Firefighting is a dangerous job, but it is not the only dangerous occupation. Regardless of your chosen profession, if there are risks associated with it, then steps must be taken to minimize or even eliminate the risks if possible so that the workers can complete their assignments.
chief concerns | Richard Marinucci
Generally speaking, the fire service remains a labor-intensive business where the objectives cannot be met without adequate staffing. Certainly, most organizations cannot afford to lose personnel to injury as they will be unable to accomplish what they are supposed to do. There are many things that can be done to minimize or eliminate risks, but the most important action that a department can do is to properly train its personnel.
IMPROVING SAFETY THROUGH TRAINING
This idea of improving safety through training and education is not new, nor is it unique to the fire service. While we may, at times, think of ourselves as different, much of what we do can relate back to basic concepts and ideas that cross occupational lines. The idea of safety at work has been discussed for a long time. In fact, in 1921 (almost 100 years ago), the president of Northwestern University, Walter Dill Scott, said this: “The future of the safety movement is not so much dependent upon the invention of safety devices as on the improvement of methods of educating people to the ideal of caution and safety.” Think about how that applies in the fire service. In spite of the tremendous gains in the protective equipment for firefighters, the most important aspect of safety is the performance of the firefighters themselves. Today, the equipment used is by far the best ever at protecting the workers, yet it will be the training and education that will have the most effect on safety.
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Firefighters’ training and education respective to their safety involve many aspects. They include learning as much as they can about their working environment, knowing their equipment and its limitations, understanding the capabilities of themselves and their teammates, and knowledge of policies and procedures and the discipline to follow them. One might also add the physical and mental health of firefighters—both in the short and long term. If you also consider the complex nature of society that has changed much of the work of a firefighter along with the continual adding of job responsibilities, you begin to fully appreciate the challenges presented. Yet, the single most important aspect remains the knowledge gained through training and education.
Having as much knowledge as possible about your work environment is extremely important. This includes things like building construction, fire behavior, and hazards ancillary to the fire itself. Yet, when asked, many firefighters and officers will struggle to remember the last training they received in building construction and fire behavior. Too frequently, it goes back to their days in recruit school. This issue is the result of many factors including added job responsibilities, changes in training philosophies, and failure to recognize the importance and change priorities. The changes in building construction and fire behavior have increased the threats to firefighters. Knowing as much as possible in these areas is critical toward improving the safety within an organization.
In building construction, the basic elements remain. There is a foundation with columns and beams. This is what is needed to defy gravity and keep the building standing. But just as with much of this job, it is not that simple. The materials being used have changed significantly and are continually doing so. Through engineering, those who develop structural materials are finding ways to maintain strength while reducing the amount of material being used. We often refer to this as lightweight construction. This is very good at keeping the building erect and reducing costs. But because of the reduced mass, the ability to withstand fire is greatly reduced. Even the formerly more reliable building materials are being altered. For example, the density of gypsum board is up to 40 percent less, and wood harvested from new-growth farms is also less dense. As such, when under thermal assault, they lose their strength much more quickly.
The other aspect of the work environment that must be understood by firefighters is the effect that the makeup of the contents has on fire development and spread. Not too long ago, furniture and contents were made of natural materials. While not a good idea to breathe the products of combustion from these materials, the amount of “bad stuff” in these pales in comparison to furniture that contains man-made materials that come from plastics, which are essentially petroleum products. This leads to much quicker fire propagation and a significant increase in the toxins being released in the combustion process. There are now more immediate dangers and long-term health issues to consider. A failure in education in all of this will lead to unnecessary risk taking.
Knowledge of your personal protective equipment (PPE) is very important. Again, we need to emphasize the ever-evolving nature of these important pieces of equipment. Firefighters get an explanation of their gear in recruit school and, unless they make the effort, seldom look deep enough into the new and improved PPE to really understand its benefits and possible weaknesses. Firefighters might know what the thermal protection performance (TPP) is for their gear, but do they understand it? Do they know that the protection will vary after use and will not perform the same as it did in the lab? Do they know their gear does not protect them from the toxic gases that may permeate the gear and be absorbed into the skin? As good as the gear is, there are limitations.
The National Fire Protection Association has done a great job creating standards so that equipment being used is built to the highest standard and offers the best possible protection. This goes for all components of the PPE from the boots to the self-contained breathing apparatus. Even still, not all the components’ capabilities match. Having a knowledge of this is very important and can help in decision making. A firefighter may have a certain level of protection with one piece of PPE, but it may be less in another. The difference is important in understanding what can be done and when risk taking is most appropriate. Another aspect to consider is the long-term effects. While firefighters may be protected from thermal assault, the toxins may seep through and present health issues later in life. This is just as important.
POLICIES AND PROCEDURES
Firefighters must know the critical policies and procedures of their organization. This establishes the desired culture and climate and provides direction so proper actions can be taken. It also promotes consistency among members, crews, stations, and shifts. Firefighters will perform better if they understand and comply with the “playbook.” If the policies and procedures are based on best practices, the risk taking is minimized while allowing firefighters to discharge their duties. Firefighters also have the responsibility to be disciplined and stay within their responsibilities. Freelancing must not be an option.
Everyone always says that firefighters are the most valuable resource for a fire department. As such, they need to be protected as best as possible so they can do the job. They also need to be taken care of because it is the right thing to do. The equipment today is better than ever before. My compliments to the manufacturers and developers of all the equipment available to protect firefighters. While we can always improve the hardware, the more important issue is to improve the firefighters’ capabilities through training. Every day must be a training day, and the critical topics must be covered. Pay attention to developments in the industry and stay current. This is a risky job, but through knowledge and understanding, unnecessary risks can be eliminated or avoided.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA). 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 Equipmentand Fire Engineering 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.