchers also found that too many firefighters are overweight.
Lack of physical fitness and pre-existing medical conditions are the main reasons for higher deaths among volunteers, the U.S. Fire Administration says. Earlier this year the Fire Administration helped sponsor a national conference on ways to reduce on-duty deaths. Among the major recommendations was the development and implementation of national medical and physical fitness standards for all firefighters.
Currently OSHA sets certain minimum training and fitness standards. And, as a rule, career fire departments require pre-employment and periodic physical and medical screening. They also place restrictions on age. Enforcement of such standards at volunteer departments remains spotty, fire officials say. By virtue of being volunteer, these fire departments generally are not subject to strict governmental regulation. The standards are just guidelines for many volunteer departments.
More than 70 percent of all firefighters, almost all of them volunteers, work in fire departments that have no program to maintain basic health and fitness, a 2002 survey by the National Fire Protection Association and the U.S. Fire Administration found.
Jim Bowie, executive director of the South Carolina Firemen's Association, says some volunteer departments fear they might put themselves out of business if they set too many requirements. With volunteers, he says, "if you put a lot of these barriers and hurdles, at some point they are not going to do it."
Stittleburg believes volunteer departments could solve part of the problem by changing the way they recruit. Instead of recruiting volunteers as if they all are the same, he says, departments could recruit younger, more physically fit people to do the actual firefighting. Others could be recruited to do the less physically demanding, but equally important, job training, scheduling, records keeping and accounting.
By recruiting volunteers for different jobs, he says, volunteer departments might be able to get more volunteers. At the same time, he says, the departments might be able to more easily recruit and keep younger, more physically fit volunteers who want to fight fires, not spend their time with paperwork or money-raising activities.
Earlier this month, with the support of the Bush administration, several firefighter organizations launched "The Fire Corps," a national program designed to do just what Stittleburg proposed.
Many volunteer departments say they already do what Stittleburg recommends but still can't recruit enough volunteers.
Firefighters often repeat a joke about the fire service: "Two hundred years of tradition unimpeded by progress."
Nowhere is that more obvious than in driving. Motor vehicle crashes caused the deaths of nearly one quarter of the 1,085 firefighters who died on duty from 1990 through 2000. Volunteers accounted for more than eight out of every 10 firefighter deaths while responding to alarms. Most of those killed in crashes were not wearing seatbelts, a U.S. Fire Administration study shows.
Rita Fahy, a data analyst and manager for the National Fire Protection Association, which studies fires to help set safety standards, says failure to use seat belts is common in fatal crashes involving firefighters. A report she co-wrote on firefighter deaths in 2003, said, "Obeying traffic laws, using seat belts, driving sober and controlling driving speeds would prevent most of the firefighter fatalities in road crashes each year."
Lt. Michael Wilbur, a New York City firefighter who teaches emergency driving courses for fire departments, says that one of the major factors in the high rate of traffic death is the excitement that lured many firefighters to join in the first place: "Why be a firefighter if you can't go to fires with sirens, flashing lights and big trucks?" he asks. "We're basically killing ourselves. If the fire service were a private corporation, we would be put out of business because our death rates and injury rates are so great. We could cut crash deaths dramatically if we could just get our people to wear seat belts."
For volunteers, this is especially true. Full-time firefighters typically ride together in big fire engines on safer urban streets, with curbside hydrants to supply water for fire fighting. Volunteers often rush to fire calls in their own cars. Because most rural areas have no fire hydrants, volunteers also must hurry to the fire in huge tanker trucks carrying hundreds of gallons of water. Tankers are difficult to stop and are prone to roll over because of shifting weight, especially on narrow, curvy country roads.
KILLING THE PUBLIC
This bad driving by firefighters carries an unseen toll: Firefighters kill people in the rush to get to alarms. Several governmental and private agencies keep careful count of the number of firefighters who die in traffic accidents while responding to alarms, but no one keeps track of the number of deaths and injuries the public suffers as a result.
Federal fatal traffic accident reports from 1994 through 2003 show that 206 pedestrians and motorists died in traffic accidents with fire trucks. But no record exists of the number of civilians killed in crashes with volunteers driving to and from fire calls in their own vehicles.
In many cases, motorists cause the accidents by not yielding to sirens and getting out of the way. But firefighters bear much of the blame because they create dangerous traffic situations, Wilbur says. Firefighters have a habit of rushing with lights and sirens to every fire call.
"Why is that?" Wilbur asks. "Because that's the way it's always been done. Firefighters continue to abuse the privilege of having sirens and lights. We're in the business to save lives, not take them."
"In actuality," Wilbur says, "only 2 percent to 5 percent of calls are true emergencies." Runs with lights and sirens put the public at risk because pedestrians and motorists generally aren't prepared for a roaring fire engine to barrel through a red light, he says. And many people don't hear the sirens because they have windows up, air conditioners on and radios or CDs blasting.
Fire officials say fire departments need to develop and enforce strict procedures about which calls require emergency response.
Sam Brockington, chief of the volunteer South Lynches Fire Department in Florence and Williamsburg counties, says his department has strict rules on who can use emergency response.
"I love to drive fast and run lights more than anyone, but it can cause big problems," he says.
Still, he'd prefer that his volunteers rode on the fire trucks instead of driving personal vehicles. The problem is that causes another major problem in a rural community: getting enough firefighters to a fire in time to do any good.
Many volunteer fire departments say they have policies that require emergency driver training for firefighters, especially those who drive the tankers and big trucks. In practice, fire officials say, volunteers get next to nothing.
Numerous firefighter fatality investigations by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health support that observation. These investigations often find that volunteer departments adopt policies requiring driver training, but keep few records to verify training.
Some states, such as South Carolina, require that volunteer departments meet limited job safety rules. But, as a rule, volunteer fire departments operate more like Lions or Kiwanis clubs. They are private groups that perform a public service and aren't generally subject to government regulation.
Wilbur estimates that just 5 percent to 10 percent of all fire departments require some kind of meaningful training in emergency driving. "And that's being really kind," he says.
He recalls giving a lecture to a class of firefighters and asking them about the emergency driving classes their departments were supposed to give them. They all stared ahead with eyes wide because they didn't know they should have had such training, he says. "It looked like I shined a flashlight on a herd of deer at night."
With volunteers, meaningful emergency driving training is a rarity, Wilbur says. "You join the fire department, and they give you a light to flash on top of your car. You put the lights and sirens on and you go like hell."