National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Firefighter Life Safety Summit Report: Part 1 - Overview

An unprecedented gathering of the leadership of the American fire service occurred on March 10 and 11, 2004, when more than 200 individuals assembled in Tampa, FL, to focus on the troubling question of how to prevent line-of-duty deaths. Every year, approximately 100 firefighters lose their lives in the line of duty in the United States; about one every 80 hours. The first-ever Firefighter Life Safety Summit was convened to bring the leadership of the fire service together for two days to focus all of their attention on this one critical concern. Every identifiable segment of the fire service was represented and participated in the process.

The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) hosted the summit as the first step in a major campaign. In cooperation with the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), the foundation has established the objectives of reducing the fatality rate by 25% within five years and by 50% within 10 years. The purpose of the summit was to produce an agenda of initiatives that must be addressed to reach those milestones and to gain the commitment of the fire service leadership to support and work toward their accomplishment.

The summit marks a significant milestone, because it is the first time that a major gathering has been organized to unite all segments of the fire service behind the common goal of reducing firefighter deaths. It provided an opportunity for all of the participants to focus on the problems, jointly identify the most important issues, agree upon a set of key initiatives, and develop the commitments and coalitions that are essential to move forward with their implementation.

Every individual who came to Tampa was already personally committed to the mission of keeping firefighters alive and all of the organizations that were represented were already on record as supporting the goal of reducing line-of-duty deaths. The summit was designed to produce a single combined agenda for change that all of the participants, individuals and organizations could agree to support and promote. The product of their concentrated effort in Tampa will provide the foundation for a joint strategy and combined effort that will be essential to produce the desired results over the next 10 years.

The summit produced a set of initiatives that may well be regarded as radical today; however, it is significant to recognize that nothing new was invented or discovered in Tampa. All of the initiatives that emerged were based on information and fundamental truths that were known long before the invitations to the summit were issued. The gathering simply provided a forum at which those issues could be discussed openly and freely on their own merits. Some of the policies that were identified are likely to cause discomfort and controversy; however, there is no arguing with the fact that the assembled leadership, who came from all segments of the fire service, concluded that these initiatives are essential to keep firefighters from dying unnecessarily.

This is the first step along a path that will require a huge commitment of energy and resources over several years. Some of the initiatives that were agreed upon will involve radical changes for the fire service. Any revolutionary movement requires committed and unwavering leadership to bring about this type of major change. The core of that leadership will come from the summit participants who helped to shape the agenda and identify the strategies that will have to be implemented. The invited participants included key individuals who are widely recognized for their influence and leadership, some attending on their own and some as representatives of organizations that represent different sectors of the fire service. In the normal course of events, these organizations often disagree on particular issues and priorities; however, in Tampa the only issue on the agenda was how to keep firefighters alive and there was a very broad consensus on the efforts that are needed to accomplish that goal. As the initiatives are advanced over the next several years, the fire service will see an example of what committed leaders can accomplish when they agree to work together for an important cause.

The Process

The summit opened with an immediate emphasis on the need to take bold action to change perceptions and expectations in the fire service. The strongest words of inspiration came from NFFF Board Member Vina Drennan, who clearly reminded everyone of the pain that is felt by surviving family members and shared throughout the fire service whenever a member is killed, particularly when a life is lost in circumstances that could have been prevented. A review of historical data and statistical trends in line-of-duty deaths was presented to help the participants appreciate the range of problems and issues that must be addressed to achieve a significant reduction in fatalities.

The majority of the effort during the summit took place in six discussion groups that focused their attention on specific domains. Groups were assembled to address:

  • Structural firefighting
  • Wildland firefighting
  • Training and research
  • Vehicle operations
  • Health-wellness-fitness
  • Reduction of emergency incidents and risks

The groups were asked to produce a set of initiatives that should be undertaken to reduce line-of-duty deaths within their assigned domains. Each group was assigned two co-facilitators to lead the discussions, as well as a staff assistant to fully document the discussions. Within each of the domains the participants were asked to consider:

  • Education and awareness issues
  • Standards and regulations
  • Specific research and technology issues
  • Psychological barriers
  • Leadership and personal/professional responsibility issues

The groups reported their recommendations back to the full assembly, which then produced a single consolidated set of key initiatives and implementation strategies as the final product of the summit.

The consolidated list included 16 individual initiatives:

2. Enhance the personal and organizational accountability for health and safety throughout the fire service.

3. Focus greater attention on the integration of risk management with incident management at all levels, including strategic, tactical and planning responsibilities.

4. Empower all firefighters to stop unsafe practices.

5. Develop and implement national standards for training, qualifications and certification (including regular recertification) that are equally applicable to all firefighters based on the duties they are expected to perform.

6. Develop and implement national medical and physical fitness standards that are equally applicable to all firefighters, based on the duties they are expected to perform.

7. Create a national research agenda and data collection system that relates to the initiatives.

8. Utilize available technology wherever it can produce higher levels of health and safety.

9. Thoroughly investigate all firefighter fatalities, injuries and near misses.

10. Grant programs should support the implementation of safe practices and/or mandate safe practices as an eligibility requirement.

11. National standards for emergency response policies and procedures should be developed and championed.

12. National protocols for response to violent incidents should be developed and championed.

13. Firefighters and their families must have access to counseling and psychological support.

14. Public education must receive more resources and be championed as a critical fire and life safety program.

15. Advocacy must be strengthened for the enforcement of codes and the installation of home fire sprinklers.

16. Safety must be a primary consideration in the design of apparatus and equipment.

Suggested Role of NFFF

While developing the agenda of initiatives to reduce firefighter fatalities, the delegates were also asked to define an appropriate role for the NFFF in working toward the implementation of the summit recommendations. The foundation is committed to this mission and to taking on roles and responsibilities that it can perform more effectively than any other group. The suggestions included a list of potential approaches that could be adopted by the foundation:

  • Coalition building
  • Provide advocacy for the issues
  • Activism in the standards-making process
  • Political and apolitical activism
  • Partnerships and fundraising
  • Catalyst for change
  • Serve as a clearinghouse for information and data
  • Develop model programs and demonstration projects
  • Provide technical assistance
  • Work with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) on investigations
  • Timely assistance to local jurisdictions
  • Provide recognition for achievements and contributions
  • Review performance and provide progress reports
  • Public awareness and communications

The NFFF’s board of directors will consider all of the suggested roles in the coming months and determine the ability of the foundation to undertake each activity or project. The board has already committed the foundation to assume a set of responsibilities, beginning with organizing the summit and serving as the key communicator and advocacy group for the initiatives that were developed.

In the immediate future, the foundation will join forces with the USFA to document, publish and distribute the initiatives. The foundation will also work with the USFA to report on the progress that is achieved in implementing each of the initiatives. The foundation has already begun to seek partners and ambassadors to move the initiatives forward and scheduled a strategy meeting to establish the immediate, mid-range and long-range priorities for a 10-year campaign. That effort should be extremely visible in the coming months.

J. Gordon Routley will present “Report on NFFF Firefighter Life Safety Summit” and “Fire Department Consolidation: Is Bigger Really Better?” at Firehouse Expo 2004 in Baltimore, July 13-18.

J. Gordon Routley, MIFireE, is the program developer for the Firefighter Life Safety Project for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. He has served as fire chief in Shreveport, LA; assistant to the fire chief in Phoenix, AZ; and Safety Officer in Prince George’s County, MD. Routley is also a member of the Health and Safety Committee of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC).