We Aren’t Killing Anyone

BY BOBBY HALTON

The words we use in public, especially in places where civilians (nonfirefighters) can hear us, need to be carefully chosen. We have a language all our own when we are together, but outside of the firehouse we need to remember that not everyone has our insider knowledge. I think Will Rogers said it best when he said, “Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects.” So nonfirefighters listening to some of us today would think we were nuts. Let me give you an example of some really stupid things I have caught myself saying: “We are still killing a hundred firefighters a year.” Now I don’t know about you, but I hope I’m not killing anyone. Here is another: “We are not finding any new ways to kill firefighters.” Am I looking for new ways? Of course not, but the words we use matter.

These comments started in conversations among firefighters; they were meant to get firefighters’ attention. When we said them, we never thought anyone would use them in public, nonfirefighter presentations or that they would appear in regular newspapers. Before using these phrases, we need to think about how they are being heard by outsiders and insiders. More importantly, they confuse everyone because we really have made a lot of progress in the area of firefighter safety and survival.

These phrases and the messages they convey continue to perpetuate the myths that not only are we somehow irresponsibly contributing to the deaths of our fellow firefighters, but also we are unconcerned. Nothing could be further from the truth. Every firefighter I know is dedicated to arriving safely, doing his absolute best, making a positive difference, and going home the same way he arrived. We are and always will be our brothers’ keepers.

The truth is that we have been making tremendous strides in improving firefighter health and welfare. At the same time, we have done an impressive job of providing the world’s best firefighting operations and proving it by consistently lowering the civilian death rate. We have a great deal to be proud of concerning the work we have accomplished over the past 30 years.

Here is the real story, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) reports. Over the past 30 years since we began keeping accurate and verifiable records, civilian fire deaths are down roughly 50 percent to around a tragically highly and unacceptable 4,000 annually.

Despite what some would have you believe, it is not correct that firefighter fatalities are much worse or haven’t improved at all. The average number of on-duty firefighter deaths occurring annually has dropped by one-third over the past 30 years. We have made significant progress. We must remember that methods of collecting data have broadened to include, as they always should have, medically related firefighter deaths and wildland firefighter deaths. We are improving in almost every aspect of our profession but, sadly, one.

Let’s begin with cardiac firefighting deaths, which are down by one-third since the founding of the USFA in 1974, which is remarkable given the fact that doctors have told us that firefighter deaths from coronary heart disease are approximately 10 to 100 times higher than firefighter deaths from nonemergency work. This is directly related to the very nature of our sudden and unpredictable exposure to extreme levels of physical exertion, hazardous chemicals, and thermal and emotional stress.

How do we do better going into the future? We keep eating better, smoking less, and working out more. Volunteers should be involved and connected to the National Volunteer Fire Council and USFA Heart Healthy program. We need to listen to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommendations; we should adopt as ordinance in every town all the NFPA 1500 standards so that compliant preemployment and annual physical performance evaluations become as common as red fire trucks. We must keep supporting the International Association of Fire Fighters’ efforts in continually demanding adequate staffing so commanders can rotate and rehabilitate crews managing reasonable work cycles. Overworked, understaffed firefighters will push themselves beyond ordinary human limits.

Firefighter injury and death rates are lower from collapses and other activities outside the structure. We have all but eliminated firefighter deaths from falls from apparatus by following NFPA 1901 and adopting enclosed cabs, although we have had a few fatal falls from moving and parked apparatus recently. Make seat belt use mandatory. It is not complicated; wearing seat belts saves lives. Improved seat belts, firefighter friendly ones, designed by firefighters are coming soon.

Smart folks keep telling us that if we obey traffic rules—slow down, ensure good maintenance, and provide training—this statistic will turn around. We must give special attention to volunteers responding in personal vehicles. We should embrace NFPA 1002, Standard on Fire Apparatus Driver/Operator Professional Qualifications, which establishes minimum standards for driving apparatus. All departments need to follow NFPA 1451, Standard for a Fire Service Vehicle Operations Training Program, in establishing responsible driver training programs.

We are doing better—much better—but, tragically, not in reducing the rate of firefighter deaths inside structure fires. Inside structure fires are where things are not improving in relation to the decline in structure fires. This is where we must focus our attention. We need to be more aware of our new problems and the limitations of our new technology. Gratefully, thinking firefighters are finding more and more effective ways to do our work carefully and to address the new challenges we continue to face. Hey, that sounded a lot better.

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