(Appeared in print as "Our Own Worst Enemy")
The fire service is a living — or dying, if you will — contradiction. We close our professional conversations with “be safe,” and then go out and do just the opposite. We justify it because we are firefighters; it’s our culture; it’s in the job description.
It has been this way for a very long time. In 1908, Edward Croker, chief of the Fire Department of New York, said the following:
“Firemen are going to get killed. When they join the department they face that fact. When a man becomes a fireman his greatest act of bravery has been accomplished. What he does after that is all in the line of work. … Firefighters do not regard themselves as heroes because they do what the business requires.”
The belief that the business of firefighting requires firefighter deaths is one still held by some in the fire service today, more than a century after Croker’s commentary. That cultural attitude chafes modern fire-service leaders who try to make the occupation safer.
“Would you want to work for him?” Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunacini (Ret.) asked. “That means we have an SOP for dying. They ought to say just the opposite.”
The fire service should and does take risk seriously, according the Chief Philip Stittleburg, chairman of the National Volunteer Fire Council. He and other experts agree that the fire service can safely achieve its goals, in spite of the inherent risks. “If the safety of the ship is the captain’s main job, the ship would never leave the docks,” Stittleburg said.
But while there is no dispute that firefighting is a high-risk profession, the question begs: How can the risk be reduced when many in the service write it off as being an inherent part of the job?
Certainly, safety is at the forefront of our thinking when we seek funding for a new fire apparatus or new station. We also want the safest turnout gear and SCBA, all meeting the latest NFPA safety standards. There’s no doubt those things impact fire service and community safety — but if we are going to talk the talk, we also need to walk the walk. And a fire-service culture steeped in a 1908 mindset doesn’t let us do that.
NFPA statistics paint a troubling picture regarding firefighter death rates. In 2010, the association released a study that reported structural fires and structural firefighter deaths had decreased dramatically since 1977. Alarming, however, is that the number of structure fires has remained relatively unchanged since the middle of the last decade, but the firefighter death rate has increased. So, we are responding to fewer fires, but killing more firefighters in the process. Preliminary reports indicate 81 deaths in 2011, down from 87 in 2010, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. But one or two years does not a trend make. And, we’ve been there before. In 1993, there also were 81 reported firefighter deaths. But the number jumped back up to 119 in 2004, and has since hit 118 twice, in 2007 and 2008. These numbers, of course, exclude losses related to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
One of the questions asked by the NFPA study is whether firefighters are putting themselves at greater risk while battling fires inside structures. In fact, several issues raised in the study point to risk-acceptance decisions made either by the firefighters themselves or the incident commanders. In some cases, the problems arose because there was no consideration of potential risk versus potential gain.
Since 1998, the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety has investigated firefighter deaths and other serious or potentially serious firefighter injury cases in the U.S., through its Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program. After each investigation, a report is issued that examines probable causes for the fatality or injury and recommends what can be done to avoid similar incidents in the future.
An examination of these incident reports from 2007to 2010indicates that as many as 31of the reported 46firefighter traumatic injury deaths at structural fire scenes may have been prevented if more extensive risk/gain analysis had been practiced, either by the firefighters or their incident commanders.