Are You Prepared to PREVENT a Line of Duty Death?
Each year the American Fire Service consistently experiences an average of over 100 line of duty deaths. Furthermore, we know that the number of “working fires” is down approximately 66% in comparison to the number reported in the mid 1970’s. So what is this score card saying? I would suggest this can be attributed to nothing more than attitudes. We need to change our attitudes. “There is no where in the corporate world that one could come in and give an annual report that stated we had a good year, we only lost 100 employees that you would not be escorted out the door before you could get your personal items in a box.” Ron Siarnicki of the National Fallen Fire Fighters Foundation (NFFF) made this statement during a NFFF presentation. Guess what…HE IS CORRECT! Why do we as leaders in this profession continue to allow these issues to occur? Why do we continue to consider it an honor to die in the line of duty? Why are we so resistant to change? We call it tradition! Well, as a fire service leader I have to say, “GET OVER OLD and BAD TRADITIONS; START SAFE NEW ONES!” Ok, if I stepped on some toes here, GOOD; they probably needed stepping on. We cannot afford to continue to allow the same mistakes to occur over and over again. At some point, we have to start saying that firefighter injuries and Line of Duty Deaths (LODD) are not acceptable anymore on our watch. We must “Change” this culture and the time is now.
One area that we know we can control the environment and have good chances of preventing a line of duty death is training. But in 2005, we had 10 line of duty deaths occur during training events. This equates to 10% of the total line of duty deaths for that year. Secondly, responding to and returning from emergency incidents accounted for 26 line of duty deaths or 59%. Deaths in vehicle crashes continue to account for a significant number of these annual Fire Service member fatalities. How many of these could have been prevented? How many were not wearing their seat belts? How many was speed a contributing factor? The answer to the last two questions is “far too many”.
Let’s look at how we can reduce these numbers. We can begin this today by changing the thought process as new firefighters enter the fire training academies across the United States. We can further implement these positive changes with our existing firefighter corps by investing more of our time and efforts to change the present day Fire Service dinosaurs’ mindset. These mindsets tend to negatively influence the new recruits freshly deployed in the field and create dinosaur eggs that then develop into dinosaurs themselves.
We need to develop and implement Comprehensive Health and Wellness Programs. These programs need to include physical training, medical evaluations, and mental conditioning. With more and more firefighters perishing due to heart attacks and strokes (44 in 2005) we need to make sure that we are in the best physical condition to do this job. I further think that the statistics are some what skewed. When we experience line of duty deaths of older Fire Service members who die after emergency responses and did not directly engage in fire suppression activities, should it be questioned whether or not these individuals have already experienced cardiac related medical issues that should be considered “Red Flags” concerning their readiness for this type of duty. How many departments are providing and requiring comprehensive medical evaluations (NFPA 1582) for all of their members? If you are not, you should explore ways to make this part of your overall safety plan. Many times comprehensive medical evaluations have uncovered health issues that would have otherwise gone undetected. These types of physical evaluations need to be conducted at least annually. Simply as your grandmother would say, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Further, we need to evaluate and support physical fitness (NFPA 1583). Each firefighter must be encouraged and assisted to set personal fitness goals because each individual is different. Department physical fitness goals and standards should be created to provide for every member’s established fitness needs so they may perform core job responsibilities safely and effectively. Lastly, we must have qualitative and quantitative testing of physical fitness. This testing should never be used punitively, but as a teaching and learning tool.
Training is paramount. We must continue to enhance our training in every aspect. We often read NIOSH reports that basic and routine components of our profession are not performed adequately and these factors directly contribute to line of duty deaths and injuries. So why can’t we perform the basics? Is it because we have the mentality of “I been there done that and I don’t need to do that anymore”. Next, we need to focus on realism. We must deal with the adverse mentality of “that wouldn’t happen to us” or “that’s the big city stuff; it’s not going to happen here”. Well, last time I checked fire and other types of emergency situations do not discriminate. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from. Reality check — who would have thought that an aircraft with terrorists on board would crash in rural Pennsylvania? We must train hard, train realistically and train often. By doing this we stoke our tool boxes with the right tools for the job.
In closing, we must have the courage to say “NO” and the courage to be safe. We must do the right thing ourselves, our firefighters and their families. Prevent a line of duty death by changing the attitudes and culture in your departments and have the courage to be safe! The families at home depend on us all to be strong advocates for the safety of their love ones. Become part of the solution. Support the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and the Fire Service quest of “EVERYONE GOES HOME”.
Douglas K. Cline, is a 29-year Fire Service veteran serving as Training Commander with the High Point (NC) Fire Department. Cline also serves as Administrative Assistant Chief with the Ruffin VFD and as a member of the NCFFF Board of Directors.