SAFETY: EVERYONE’S CONCERN
The tragic death of Firefighter Todd Colton of the Sedgwick County (KS) Fire Department on September 6, 1990, raises a number of very serious issues concerning firefighter safety, responsibility for ensuring that safety, and the handling of investigations into firefighter fatalities.
Colton died of heat stroke while fighting a brush fire in 95degree weather. His body was located in a remote, unburned area of the fireground more than four hours after the first unit arrived on the scene.
At the request of the International Association of Fire Fighters, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health conducted an investigation of the incident. The report of that investigation concluded that “a preventable series of events” preceded Colton’s death and that “the fire chief…bears the ultimate responsibility” for firefighter safety. The IAFF, in turn, has called for Chief of Department Gary’ Nichols’ resignation.
Inadequate fireground accountability system and communications. Insufficient firefighter rehab. No assigned safety officer. Minimal staffing of front-line rigs. No PASS devices used. These were some of the charges issued through the NIOSH investigation against Sedgwick County Fire Department operations that day. Yet despite those glaring charges, the issue of Nichols’ resignation may not be as clear-cut as some believe.
A thorough investigation> The two-page chronology of events at the Sedgwick incident is at best sketchy and full of holes. While the general recommendations contained within the report are sound, the reconstruction of the facts is far from what this office considers to be a comprehensive fire report. ’Ihe NIOSH synopsis in itself is not adequate criteria for judging the chiefs managerial capabilities and commitment to firefighter safety, even though inferences are apparent.
livery firefighter fatality requires a complete and thorough investigation—we owe it to the deceased, the bereaved families, and firefighters everywhere. 1 call on federal lawmakers to enact legislation that will ensure this. And I call upon the major fire service organizations to construct joint committees that will carry out the investigations for all —not hand-picked — cases.
t Ultimate responsibility? Any chief that refuses to accept the responsibility for his or her department has no business being in the position But let’s be reasonable: Assigning blame to one individual in a situation where there are many players is just too easy and. frankly, is Neanderthal thinking. City fathers must accept responsibility when their political agendas don’t leave much room for life safety measures. Company officers must accept responsibility for maintaining control of firefighter actions at the tactical level. Firefighters have the responsibility to translate their training and experience into effective, “safe” fireground actions. All personnel on the fireground are responsible for risk/benefit analysis as appropriate to their functions.
Resignation or resolution? I must assume that the IAFF has more facts at its disposal than supplied by the NIOSH report on which to base the call for Nichols’ resignation. ThejuneJuly 1991 issue of International Fire Fighter, the organization’s newspaper, did reference an unrelated incident in which a Sedgwick firefighter lost his legs after being hit by a car. Two-member engine companies were cited by the IAFF as the reason for the accident.
I believe the burden of proof to be on the accuser. I think that’s still the way we work it here. So far the IAFF has not fully substantiated its claim. However, this is not a court of law, and the fire service at large is not involved directly in deciding the fate of Chief Nichols, nor should it be. It will be decided by local politicians with input from the local and national union bodies, who will judge whether making systemic and operational changes in Sedgwick County can best be accomplished by removing one human variable from the equation. Dare I say p-p-politics?
I’m playing devil’s advocate here. I’m not personally familiar with Chief Nichols or the operations of the Sedgwick County Fire Department. But some points must be stressed:
Ilic IAFF’s zealous commitment to firefighter health and safety is commendable; its motivation for protecting its members an American right.
Fire departments must strive—leaving no avenue untraveled — to ensure as best they can the safetyof their members. That includes fireground accountability and rehab SOPs. That includes safety officer(s) on the scene. And that includes hitting city management on the travesty of two-member companies. A lot of creativity, positive valuation, and persuasion.
Finally, we must pursue an investigative process that is consistent, thorough, balanced, and fair. It’s a firefighter’s right. Let all the facts be told before jumping to painful conclusions.