Then and Now: Safety in Today’s Fire Service

By Todd Shoebridge

When I started in the fire service 30 years ago, we were riding the tailboard of the trucks, had self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) in plastic boxes on the side or in the compartments of the truck, and wore ¾-length day boots and the old "dog bed"-lining, long turnout coats. We have come a long way since then.

We didn't run medical calls or perform hazardous materials, confined space, swift-water, high-angle, or any other rescue. We ran the occasional traffic accident, but our time at the firehouse was much slower-paced than it is today. Inspections and preplans of a building were seldom done by the suppression division, if at all. There was no such thing as hydrant maintenance. Decontamination after a good fire meant taking a soapy brush and garden hose to your turnouts and boots and hanging them out in the sun for two days to dry. There were no high-tech gear washers and dryers. We knew nothing about chemicals likes carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen cyanide. There were no rapid intervention teams or any other such teams. Many departments were using open-cab trucks, and seat belts were the lap belt-style only, without any shoulder straps. 

Even 20 years ago, I remember standing up in the back of an open-cab truck, looking over the top of the truck, and putting on my turnout gear while en route to calls. Thirty years ago, there was one portable radio on the truck, and it was as big and as heavy as a solid-core brick. Booster or trash lines were the hoses of choice to fight fires. They were light, maneuverable, and easy to pick up after the fires were over. Large-diameter hose (LDH) was just being introduced to the fire service, and it was very expensive.  Most departments were using multiple 2½ inch- or three inch-diameter hose as supply lines.      

Unlike 30 years ago, we now do a lot more than just fight fires. We are called out for vehicle extrications, hazardous materials incidents, medical emergencies, CO emergencies, disasters of nature, water rescues, acts of terrorism, confined space emergencies, high-angle rescues, and structure collapses, to name a few. The fire service has become the "go-to" agency for just about everything.

Today, we have more safety procedures and better safety equipment than we did in the '60s, '70s, '80s, and '90s combined. For example, we do not ride the tailboard anymore; we have SCBA mounted in the trucks for each firefighter; bunker gear is state of the art; and there are portable radios for each riding position, personal alert safety system (PASS) devices, and enclosed cabs. We have adopted the collapse-zone concept, rehab units, and accountability through the incident command system; safety officers respond to assist the incident commander, and offensive and defensive fire attack procedures have been spelled out and incorporated in standard operating procedures. "Risk a lot to save a lot, risk a little to save a little, risk nothing for that which is already lost."

There are no new reasons for firefighters being killed or injured. We are dying in the same ways year after year. If a firefighter dies in the line of duty, that death will most often be the result of a heart attack caused by stress or overexertion; a traffic accident involving a fire department's apparatus or a privately owned vehicle while responding to or from a call; being caught and trapped by fire, smoke, or toxic gas; falling or slipping; or getting caught in a collapse or coming in contact with a dangerous object, such as an electric wire. The types of fireground injuries are also the same each year. Firefighters suffer strains, sprains, wounds, cuts, lacerations, bruises, burns, and smoke or gas inhalation.

Although there has been some reduction in the number of firefighter fatalities since the late '70s, a plateau seems to have been reached. Even more aggressive efforts must be made to further reduce fatalities. We are currently struggling to reduce the number of line-of-duty deaths. Each year, we average about 100 firefighter fatalities in the United States. These numbers have trended downward over the past four years; in 2011, United States Fire Administration statistics reported 81 on-duty firefighter fatalities.

In 2004, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) put together 16 life safety initiatives in an effort to reduce the number of LODDs by half within a 10-year period and to make sure that "Everyone Goes Home."  These principles can be found at the Everyone Goes Home Web site at http://www.everyonegoeshome.com.

There's an old saying in the fire service: "Complacency kills." Look at the number of firefighters killed or injured each year in fires, then add in the fact that the overall number of fires is down 54 percent. Firefighters don't get the exposure to fire situations we used to.  As first responders, we get plenty of training in checking pulses and taking blood pressures, but we tend to forget about the other side of our job--the firefighter end.

What firefighting training we do get is geared toward residential structures, because we respond to that type of fire most often. We have become good at those scenarios, but when we get a fire in an industrial building, what do we do? We fall back on this training and what we have learned. Industrial or commercial fires are a whole different animal and cannot be treated the same way as residential fires. This is where we get complacent. 

