Protecting Firefighters

chief concerns richard marinucci
 

Everyone agrees that firefighters are the most valuable resources in a fire department.

Service cannot be provided without human resources, and the quality of what is delivered depends on well-trained and healthy firefighters. The job can be very challenging when dealing with the thermal insult and toxic fumes generated by a fire. Further, the work environment, aka the building, can collapse in the middle of an operation. These hazards do not even include those present for other job responsibilities in emergency medical services, hazardous materials responses, and technical rescues.

The hazards present to firefighters are more prevalent today, and the list of risks seems to be continually growing. It is not just short-term danger but the threat of harm later in life. Most specifically, it is the increased risk of contracting certain types of cancer. This can be attributed to the increasing danger of the products of combustion on the human body. But, cancer is not the only threat. Firefighters must be protected from a wide range of injuries and illnesses. If departments are serious about protecting their most valuable resources, then they must take a comprehensive approach to minimize the risks to their firefighters, including health and wellness programs and quality protective clothing.

Research Your Choices

Everyone should be aware that there is more protection for firefighters than ever before. This includes improved personal protective equipment (PPE), self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), and ancillary equipment that helps such as air monitors and thermal imaging cameras. While most of the products you see offer protection, some are obviously better than others. It will pay dividends to do your homework. Products have differing degrees of safety and protection for firefighters. Make sure the product you are looking at will do what it is supposed to do within a price range you can afford. This is especially true when new products are developed to address specific issues. I recall that the first few generations of PASS devices did not operate as fire departments expected. There were many false alarms to the point that firefighters were ignoring their signals, and the noise was affecting communication. Subsequently, integrated PASS devices have proven to be much more reliable and effective.

Regarding protective equipment, the best options are to follow National Fire Protection Association standards and manufacturers’ recommendations regarding maintenance and upkeep. This only works when a standard exists. As new products are developed, it takes a little time for the standards to catch up. There could be other options from other industries using similar products, or there may be some governmental regulations. Just check to see what is available when researching products. You may also need to pay more attention to the science behind a product. This was brought to my attention recently by a colleague who makes sure I know what I am talking about regarding certain products. I was discussing one in particular, and he cautioned me to wait until the “jury decides” before extolling the virtues of a magic cure-all. As they say, “caveat emptor,” or let the buyer beware.

Beyond PPE

There is only so much that equipment and safety items can do to protect firefighters. Regardless of their quality and effectiveness, they must be used and used properly. To protect firefighters, there must be a comprehensive approach that goes beyond PPE. It must include a wellness program, sound policies, and enforcement when needed. Way back when in the fire prevention arena, there was a need for the three E’s—engineering, education, and enforcement. The same would apply to firefighter safety and protecting the most valuable assets in an organization. The safety equipment provides the engineering for the most part. The education is the training that we provide along with sound policies and procedures. Occasionally, those in leadership positions must mandate compliance. There must be consequences for failure to follow rules, regulations, policies, and procedures. Discipline, in this regard, will be saved for discussion at another time.

Those in the fire service today have more information than ever before regarding ways to protect themselves. None of the information is telling firefighters to not do their job and attack fire. What it is encouraging is for all members to become more educated so they can make good, intellectual decisions as to the best way to perform their duties while eliminating undue risks.

For example, before a firefighter can do his job, he must get to the work site. This involves emergency driving. There are things that can be done to increase the chances of avoiding a crash along the way. Sound driving policies and training to the standards will improve outcomes and minimize risks. This will not eliminate all crashes but will help to reduce them. As an added value to safety, there needs to be an enforced seat belt policy. The chances of minimizing injuries in a crash are greatly reduced when seat belts are worn.

Protecting for the Long Term

Protecting firefighters on the scene of emergencies has expanded past the point of looking only at immediate dangers on the scene. The potential for long-term health issues has been documented, and action must be taken now to offer protection. This involves steps to take to reduce exposures that lead to cancer and preventive measures to minimize the risk of cardiac disease. While there is nothing that can eliminate the risks associated with the job and these diseases, studies are finding more ways to improve protection. This goes beyond adding more PPE, although this is important. It includes proper decontamination, personal hygiene, health, and wellness. All gear needs to be worn when working in the hazard zone, including SCBA. It is to continue through overhaul (and even fire investigation) until the scene can be cleared of contaminants. Protection includes proper rehab for firefighters, which not only includes decon but also hydration and fuel for the body. It continues past the event until most risk for a detrimental event have passed.

It would be naïve to think that all firefighters are ready to embrace added protection for their health, safety, and well-being. As such, there needs to be a combined approach to help change attitudes and behaviors. This includes training and education, sound policies and procedures, and officers who are willing to enforce the best practices. The policies would cover as much as possible including the fireground and all related activities. Members need to know the content of the policies, the reasons for them, and the consequences should they elect to deviate. Officers need to be officers and do what they agreed to do: provide leadership and support sound practices.

Everyone will tell you that firefighters are organizations’ most valuable resources. They are responsible for fire protection and much more and must be protected. In today’s world, there are more insults to the working firefighter than ever before regarding cancer and cardiac diseases. Thermal insult, toxic hazards, and falling structural elements can harm firefighters. Other work environments, such as roadways, are also very dangerous. Continual steps must be taken to minimize unnecessary risks to firefighters. Not all products and policies accomplish the goal of safer firefighters as much as they claim or imply. There are more ways to protect firefighters than ever before, but all must be evaluated to make sure they deliver on what is promised.

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 Equipment and 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.

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Protecting Firefighters

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.

Taking Risks

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.

Training Commitment

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.

Equipment

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.