5 firefighter safety issues we shouldn’t still be talking about
It’s time to put these issues to rest once and for all – and start doing the right thing
“A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action” was a popular 1993 song by country music performer Toby Keith. Hard to believe that it’s been 30 years.
It’s also hard to believe that there are still firefighter health and safety issues of roughly the same age that garner so much discussion even today. During the 30 or more years that some of the problems listed below have been on the fire service radar, how many firefighters have been killed or injured? How many firefighters have had their lives or careers ruined? How many millions of taxpayer dollars have been used to settle lawsuits?
It's time we take definitive action on each of the following issues so we can finally, once and for all, stop debating and instead focus our energy on emerging safety issues.
5. Seatbelt use in fire apparatus
Why are firefighters still not buckling up 100% of the time when the vehicle they’re in is in motion? I don’t get it and neither does Dr. Burt Clark, who first began championing the effort to get firefighters to buckle up back 2006. Clark created the National Fire Service Seatbelt Pledge following the death of Firefighter Brian Hunton, who died after falling from his fire truck on the way to a call.
4. On-scene accountability
Firefighter accountability has been a key component of NFPA 1500: Standard for Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program since its initial adoption in 1988 (currently in its 2021 edition). I wrote about this issue back in 2017, arguing that, “Changing from an active to a passive system might solve the persistent issue of lack of accountability as a contributing cause to firefighter LODDs.”
Six years later, why are so many fire departments still not using a personnel accountability system? Why are many fire departments still using manual (i.e., active) personnel accountability systems that require the incident commander and individual firefighters and officers to act (e.g., bringing a “cow tag” or “passport” to the IC) when they arrive at an emergency? Haven’t we passed such antiquated methods?
Automation has played a crucial role in optimizing various processes for practically every industry. While many of these are meant to streamline business tasks and cut costs, there are some that provide even more intangible value, seeing as they have the potential to save lives, like those of firefighters! Cloud-based accountability systems bypass the first failure point of active systems by ensuring every firefighter is automatically entered in the system without disrupting the normal flow of activity on scene.
3. Wearing proper PPE
It’s still relatively commonplace to see pictures and videos on social media, and even in print, where firefighters are not wearing all their PPE, wearing it improperly, or not wearing it at all while actively engaged in emergency scene tasks. Why are incident commanders not unyielding in their enforcement of contaminant exposure control (CEC) measures once firefighters exit the hazard area?
In an article earlier this year, “‘Risk a little to save a lot’: A new look at an old mantra,” I posed the question: Is it time to reconsider the levels of risk in light of everything we now know about the exposure risks we face on the fireground? Six months after that article was posted, I submit that we are long past the time to “reconsider” the efficacy of CEC – it’s time to act.
2. Conducting 360 size-ups at structure fires
We continue to see firefighters initiating an aggressive interior fire attack before the first-arriving firefighter or officer has completed a size-up of all four sides of the building using a thermal imaging camera. Why?
For too many fire departments, the default mode of fire suppression is an aggressive interior fire attack. Yet, the fire behavior research that’s been conducted by UL and NIST should have already influenced fire departments to replace that paradigm with one that focuses on controlling the flow path and employing a transitional fire attack, as promoted by the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI), 9 years ago.
1. Fire service culture
Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Apologies to political strategist James Carville who coined the slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid!” when serving as a presidential campaign advisor. For today’s fire service, this might sound like this: “It’s the culture, stupid!”
If you look back over the previous four items, it should be clear that the persistent state of the fire service culture is the common denominator. It’s why firefighters don’t wear seatbelts, it’s why fire departments don’t use personnel accountability systems, it’s why incident commanders don’t enforce CEC, and it’s why 360 size-ups are not conducted on all structure fires before fire suppression operations begin.
In 2004, representatives of the of the major fire service constituencies gathered in Tampa, Florida, for the first Firefighter Safety Summit. These leaders recognized the power of culture when they made Culture Change #1 of the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives. So, why do we still have so many issues rooted in fire service culture approximately 20 years later?
Dr. Clark wrote in his 2016 book, “I Can’t Save You But I’ll Die Trying: The American Fire Culture”:
Society needs to change how it thinks and feels about fire death. When a civilian is killed by fire, it is not an act of God, and when a firefighter is killed, it is not part of the job. When there is a fire death something went wrong. We must change to an Automatic Fire Protection Culture in the 21st century.”
Dr. Clark later changed the title of his book in a subsequent printing. The new name: “I Can't Save You And Don't Want to Die Trying: American Fire Culture.” When asked why, he explained:
It has taken me six years to find the courage to change the title of my book. It may not be courage; it may be coming to grips with my own mortality. The reality is I have fewer years in front of me than behind me. Being brave and courageous is not in my control. Telling my truth is.”
Dr. Clark also changed the original cover photo, which showed the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial. “I struggled with that image then, what message does it send?” Clark said, adding, “Most people, even in the fire service, will not recognize the picture on the cover of this new edition. It is the rock to commemorate the National Fire Academy campus dedication on Oct. 8, 1979, in Emmitsburg, Maryland. The inscription on the rock is a phrase from Public Law 93-498-Oct. 29, 1974, creating the NFA, “to advance the professional development of fire service personnel and others engaged in fire prevention and control.”
In my mind, Dr. Clark is a microcosm of the larger macro shift needed in fire service culture. Like the good doctor, we can change on an individual level. But research has shown that true cultural change happens when a large enough group adopts a new “normal” that replaces the current “normal.” And how does that happen?
In a study from 2016, Situational Pressures that Influence Firefighters’ Decision Making about Personal Protective Equipment: A Qualitative Analysis, Maglio and colleagues found two factors that heavily influence a firefighter’s ability to adopt a new normal: individual will and organizational solidarity. When fire department leaders regularly provide good training and education regarding acceptable safety practices and the potential risks associated with firefighting, they strengthen a firefighter’s individual will. They also found that organizational solidarity was a powerful tool for showing that a firefighter’s leaders promote and embrace the organization’s safety policies.
This list, though not all-inclusive—is about the common safety issues that should be no-brainers at this point. We’ve been talking and writing about these five safety issues for too many years. That reality is borne out by how many times these issues continue to show up in media reports, on social media, and in NIOSH LODD reports – even though we have identified the problems and developed solutions and have had them for many years. We just don’t act on them.
Maglio, M., et al. “Situational Pressures that Influence Firefighters’ Decision Making about Personal Protective Equipment: A Qualitative Analysis.” American Journal of Health Behavior, Volume 40, Number 5, September 2016, pp. 555-567(13).