Fire Service Research: Looking Ahead

This month’s column again focuses on fire service research because it is such an important part of the evolution of our profession. Research is the foundation of the products we use, our standard operating procedures, and our service delivery methods.

All three of these research columns stem from the Report of the 2nd National Fire Service Research Agenda Symposium conducted by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF). The Symposium was an extension of the 16 Life Safety Initiatives, specifically, Firefighter Life Safety Initiative #7, which states, “Create a national research agenda and data collection system that relates to the Initiatives.” The report can be found at http://www.everyonegoeshome.com/symposium/report2.pdf.

New Web Site for Research

The NFFF continues to be a shining star in addressing firefighter safety and health issues. For example, it would have been easy for it to have developed the 16 Initiatives and waited for others to pursue them. However, it has been proactive from the beginning, as evidenced by the two research symposia. And, to underscore the value of research, it has launched a new Web site that references all of the research and studies that apply to the 16 Life Safety Initiatives. The Web site is a great database resource for the following:

1. Firefighters working on projects for their degrees.

2. Chief officers looking for information to improve their department’s safety program.

3. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) technical committees developing standards.

4. Researchers identifying existing data on a topic they are pursuing.

5. Manufacturers and dealers to learn more about their product lines.

The Web site address is http://www.lifesafetyinitiatives.com/.

Topics Identified for Research

Since the report is readily available online, I will not restate the findings. However, I will offer comments on a few. The Symposium identified seven focus areas:

1. Community Risk Reduction: This is not a “sexy” topic for firefighters, which is one of the many challenges in developing a community-scale risk reduction model.

2. Wildland Firefighting: Among a wide range of issues discussed, “safe and reliable aircraft operations” emerged as the highest priority. Twenty percent of firefighter fatalities during the past few years involve wildland firefighting. Forty percent of the wildland line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) involve aircraft.

3. Data Collection: Because of the passionate plea from this group, this focus area will get expanded coverage in next month’s column.

4. Technology and Fire Service Science: This area extended to all the other focus groups. The key point that emerged was to use science to improve our service. This is an exciting and challenging area but will be playing in front of a tough audience.

5. Firefighter Health and Wellness: This is easily the biggest issue with regard to LODDs. Health and wellness researchers can find fertile ground within the fire service.

6. Emergency Service Delivery: This area always gets the spotlight when municipalities challenge budgets. Among its issues, this focus group underscored the work of the community risk reduction group-by using science.

7. Tools and Equipment: Since this area is of particular interest to our readers, it deserves the most attention. In last month’s column I discussed the most important issue determined by the group as being assessment of current personal protective equipment (PPE) [entire ensemble] performance, functionality, and related safety features for today’s fire environment.

Technology Issues

The following issues, also identified by the group covering tools and equipment, should not be minimized. Remember, these issues were not ranked for priority, and each stands on its own merit. The issues include adaptation of emerging technologies and research in PPE design, production, and use; technology to support improved firefighter situational awareness, which includes physiological and environmental monitoring and flashover/collapse prediction capabilities; technology to support incident command; fire department communications-functionality and interoperability; and development of specialized equipment (robotics and simulators) with fire service applications.

These issues also cross over to other focus areas, such as technology and fire service science. As recently retired firefighters witnessed the emergence of flame-retardant clothing, PASS devices, thermal imaging cameras, and so on, the incoming generation of firefighters will experience changes related to technology, especially in electronics. We “old geezers” need to refrain from putting up roadblocks to emerging electronics technology and remember that this generation of firefighters was raised in this environment. They will figure it out. There is a lot of unused technology already available. The challenge is to make it affordable, reliable, and user-friendly. History may record that technology was a tipping point in several areas of fire service health and safety. We must have quality research in technology to direct our decision making.

Other Tools and Equipment Issues

Other issues identified by the tools and equipment focus group follow:

Improved extinguishing agents and fire control methodologies: A good friend, with a keen interest in fire behavior, recently conducted a series of live burns that were carefully measured and videotaped (using the latest technology). Because the results provide a database that challenges conventional wisdom, the findings from this research must receive peer review and be validated by others. Good research is somewhat like test methods required in NFPA standards. They must be consistent among all test labs.

Improvement of apparatus ergonomics and design: This issue has been discussed for more than 20 years, and there has been only minimal progress. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has recently collected data that will hopefully lead to improvements. It is also looking at similar problems with ambulances. Far too many firefighters are getting injured while entering and exiting apparatus cabs.

Facility health and safety guidance for fire departments: When fire departments review their injuries and discover that just about as many occur in a fire department facility (mainly fire stations), the question must be asked-Why?

In next month’s column, I’ll conclude my thoughts on fire service research and the challenge that lies within.

ROBERT TUTTEROW retired as safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. His 34-year career includes 10 as a volunteer. He has been very active in the National Fire Protection Association through service on the Fire Service Section Executive Board and technical committees involved with safety, apparatus, and personal protective equipment. He is a founding member and president of the Fire Industry Equipment Research Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).

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