By Richard Marinucci
During the past few years, firefighter safety awareness has become a priority for the fire service. The goal is to significantly reduce unnecessary and preventable deaths and injuries in a job that has some inherent risks.
To be most successful at this while still providing the service that is expected requires a comprehensive approach to firefighter safety. Protecting firefighters does not guarantee that they will not suffer from a preventable event. To provide the best possible protection requires firefighters’ commitment, great training, and the best equipment available.
As a rule, firefighters are generally considered risk takers. I don’t think any fire chief would like to hire meek or passive firefighters. It is this characteristic that allows fire departments to provide services that benefit the community. Even with this natural tendency to take risks, I don’t believe for a second that any firefighters would do anything to intentionally harm themselves. If they do harm themselves, they either are not as competent as they should be because they weren’t trained adequately, they got complacent, or they thought that nothing bad could happen to them. There is one more factor that occasionally comes into play, and that is blind luck. Firefighters know that sometimes they are lucky to not get hurt. Conversely, there are times when some things go as well as possible and bad things still happen.
For an organization to protect firefighters, its personnel must take ownership of the issue and do what they can to promote their best self-interests. By this, I mean they need to do the things that allow them to be physically and mentally prepared to do the job. Firefighters have to accept the personal responsibility to be in the proper physical condition to do the job. Although departments can offer opportunities by having fitness rooms, they should also encourage better diets and require routine physical examinations. The individuals have the duty to stay in shape or get in shape and stay there. They need to realize that by being in good physical condition they can do the job better and reduce their risk of injury. They also can withstand injuries better and recover faster if they are unfortunate enough to get injured.
Firefighters also have a responsibility in other areas that affect firefighter well-being. For example, they need to commit to training. Although training improves service, it also gives firefighters more tools to make better decisions and perform tasks at a more proficient level.
Training is the key to protecting firefighters. Properly trained firefighters will make good decisions and have great techniques. Unfortunately for the majority of firefighters, there is not enough opportunity to gain experience to be as competent as possible. To compensate, organizations need to invest more in preparing their personnel. This involves a comprehensive approach that includes the basics learned in recruit school all the way to incident command. It also involves constantly studying the profession to learn from previous errors and learning new developments that affect operations.
Firefighters often get bored and don’t want to commit the necessary time and energy to repeat a skill often enough to establish and maintain the highest possible level of competence and skill. Another possibility is that they are getting busier all the time and may not have the time to do what is necessary. But, like many skills, failure to master the skill and maintain that mastery could lead to problems on the fireground. Although everyone can perform the basics, there may be cases where that is not good enough. Firefighters need to be true masters of their skills. The only way to do this is to repeat training and refresh frequently. Perhaps organizations should realistically assess how often each of their members performs some of the basics. I think some would be surprised. And if this is the case, then more practice must be considered.
It is important for members to constantly update their knowledge base. It should be no surprise that construction methods have changed, affecting the way buildings behave under fire conditions. Firefighters should also know that there are many Web sites that offer the latest and greatest information. They should be aware of the close calls that others have reported so they can learn from them. They must review National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports so they understand the contributing factors that lead to line-of-duty deaths. In today’s world with the ability to access information almost anytime, anywhere, there is no excuse for not knowing. Departments must help by creating an environment that encourages more study.
The fire service is very fortunate to have the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Underwriters Laboratories (UL) actively engaged in studying fire behavior and fire science. They are confirming through science what many thought to be true and are also disproving some myths. The information being provided from this work will save injuries and lives, but only if all firefighters are aware that this information is available and take time to study the findings. They also must approach this with an open mind so that they don’t start with preestablished ideas. Fire departments and their training folks must incorporate this information into all applicable training.
The last piece to be considered when looking for better ways to protect firefighters is to keep protective equipment and tools as current as possible. Firefighters must be involved in evaluating and selecting equipment like personal protective equipment (PPE), self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), and other tools crucial for their protection. End users almost always provide valuable perspectives regarding usability and functionality. Firefighters need the best available. I realize that finances don’t always make this easy. But, there must be a priority placed on this. I can’t imagine a true professional in any line of work being able to deliver the best possible product using outdated or poorly maintained tools. PPE and SCBA must meet current standards and also must be kept in that condition. Firefighters must use it as designed and maintain it so it offers the best protection. They must also know its limitations and evaluate the impact on operations, tactics, and strategies. Protecting firefighters better does not mean we can place them further in harm’s way without teaching them to have a realistic exit strategy.
There are old standby tools that have been around for a while and newer ones that help protect firefighters. Simple things like flashlights and ropes can be critical in a difficult situation. Of course, they must work and must be reliable in all kinds of situations. Newer tools like thermal imaging cameras provide more options for firefighters. But, remember that they are not magical. They require training and upkeep. They also shouldn’t give firefighters a false sense of security-also remember the basics.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.