Editors note: We hope that your department never suffers a line of duty death, but we feel it is important for each chief officer to understand the responsibilites to the fallen firefighter and their family, should a tragedy occur. This multiple-part series offers to serve as a guidline to prepare for everything from the funeral to the investigations that will occur after the incident.
Those two words will most likely evoke a very chilling reaction. Nevertheless, if you are working an emergency incident, the incident does not go away. Or, if a death takes place at the station or in a vehicle accident the department must continue to function while dealing with tragedy. In an earlier article I discussed the need for adequate Line of Duty Death (LODD) preplanning; now is the time preplanning pays off.
There are several assignments that need to be addressed in a short period of time. These activities are incident control, notifying next-of-kin, hospital liaison, family liaison, department and agency notifications, the investigation and the funeral process. I will briefly discuss each area in this two-part article.
First and foremost is firefighter safety. Maintaining effective command over any active incident will reduce chances of further injury. If not already established, consider assigning new sectors to oversee firefighter rescues and recovery, and consider replacing any on-scene emotionally distraught personnel.
Assign a public information officer. Do not release any injured personnel names until notified by the Family Liaison Officer. Isolate media to an area that allows for appropriate event coverage, enables efficient and timely press releases and prohibits inadvertently overhearing emergency personnel. Prepare a fact summary about the firefighter and the incident and prepare a written statement for the chief or spokesperson to release to the media at a briefing.
The notification process is implemented in the event of a department member(s) serious injury or death. As a general rule, this process should be used in the event that a member would require transportation to the hospital, or die in the line of duty. In the event of a serious injury, never delay notification; get the next-of-kin to the hospital as soon as possible.
The importance of timely next-of-kin notification cannot be overemphasized. The sincerity, sensitivity, and compassion demonstrated by the department's representatives are imperatives, and are a major factor in creating and maintaining a positive working relationship with the family, and, most importantly, marking the beginning of the grieving process.
It is extremely important that the fire chief assemble a notification team comprised of predetermined selected members to quickly respond to the injured or deceased family. If there are multiple deaths or injuries, there will a be need for more than one response team. The response team should be comprised of at least two members, preferably a chief officer and, when possible, a co-worker or family friend designated on the employee's next-of-kin notification form. Additionally, whenever possible, the department chaplain should be present. In unionized departments, a union representative may also be assigned to the notification team.
Retrieve the firefighter's emergency contact information form, if available. The National Fallen Firefighter's Foundation articulates the procedures very well. They state notification should be:
In person: always try to notify in person, never by phone.
- Spouse, unmarried partners, and parents are first priority.
- For family living out of the local area, arrange for authorities in that area to make personal notification.
In time and with certainty:
- Get to the survivors quickly. Don't let the media notify them first.
- Quickly gather as much information about the incident as possible before making the notification. Survivors will have questions.
- Before making notification, have positive identification of the deceased firefighter and make sure you are talking to the correct family.