Speaking of Safety: How Safe is Firefighting?

by Brian Houska

Recently, Chief Bruce Tenniswood in his article "Have We Made Progress?" asked members of the fire service to seriously consider our steady casualty statistics. To do so, the first question we need to ask is whether or not 100 or so deaths per year constitute a problem. That may sound cold, but consider that people die on every job, every day, regardless of a job’s perceived safety. Once we accept that, the question becomes not how many deaths we suffer in a year (our annual rate), but how many per 100,000 workers (an equivalent rate). This equivalent rate provides the level footing necessary to test for excessive casualties by comparing fire service losses to two other casualty measures: that of similar occupations and that of the general workforce. Given our training, equipment, and experience, our rate should be significantly lower than both, regardless of the inherent risk in our work. Any lesser goal is unacceptable and tantamount to negligence, as we are supposed to be safety professionals.

There is another question we must ask, also related to the equivalent rate. Consider that if line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) are stable, but the number of firefighters has grown over the past three decades, then our casualty rate per 100,000 has fallen. We need to know whether or not it has fallen by a statistically significant amount and how this decrease compares with the rates of similar occupations and the general population. If, for example, our rate has fallen but has dropped less than that of the general population, our relative risk has increased while our absolute risk dropped. In plain English, we’d be getting safer but not as fast as we should be, meaning that we could maybe learn a thing or two from industry.

Now consider how this hypothetical situation could be spun for or against calls for increased firefighter safety by well-meaning fire service professionals, as well as slick politicians. One side could bang the safety gong, rightly claiming that the profession is getting more dangerous relative to the rest of the workforce. The other side could emphasize that the casualty rate is in fact falling, and the "safety gurus" are a bunch of namby-pambies (this argument has an often-overlooked and unsettling fiscal side). Both sides can claim their opponent isn’t telling the whole truth, and the result is, no net progress. This may or may not be what’s going on in the fire service today, but I believe something like it undercuts our efforts to improve safety.

However, if your department is like mine, the dispute doesn’t rise to this level. Instead, most firefighters accept the need for an emphasis on safety but tend to give it lip service while passively resisting substantive attempts at change. This is rightly seen as a cultural problem; hence, the calls for a new culture of safety. Unfortunately, while there may be sound reasons for being skeptical about the call to safety, reluctance to embrace a safety initiative is a combination of a “macho” culture with an emotional aversion to change. While both these elements are certainly present in the fire service, when safety-minded folks insist that the opposition has no valid rationale, their traditional skeptics harden up, dialogue ceases, and change becomes even more difficult to effect. If those hide-bound blockheads would only open their minds! If those young safety punks would only recognize how far we’ve come!

How do we get past this logjam? First, we stop looking at annual numbers, start looking at our equivalent rate, and start making the proper comparisons. We need to find out where we stand to know how far we have to go. Second--and this is crucial--we have to understand that 30 years of stable data tell us that our casualty rate is a structural loss rate. In other words, 100 lives a year is the cost of doing business under current conditions. To change our structural loss rate in a meaningful way, we have to likewise change our structure. There is no other way.

Restructuring means fundamental change--big, simple, and deep. Scary, too. Much as we might like to, we can’t engineer our way out of high loss rates-- technological change is insufficient for the task. We don’t see this because it is easy to be distracted by the challenge and common sense of building better gear. But trying to engineer our way to safety amounts to engaging in a Red Queen game of the first order: We have to run even faster just to stay in place largely because of what economists call moral hazard. This doesn’t mean we stop improving our technology, because the construction industry isn’t going to, but it does mean that to significantly reduce casualties, we have to face facts and alter our emphasis accordingly.

The biggest fact to face is that the U.S. fire service is a 19th century organization operating in the 21st century, so our priority should be strategic reorganization from the bedrock up. The development of ICS/NIMS is one example of such restructuring that has already paid dividends. Other areas to be addressed include selection, training, and fitness. Fleet mix and allocation are other structural elements due for re-engineering, with tactical ramifications.

We must also improve our understanding of economic concepts like insurance and risk. Until we do so, we’ll continue to confuse experience-based learning with insurance-driven complacency and miss our target of improved safety. Once we better comprehend these notions, we can begin to consider the “crazy” ideas needed for restructuring, because you don’t get ahead by doing the same things the same way and expecting different results. Avoiding that sort of insanity requires a crazy idea called “innovation.” One such crazy idea is that because of the insurance it so often provides, the midsize handline is a risk-amplifying killer and we should thoroughly reconsider its use. This amounts to a tactical restructuring, guided by a principle of thrift, but all that (and much more) is outside the scope of this article.

To conclude, if the sorry joke about the fire service being 200 years of tradition unimpeded by progress strikes a little too close for comfort, then it’s equally true that solutions to our problems are within our reach. In fact, so much of the structure necessary for change already exists that, for the most part, we must only recognize our opportunities and summon the will to seize them. As will is a quality that the men and women of the U.S. fire service do not lack, I believe an order-of-magnitude reduction in our casualty rate is possible within the decade and challenge us all to achieve that goal. If we're going to re-envision the fire service, we might as well be bold. Who dares, wins.

Brian Houska is a lieutenant with the Urbana (IL) Fire-Rescue Services. An infantry veteran, he began his 16th year in the fire service in 2010  and is a fully qualified member of the Illinois MABAS Division 28 technical rescue team, also based in Urbana.

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