When your low-air alarm sounds/vibrates, you need to be outside the building, not getting ready to leave, not working the extra five minutes and then racing to the doorway or window when your mask is sucking your face. Your low-air alarm is your emergency air supply if something happens to you (i.e., floor or roof collapse, disorientation or entanglement). The emergency air supply you have left may be the difference in whether your fellow firefighters' retrieve you alive or dead. The solution to this problem is called "ROAM" (Rules of Air Management) and was adopted by the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department after losing one of its own during the Southwest Supermarket Fire. For too many firefighters, "air management" still means waiting for the low-air vibration alert or alarm to sound, signaling it's time to leave the building. Many firefighters consider this procedure to be acceptable during a routine room-and-contents fire in a small building.

Somehow we have to change our mentality-- running out of air, coming out of a building with black soot all over our faces, coughing and gagging. Sucking in CO and HCN, the toxic twins, is harmful and deadly. Take a look at how many firefighters have "run out of air" in residential fires and lost their lives! Here are some things to consider:

  • No air in the immediately dangerous to life and health atmosphere of today leads to rapid asphyxiation (HCN/CO).
  • No air during a thermal insult event will result in immediate and fatal burns to the throat and lungs.
  • No air during a structural collapse means a lack of time for rescue and asphyxiation.
  • No air when lost or separated leads to panic or asphyxiation.
  • No air requires the firefighter to breathe the products of combustion--toxic smoke and hazardous gases--that have been proven to be poisonous, carcinogenic, and fatal.
  • No air means that even if the firefighter survives, the initial assault on the respiratory system and the toll on their wellness will be immeasurable. As a rule of thumb, firefighters undertaking hoselays up a stairway and completing a search pattern in a training situation will reduce the air supply of 30-minute cylinders to around 20 minutes (to empty); 45-minute cylinders will be reduced to about 30 minutes (empty). Using 75 percent of cylinder's contents, leaves a 25 percent to allow exit; this means that 30-minute cylinders may allow only five or six minutes for exit and 45-minute cylinders will allow seven or eight minutes (air reserve to empty).
  • Allowing yourself or anyone under your supervision to inhale the smoke of the modern fireground is a dereliction of duty.
  • Ignoring the need for air management training increases the chances that your members will be involved in "close calls," "near-misses," and tragedies.
  •  Staying in the hazard area until your low-air warning alarm activates makes it virtually certain that your crew will eventually be exposed to the "Breath from Hell."
  • Using "filter breathing" or "sucking the carpet" as anything other than a last resort is foolish and deadly.

To an individual fire department, the death of a firefighter can appear to be a random and extremely rare event. However, a look at the national experience can provide valuable lessons to all departments. Changes in operating procedures and attitude must be made to improve firefighter safety.

Changing the mentality and culture of the fire service is a full-time job that should occupy every firefighter, young and old. No one likes change; however, it is easier to accept new ideas if you are continuously exposed to them. Some  will initially fight change, but the more they are exposed to new ideas, the more accepting they will become of the new techniques and the ideas of today's fire service.

Every month, fire service publications publish new ways of training, new firefighter safety and survival practices, new equipment, new apparatus, roundtable discussions, and new viewpoints from firefighters, company officers, and chief officers of departments all over the country. Seasoned, more-experienced firefighters will always be needed to mentor new firefighters coming up through the ranks. That is part of their job. That will keep this great service going. The fire service is now, and now is the time to change. With a change in mentality and a change in culture, everyone can go home. 

Todd ShoebridgeTodd Shoebridge is a 30-year fire service veteran and a captain and an EMT with the Hickory (NC) Fire Department, where he has served for 19 years. He holds the following certifications: National Registry (PROBOARD) fire officer III, rapid intervention, National Fire Academy Mayday instructor, hazardous materials technician, level II fire service instructor, basic VMR rescue technician, and fire/arson investigator (CFI) through the NC Fire and Rescue Commission. Shoebridge has associate degrees in biology and ecology from Montreat College and is completing his bachelor's degree in fire science at the University Maryland. 

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