(Appeared in print as "Some Traditions Aren't Worth Keeping")
I may be passionate about getting firefighters to wear their seatbelts, but I pale in comparison to Burton Clark, the management-science program chair at the National Fire Academy and visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University Center for Injury Research and Policy.
In 2006 — after learning that an NFA student died after falling from a responding apparatus — Clark became a one-man campaign to get every fire department in the U.S. to sign a seatbelt pledge, promsing 100% compliance. To date, more than 850 departments and 150,000 individuals have signed the seatbelt pledge. It has been endorsed by the , the NVFC and , among others; promoted in our magazine pages and on our website; and now is being signed by departments around the world.
So why do we keep harping about seatbelts? Because we still need to. In the first seven weeks of this year, four firefighters died in apparatus accidents while unbuckled: Pensylvania firefighter Brandon Little, 19; North Carolina firefighter Samuel Butler, 52; Virginia firefighter Zachary Whitacre, 21; and Pensylvania firefighter David Flint, 49. Every first responder in North America needs to hear the seatbelt message.
Clark believes that part of the problem stems from what he calls “Ben’s DNA.” He is referring to a talk Chief Alan Brunacini once gave at a Public Entity Risk Institute Symposium. Brunacini related — as only he can — that 275 years ago, Ben Franklin taught “his fire lads” that they needed to be fast, needed to be close to the fire and needed to get the fire wet. Brunacini went on to say that Franklin knew that anyone who tried to tame fire certainly would take great risk, which could result in injury or death. While the need to be fast, close and wet has adapted and changed with technology, firefighters and citizens still see risk as a routine part of a firefighter’s job.
Surely, firefighting is risky business and injury and even death can occur, but not all firefighters who die in the line of duty should have died — many LODDs can be prevented. NIOSH investigations have proved that time and time again. Too often, it is expected as part of the job. But it doesn’t need to be. (For more on this topic, read this issue’s cover story.)
As we hear more about staffing declines, lightweight construction, faster fuel loads and budget chokeholds on departments, we are hearing of no interior firefighting and defense-only tactics. Why? Because it’s not worth risking firefighters’ lives on a building that will be bulldozed the next morning. While zero firefighting injuries and deaths are unrealistic goals, incident commanders must be realistic about what firefighters can and can’t do, and everyone needs to be responsible for safety.
Should firefighters who die in preventable LODDs be buried as heroes? Should Public Safety Officer Benefits be paid to survivors of firefighters who didn’t follow standard operating procedures or rules? Should the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation honor firefighters who die while failing to follow orders?
I’m sure there will be some very passionate answers to these questions. I’m also sure there won’t be any easy answers. But we need to continue to ask how and why firefighters are being injured and dying.
Are you asking the right questions?