The “Unsung” Firefighter Injuries

Consider this local news headline: “Three Firefighters Injured!” The story: “Three firefighters were injured while fighting a house fire on the south side. Details are still coming in, but we do know that three firefighters were treated at Regional Hospital for burn injuries. Fire department officials have said the injuries are minor and that all three were treated and released. They are expected to be back on the job within a week.” This is not based on a true story but is representative of a story that often occurs in any community across the country.

Now consider this story: A firefighter slips and falls while on duty in his fire station. The fall results in a broken arm, and the firefighter is unable to perform firefighting duties for at least six months. Will this story make the news? Of course not—and it should not.

Bottom Line Comparison Between the Two Stories

In the first story, the medical costs will likely be less than $5,000. Let’s assume the firefighters are career firefighters and all three miss two 24-hour shifts while they heal. Let’s also assume they make an annual salary of $40,000 and their positions must be filled by other firefighters with the same salary—only they have to work overtime since there are no reserve firefighters. Quick math reveals this is an additional cost of just a little more than $2,000 in salaries. The total cost (medical and salary) of the injuries is around $7,000.

In the “nonheadline” story, the medical costs might be about the same (though with physical therapy, it will likely be more). Again, let’s assume the firefighter works in the same department so all the salary numbers are the same. He will be out of work for at least six months, and the vacant position must be filled by other firefighters at overtime pay. During this six-month period, the injured firefighter misses 60 24-hour shifts. The overtime salary cost to cover the injured firefighter vacancy is just a little more than $43,000. Total cost of the injury is around $50,000. The “unsung” injury costs more than 400 percent more.

Despite all the initiatives to improve firefighter safety, the injuries that occur in the station have received practically no attention. However, the costs of injuries sustained in the fire station have the exact same economic/lost-time impact as injuries suffered on the incident scene. I find it quite amazing that this has flown under the radar so far.

A recent case study in a metro fire department showed there were as many nonincident-scene injuries as there were incident-scene injuries. The incident scenes included all types of incidents (fire, EMS, hazmat, technical rescue, and so on). The study also revealed that more of the nonincident-scene injuries occurred at the fire station than at other places.

The activities being performed in the station when injuries occur are varied. Obviously, there are no data to formulate any conclusions. Concurrent with the lack of data, there is little information on how to make fire stations safer. Apparently the only publication on this subject was published 14 years ago, when FEMA/USFA released the manual Safety and Health Considerations for the Design of Fire and Emergency Medical Services Stations. Much has changed since then. There are a few publications written by architects on fire stations, but they are not focused on multiple elements outside of health and safety. Moreover, they do not necessarily represent the collective conscience of the fire service.

As for standards, chapter 9 of NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, (2007 Ed.) is about all that exists. The chapter has 14 “shalls” that describe what a fire department must provide or do within the fire station. However, because of the scope of the document, it does not prescribe how a fire department might modify an existing station or design a new station with health and safety in mind. Nor is there any guidance on selection of materials and components. Here are a few general areas of a fire station with health and safety implications:

  • Exhaust removal.
  • Food preparation and storage.
  • Flooring slip resistance.
  • Wellness/fitness rooms.
  • Biohazardous waste.
  • Foot traffic flow.
  • Gender accommodations.
  • Hygiene.
  • Infection control.
  • Mold.
  • PPE inspection, cleaning, drying, and storage.
  • Slide poles.
  • Doors and door hardware.
  • Laundry facilities.
  • Lighting.
  • Overall space requirements.
  • Decontamination.
  • Alarm activation during sleep.
  • Compressed cylinder storage.

The fire service needs to engage in this issue to identify areas for improvement and then engage the appropriate parties for improvements.

ROBERT TUTTEROW is safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department. 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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