By Tim Bradley
Over the past 10 years, national firefighter line-of-duty death (LODD) numbers have leveled off to below 100 annually (with a spike in 2013). It seems that, each decade, we reduce the average by about 10—some years fewer, some years higher. This reduction in numbers should not give us pause for relaxation but should energize us with the fact that programs work. We must realize that, although we’ve been effective in some areas, we have not been effective in others, and there are other exposures that exist that can increase those numbers yet again. One firefighter fatality is one too many.
In the emergency services, we’ve come a long way in equipment and technologies. In the 44 years I’ve been involved, the changes are enormous. We’ve come a long way psychologically as well. We teach more officer courses, we preach personal accountability, and we have more and more opportunities to express ourselves rather than keeping everything pinned up inside. We even have a multitude of voluntary or consensus standards to give us guidance. Online or Web-based training platforms have also made even the most difficult in training technology more easily accessible. Our gear is better, our apparatus is safer, and the tools of the trade have advanced as well.
Some of these advances may work against our safety. With new gear, we’re getting in deeper; with faster notification devices and apparatus, we’re arriving earlier in the fire progression; and 800mhz radios keep each of us in touch until they are impacted by fire products or building construction. With the advancement in technology, we need a serious advancement in our thought processes as well.
Technology is a wonderful thing. I’m hopeful we aren’t becoming too dependent on it to keep us safe. In 1948, philosopher Frederic Skinner thought the world had achieved technological success, and that, with the technology of that day, we had arrived at the bliss of having it all. That was 1948. If you continue to read his life story, you’ll find that he was not as naive as you would think. He also said in an article in 1968 that, “The real problem is not whether machines think, but whether men do.”
He may have been onto something. We should continue to improve in technology and use that to our benefit as we continue to work in an unstable environment. And yet, the biggest step forward may be to use the basics of common sense in our thought processes. As leaders in the emergency services, we must pay attention to current trends and make use of material developed by associated groups to help us in our efforts to reduce firefighter fatalities everywhere. We also need to make sure our tactics keep up with technology.
“Familiarity makes a brave man braver, but less daring.” I heard this saying long ago in a training class, and it stuck with me; I only wish I knew who I could give credit for impressing it upon me. What makes a person run into a burning building when everyone else is running out, or hang off a dangerously icy cliff on a rope? It can only be dedication to the job. Where dedication begins and ends is often an invisible line, and knowing where to cross is a daring risk. Good training makes it less daring, but not necessarily less dangerous. With technology, that invisible line is moving and, sometimes, not in our favor.
As leaders, how do we adequately prepare our personnel for all aspects of the job that may prove dangerous? We can’t stop at just providing them with the latest gear. In North Carolina, over the past five years, heart attack is the leading cause of firefighter fatalities (by a wide margin). In many cases, after the event, people say they should have seen it coming. Although the North Carolina fire service, like many states, promotes physicals, many departments still do not require them. The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) offers programs such as the Heart-Healthy Firefighter Program and Serve Strong and the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) offer the Healthcare Provider’s Guide to Firefighter Physicals, yet many do not take advantage of these resources. There are a multitude of jobs within the fire service for almost any level of capability, but one of the basic factors is making sure you are physically fit to do the job. Programs don’t work unless we choose to use them.
The next highest cause of firefighter LODDs is motor vehicle collisions. There are many programs from the United States Fire Administration, Volunteer Firemen’s Insurance Services, state training agencies, and so on, all aimed at driving fire apparatus and personal vehicles. In North Carolina, we’ve provided copies of Traffic Incident Management training, created driver certification programs, pushed rollover prevention training, and provided sample standard operating guidelines for fire department vehicle response. None of this works if people don’t slow down, recognize conditions, and understand the vehicle they are driving. Once again, the real problem isn’t whether programs exist, but whether we choose to use them.
Although old safety and health challenges will continue to exist, fire service leaders are recognizing new ones. These are not included in LODD statistics, but they are no less the results of the job. Suicide, post-traumatic stress, and cancer are the new names on the block for firefighter fatalities. Although these are not new in any sense, they are finally being recognized by many for the significant risks they present to firefighters.
Again, one doesn’t have to look far to find programs that address these emerging issues such as the NVFC and IAFC Volunteer and Combination Officers Section’s Lavender Ribbon Report: Best Practices for Preventing Firefighter Cancer. There is certainly no shortage of cancer prevention programs involving hoods, decontamination, and separating work gear from living spaces. The NVFC also offers the Share the Load Program directed at behavioral health issues and suicide prevention. North Carolina and other states have peer support group programs for post-traumatic stress, are working on legislation to include it in workers compensation programs, and have presented the topic at many conferences. Certain types of cancer have been included in North Carolina’s LODD benefit, and other states have passed presumptive cancer legislation.
All of these efforts are less effective if people don’t share and use what’s available to us. Similar to what Skinner said of technology in 1968, we can make the same statement today in reference to programs. “It’s not whether firefighter fatality prevention programs exist, it’s whether we choose to use them.”
Tim Bradley is the executive director of the North Carolina State Firefighters’ Association and serves as the volunteer assistant chief of the Mebane (NC) Fire Department, where he has worked for 45 years. He retired as the senior deputy state fire marshal at the North Carolina Office of State Fire Marshal after 28 years. Bradley authored “The Fire Marshals Handbook” and serves on numerous boards and commissions including the Commission on Professional Credentialing and represents North Carolina as a director with the National Volunteer Fire Council.