Without a doubt, protecting the firefighter from harm is the number one priority of every fire department. There are many programs today designed to make sure that “Everyone Goes Home.”
The International Association of Fire Chiefs, the International Association of Fire Fighters, National Fire Protection Association, National Fire Academy, Fire Department Safety Officers Association, and the National Fallen Fire Fighters Foundation all have specific programs targeting firefighter injuries and line of duty deaths (LODD).
They are comprehensive and have been developed by some very talented and passionate people. I think if every fire department, and especially every firefighter, followed these programs, injuries would be greatly reduced and LODDs virtually eliminated.
I don’t believe we can get to “zero” because of the unpredictable nature of our business, but significant improvements can be made through better equipment and apparatus, plus more and better training.
You may ask that if the tools exist to create a safer work environment – why are things so slow to change and why are the results similar from year to year? Those are not easy questions to answer. If they were, we wouldn’t have this discussion.
The issues are very complex and not much different than the complex nature of our fire service. Much has been said about the culture of the fire service and the need to change the way we think about our job. This is very true. Of course it may take a generation or two to change this deeply imbedded culture. It is as much philosophical as it is an actual measurable issue. Much debate on this will continue, but not in this column.
The focus of this column will be on issues that need immediate attention. There are things that need to be done to improve safety and survival and they can be done with today’s tools and the existing culture, but it will take leadership and salesmanship. It will take creative ideas to better use the tools that are available. It will also require choices as to the best options to take.
Using The Equipment
Unfortunately, in today’s world, there is not an endless supply of funding and resources. Nor are all firefighters ready to embrace the needed changes. The key to success will be selecting the things that will be accepted and used by everyone, either by convincing them or coercing them.
Equipment and apparatus have changed significantly in the past 20 years for a variety of reasons. The improvements made should have, by themselves, created a much safer work environment. The facts would argue otherwise.
For example, statistics indicate that approximately 20 percent of the LODDs are vehicle related. The simple act of using seatbelts can save many lives. If the solutions are so easy, why aren’t they used? In this case, the firefighters need to be convinced or coerced to use the equipment.
There are so many other examples of safety equipment items that are not used as intended or at all. Whether it is complete turnout gear – including hoods and self contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) – or Personal Alert Safety System (PASS) devices, or simple accountability systems, the problem is not having adequate safety equipment, but using what you have available.
In fact, there are probably more products that promote firefighter safety than ever before – perhaps even more than you can afford. Some of the equipment is mandated by law or recognized standards. In most of these cases, you have little choice as to what you must have. You may be able to choose what is best for you and your organization based upon the hazards you will face and the funding you have available. Unfortunately, not everyone can buy the top-of-the-line of everything. You may get to the minimum standard and not be able to exceed it if your resources are not adequate.
This is where the ability to choose wisely is extremely important. Stretch your budget dollars as much as you can. While doing so, remember whatever you acquire must be used by your personnel. If you buy something that is not accepted by your membership, it likely will be a wasted purchase and not be used as intended.
If you don’t think so, check out many of the fire scene photos that are published on a regular basis. Firefighters will adapt equipment for their use based upon their experience, comfort level, and even peer pressure. Safety guards can be removed and adjusted on equipment so that those using them feel comfortable. In most cases, nothing bad happens, but you must remember these devices were added because something went wrong somewhere, or could go wrong.
This is not to disparage the firefighters. I do not believe they purposely do things to get themselves hurt. They are doing what they think is best in order to provide service to the community. They are looking for shortcuts that will save time when seconds may count or save energy when great effort is needed.
They may also try to fit the modern equipment into the methods that they learned long ago – either in recruit school or from a very experienced mentor who was highly respected and effective. As a result, safety items may not generate the desired results without effort before and after the purchase.
You need to invest time and resources into the purchase of the new, improved equipment.
You need the input of your membership and an evaluation of all your options.
For example, the standard for SCBA was recently changed. If you purchase the new units, they will need to be in compliance with the new standard. No doubt, there will be multiple manufacturers meeting the standard.
Picking the best one for your organization will be based on what you can afford and one that will be used by the membership. Only they will be able to tell you which one they prefer, and they will be happy to tell you if you ask. But when you do ask, it’s important to let them know any conditions that may influence their choice, such as budgetary constraints.
The second part of the safety equation is training. While we could discuss the need for more training on tactics, strategy, building construction, or other topics that are important to making good fireground decisions, we will focus on the training needed for the new equipment or apparatus.
Too often, the only time spent orienting personnel on new apparatus simply involves a quick spin around the block and a cursory review of the pump operations. While the basics of many pieces are essentially the same, the arrival of new apparatus is a great time to review and implement changes that are needed.
Even though it may seem similar, there are things that are different. For example, new apparatus may have anti-lock brakes. These require a different approach than what you may have learned. Invest the time and energy in a comprehensive training program that will teach your personnel the correct way to use the new apparatus.
The same can be said of equipment. One of the more absurd comments you sometimes hear from the veterans is that the new protective clothing may protect them too well. Because of the properties of the clothing, the firefighter does not “feel” the heat as soon as they did wearing their old gear.
In these cases, some firefighters may “adjust” their equipment or choose not to wear it – like hoods. They are conditioned to fight the fires they way they learned. If this is the case, then the possible solution is to re-train so safety equipment is used the way it was intended and firefighters are comfortable in its use and do not believe it will hinder their performance.
The apparatus and equipment in use today is designed to make for a safer work environment for the firefighters. The firefighters are dedicated, want to do their job, and do not want to get hurt or die in the process. They recognize that dangers exist in this line of work. They need to have safe apparatus and equipment. They need a voice in the selection. They also need training in the proper use of it.
Finally, they need to be convinced or coerced to use the safety equipment and safe practices.
Editor’s Note: Richard Marinucci is chief of the Farmington Hills (Mich.) Fire Department, a position he’s held since 1984. He is 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 holds three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.