Until there's a change in culture in the nation's fire service, the number of firefighter funerals won't be reduced. And, while bringing about a new philosophy won't be easy, officials believe it is possible. But it will take everyone's help.
That message was repeated frequently this past weekend during a mini-summit in Orlando. The gathering gave firefighters an opportunity to identify and prioritize issues that coincide with the 16 Life Safety Initiatives compiled by the National Fallen Firefighters' Foundation and fire service personnel from around the country.
Mandatory seat belt use was listed as a priority issue by personnel who participated at the summit prior to the annual symposium of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association. Yet, all agreed that nothing will change unless a penalty is assessed for someone who doesn't buckle up.
"It's time to make firefighters accountable for their actions," said J. Gordon Routley, project director of Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives Program.
More than 100 firefighters die in the United States annually, and what's more astounding is that the majority of the deaths were preventable, Routley said.
Statistics show 26 firefighters were killed in crashes last year. Of those, five involved water tankers, five passenger vehicles and four pumpers. Personnel also died while on ATVs, a boat and aircrafts.
The life safety initiatives were adopted in 2004 to address and curtail firefighter deaths. Now, the NFFF is conducting mini-summits to develop strategies to implement those initiatives. The sessions, being held throughout the country in conjunction with major conferences, are funded through a $750,000 FIRE Act grant and the Fireman's Fund Insurance Company which donated $329,000.
To date, summits have been held to discuss structural firefighting, training, wildland firefighting, and most recently, vehicle safety. A session addressing fitness and health will be held at Firehouse World in San Diego next month, and one on prevention and public education has not yet been scheduled.
Reports from each summit will be reviewed, and NFFF officials will determine priorities, and identify the measures that need to be implemented.
FDNY Lt. Mike Wilbur said he's tired of honoring firefighters who die after making conscious, stupid decisions such as not wearing a seat belt. When he started writing about the issue in the '70s, he didn't get much response. But he kept at it.
Wilbur said he's pleased that the seat belt issue is finally at the forefront. But, change won't occur overnight.
Although the FDSOA members were divided into four work groups to discuss emergency vehicle driving, policies and procedures, incident safety and vehicle design, all returned with the same priority issue - seat belt use. But, none had any quick fix solutions.
Changes won't occur, they said, until the fire service gets away from its macho attitude or "it can't happen to me" philosophy.
Less than 48 hours later, a guest speaker at the conference told the FDSOA members that a seat belt was the first line of defense for firefighters, not apparatus design upgrades. "Airbags are only auxiliary devices. A seatbelt is the primary safety device," said Sean Kilcarr, senior editor of Fleet Owner Magazine.
Emergency vehicle operation was another priority issue listed by the group. "While you have to have a special license to drive a cab or a garbage truck, none is needed to drive a fire truck," said Matt Tobia, a facilitator with the NFFF and captain in Anne Arundel County, MD. fire department.
The firefighters suggested a national drivers' license be designed, and that each state's adoption be tied to federal highway money. Without the monetary sanction, they felt some jurisdictions would balk at the requirement.
"The lack of training puts both firefighters and civilians at risk," said Aaron Feldman, a retired firefighter from Vancouver and a vice president in the Canadian Fallen Firefighters Foundation.
Firefighters also said departments need to take a serious look at the number of tankers that are dispatched. Statistics show tankers are involved in several fatal crashes annually. And, as the number of those killed in personal vehicles also is on the rise, decisions need to be made regarding those responses as well.
In addition to making drug and alcohol testing mandatory after all crashes, the group said the screenings also should be conducted in line of duty deaths. The family of a firefighter determined to be under the influence would not receive monetary benefits.
Another avenue that needs to be studied is scene safety. There was varied discussion about apparatus positioning, lights and traffic control devices.
"We also have to educate the public about what to do when they see an emergency vehicle approaching," said Dr. Harry R. Carter, a retired battalion chief from New Jersey and now, a fire protection consultant and columnist with Firehouse.com. "I really don't think they know what they're supposed to do."
Safety in the fire service isn't something that just surfaced either. It's an issue that's been addressed for many years, said Mary F. McCormack, FDSOA executive director.
"For years there has been concern about people overloading equipment. Manufacturers and firefighters are both concerned about safety," she said, adding that she was pleased with the turnout of nearly 400 for the 18th annual symposium.
Among the seminars offered are changes in truck braking, design issues and improvements, how to write specifications and safety concerns. Manufacturers also will unveil new equipment and innovative technology.
But, Ms. McCormack stressed that it's an educational seminar, not an equipment show. "You won't find a display of fire trucks in the parking lot. That's not what we're all about."