"Get'er Done": Take Drastic Actions To Reduce Line-of-Duty Deaths

Nov. 1, 2006

Oct. 8, 2006, marked the 25th anniversary (1981-2006) of the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend Program in Emmitsburg, MD. I have had the personal honor and pleasure of attending and assisting with about a dozen ceremonies over the years; how time does fly!

After being absent for a few years, I returned to pay my respects to the life of a former colleague, Fire Engineer Carl Shoemaker. Carl worked at Mesa, AZ, Fire Station One and died in 2001 from injuries he sustained in a vehicle accident on June 30, 1986. An overloaded, poorly maintained dump truck hauling sand busted a red light and collided with Truck 1 (now Truck 201). I was a training instructor awaiting Truck 1's arrival to a SCBA/PASS device drill that day. Needless to say, the drill was never held and I responded to the disastrous scene.

When I arrived on location, Firefighter/Paramedic Ward Fleger (now a battalion chief) and other members were extricating Captain Jack Stevens and Engineer Shoemaker from the severely mangled tower cab. What a slap in the face it was to realize that the largest vehicle in the fleet (a 100-foot rear-mount platform) could be so vulnerable. Captain Stevens died from injuries (I was honored to attend the NFFF Service for Jack in 1987) and Carl died several years later.

In October 2007, I plan to return to Emmitsburg to be a part of the escort of the family of Fire Apparatus Operator Russell Schwantes of Atlanta Fire Rescue. Russell was a very capable firefighter and bright man at age 39. He left a beautiful wife and two wonderful daughters behind as he fell victim to a massive heart attack. FAO Schwantes was assigned to our Airport Fire Station 24 and he experienced a severe myocardial infarction just after turning out for Engine Company 24's response to an automatic alarm activation. I will be headed north this time as the chief of department, and the burden will be a little heavier and the need to be present on the first weekend in October a little stronger. The feelings of uselessness and sorrow will be more pronounced for me. Those family members left behind will be difficult to face that day. Russell was one of mine and I wish I could have somehow prevented this horrible tragedy.

With the above experiences as my personal point of reference, I want to see and be a part of a fire-rescue service future that can eliminate the need for this wonderful and respectful ceremony once and for all! The national bar has been set at a 50% reduction of fire-rescue line-of-duty deaths over a 10-year window. What a wonderful and laudable goal. However, the first two years of this goal have seen no decrease in firefighter fatalities; the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) reflected that 117 members died in 2004 and 115 more brothers and sisters fell in 2005.

I am of the very firm belief that the American fire-rescue service must take an entirely different approach to lowering these numbers. Continuing to do more of the same is not going to work to reduce deaths and injuries. To add focus and emphasis to our national safety initiatives is great, but it will not make the type of reductions that we need to see to reach the expressed goal of lowering deaths by 50%.

A true transformation that we need to adapt is crew resource management (CRM) as used and perfected by the commercial aviation community (see my September and October 2006 columns in Firehouse®). This radically different way of thinking and human performance is a major key to reducing the bleak statistic. Part one of this series discussed the basics of the system components that need to be put into place for CRM to be widely used throughout our industry. Part two took a practical look at how many of the CRM principles can be integrated into the day-to-day operations of your fire department. This column could have focused on the motivation and need for this revolutionary operational process. However, I think that I will pursue an entirely different direction that would greatly reduce firefighter deaths and injuries.

Not much change seems to happen without some type of significant external motivation. I would characterize most organizations as traditional outfits that tend to keep most "things" just as they are/were; in other words, resistant to significant change. There are many, many examples to illustrate this point; it is tough to pick just one.

I became a volunteer firefighter in the 1960s, when diesel-powered fire apparatus was just starting to be purchased and gasoline engines were being phased out of service. Interestingly, the Hyattsville, MD, Fire Department purchased twin 1968 Ward La France pumpers; one was traditional in that it had a Walkashaw gasoline engine with an open cab (no roof!) and the other was a diesel-powered (Detroit), closed-cab engine. As if you couldn't have guessed, the older members related to and admired the gas burner, and not many took to the truck with the roof (how dumb that sounds today). Again, please let me overstate the obvious — we resisted (fight, hate, avoid) change at most levels.

Consider that most other layers of government have the same outlook toward significant change and I would submit that you have a prescription for only more of the same (continued firefighter deaths and injuries). I firmly believe that it must be more difficult (painful) to continue to stay on the same path before we (organizationally) are willing to risk substantial change.

Somehow, the key elements of firefighter safety (which are the same list of items that allow us to provide best operational customer service for the "Smith Family") have to be ground into public law. There! I said it! We need to be regulated, by law, to make the required organizational changes that will have impact. As a firefighter fatality is investigated, if the results clearly indicate that basic standards were set aside, then criminal charges should follow.

Let me try a few examples to explain what I am saying: A firefighter is killed in the line of duty because there were not enough personnel to properly handle this incident, based on the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1710 standard. Criminal charges should be waged against the person or persons who failed to provide an adequate firefighting force. Another example could be when a member is killed as a direct result of substandard personal protective equipment; once again, criminal charges should be directed at the person or persons who failed to provide turnouts that meet national specifications.

I have intentionally not identified the person or persons who would have to withstand judicial scrutiny. Perhaps the fire chief has failed to budget for or provide the needed gear aforementioned; that fire chief is held accountable. However, most chiefs will likely request the needed material goods to operate, so accountability would be ratcheted up the organization to the level that refused to provide the required persons or things to meet minimum standard.

The concept is simple: We need to determine a mechanism to make following the rules a regulated process with accountability and a level of consequence. Further, personal accountability needs to be installed as well. As an example, if a firefighter perishes because of being ejected from a crashed vehicle and he or she has failed to wear the required seatbelt, that person chose this unacceptable behavior, so no Public Safety Officer Death Benefit should be provided.

I understand how harsh both of these notions are and just how difficult either one or both would be to enact. However, until we are willing and committed to make the required changes, the American fire-rescue service will continue to lose 100-plus members each year. Our history and culture points to the fact that we make significant changes only after disasters and then reluctantly by legislation. One only needs to reflect back to the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory fire in New York City in 1911 or the Our Lady of the Angels School fire in Chicago in 1958. Simply, put "no pain, no change."

DENNIS L. RUBIN, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is chief of the Atlanta Fire Rescue. Previously, he was city manager and public safety director for the City of Dothan, AL. Rubin is a 33-year fire-rescue veteran, serving in many capacities and with several departments. He holds an associate's degree in fire science from Northern Virginia Community College and a bachelor's degree in fire science from the University of Maryland, and is enrolled in the Oklahoma State University Graduate School Fire Administration Program. Rubin is a 1993 graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program and holds the national Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) certification and the Chief Fire Officer Designation (CFOD) from the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). He serves on several IAFC committees, including a two-year term as the Health and Safety Committee chair. Rubin can be reached at [email protected].

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