Engineering, education, and enforcement have been staples in the fire prevention world for a long time.
These same principles can be used to prevent firefighter injuries. For this strategy to be most effective, individuals and organizations must develop methods to stay current in all areas and implement the most practical solutions applicable to their situations. Policy makers must consider the services organizations provide and firefighters’ expectations in the decision-making process.
Engineering safety is a key component within an overall strategy. Although this will not fix all problems or eliminate all risks, it does increase the margin of safety in cases where human error may come into play. If you study the circumstances that cause injuries and fatalities, you can get a better picture of where fire departments need to place the most effort. Firefighters get injured on the fireground, on roadways, and while traveling to the emergencies. I realize that I have not included cardiac issues, but that is a discussion for another time. We are discussing protecting firefighters while doing their work.
It is absolutely critical to get crews to the emergency. There are obviously many safety components engineered into apparatus. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and federal vehicle standards do a good job of establishing the necessary safety components for apparatus, but it is good to remember that these are minimum standards that departments should view as baselines. Organizations should evaluate their own risks and determine if they need to take additional steps. Certainly manufacturers would be happy to add additional safety features if they make sense for your situation and are practical for an apparatus’s construction.
Individually and collectively, the fire service needs to continue to ask for more safety features in apparatus that protect firefighters while driving and operating vehicles and also when working on the roadways. There has been much progress with passenger restraints and vehicle markings. There has not been as much advancement in air bags. Know what your options are and how you can add measures that will engineer even more protection should an unplanned event occur.
Protecting firefighters also includes engineering safety into their personal protective equipment (PPE). The NFPA offers great standards that are updated regularly to adapt and adjust to changes in the industry. To get the most benefit from engineered protection, you need to evaluate all elements of the job and the best way to offer protection. It is not just a case of protecting for fire situations. EMS and special rescue responses require different PPE. There are also considerations for reflective vests while working on the roadway. These standards continue to evolve. You have to stay current on the latest to make sure you are keeping PPE up to date.
There are other elements of engineering protection for firefighters. They can include self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), thermal imaging cameras, personal escape systems, portable radios, and virtually any ancillary equipment designed to make the job safer and easier. For example, lighter equipment that is equally as effective as something heavier provides less strain on an individual and, therefore, is less likely to cause injury. In fact, many improvements to firefighting equipment have been the result of finding lighter materials. This is applicable to PPE, SCBA, and various tools.
Of course, being lightweight is one component of engineering. Ease of operation and redundancy of certain features may also be engineering components. In almost all cases, there is an NFPA standard that provides minimums for the various items listed here. Fortunately, it is very difficult to purchase apparatus and equipment that do not meet the current NFPA standard at the time of purchase. Yet the standards do change, and something purchased years ago may not meet the maximum protection available today.
The next element of the three “Es” is education, and it may be the most important. Having the best engineered safety components does not alone minimize the risks that are inherent to the job. Firefighters must learn as much as possible about the advantages and limitations of their protective equipment and other safety features within their work environment. They must know what can and can’t be done and adjust accordingly. For example, there has been much discussion around the impact of improved PPE on firefighting. The better equipment protects firefighters better, allowing deeper entry into hazard zones. Using certain practices to determine risks may not work when the PPE is different. Organizations must continue to evaluate how to operate given the change in protective qualities.
Education must also consider the work environment. Even the best equipment available cannot protect in certain conditions. Firefighters must recognize these conditions and not operate in them. If circumstances exist where they must attempt to work in risky environs, then there must be some consideration for added protection and exit strategies. Whether you are in a busy company or one that rarely responds to significant fires, preparation is essential. Firefighters and departments must stay current on all the information available to them. Much has been written and discussed about the emerging research on fire conditions, mostly from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and Underwriters Laboratories, and these should be enough for organizations to rethink their operations. This should be done based on the resources available to each organization prior to making a conscious decision on policy. Then educate the entire department.
Of course, structure fires are not the only work environment. Although I have never worked in an organization that responds to wildland fires, I do know that much has been done to learn and educate. If you have such responsibility, you need to learn as much as you can. Engineering will never be enough or adequate. There have been many case studies made available, and there is something to learn from all of them.
Also consider working on roadways. Organizations such as the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association, its partner the Emergency Responder Safety Institute, and the Federal Highway Administration have done great work in improving operations on highways. They have developed methods to ensure safety, such as apparatus placement and improved visibility, but there must also be some education to maximize protection. This means that there must be a time commitment to learn as much as possible to make sure you and your firefighters have the best possible protection.
For most officers, one of the most difficult things to do is to be a disciplinarian. Yet without this part of the three “Es,” an organization cannot attain the maximum protection for its employees. Take, for example, seat belt use. Statistics clearly indicate that those wearing seat belts have a much better chance of avoiding injury or death. Seat belts have been improved, and the engineering of such is as advanced as possible. Much has been written about seat belts and their benefits. You would be hard pressed to find anyone who has not heard the message. In fact, it is the law everywhere that seat belts be used in your personal vehicle and in almost every state when operating emergency vehicles. Yet there is not 100 percent compliance. For this to occur, officers need to enforce mandatory use of seat belts on every call. This is also true for all other situations that require safe operations through the use of safety items or safe practices. Officers need to enforce policies and procedures intended to protect firefighters.
Firefighters cannot completely control their work environment, but they can make it less risky through engineering, education, and enforcement. These three elements have proven to be successful in other areas and can be used to help protect firefighters more. To do so, fire personnel-from entry level to senior officer-must learn as much as possible and make informed decisions. They also must stay vigilant on every call. A routine that considers these principles offers the best protection and opportunity to complete job responsibilities as safely as reasonably expected.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA) and 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.