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Everyone Goes Home: The Firefighter Life Safety Summit

By R. David Paulison

**For a brief slide show of Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives, click here.**

On Sept. 11, 2001, 347 firefighters died amid flames and fear and dust and steel when the Twin Towers crashed to the ground. That day brought a focus on the ultimate sacrifice given by the nation’s firefighters. But what was obscured that day by the haze of mourning and outrage was the understanding that the line-of-duty deaths that day was unusual only in their number not their occurrence. Firefighters die in the line of duty nearly 100 times a year - every single year - in burning buildings and wildfires and vehicles and training and dozens of other instances. In fact, almost the same number of firefighters have lost their lives since 9-11 as died on that terrible day. And while the toll from 9-11 is set at 347, the toll for fire service as a whole grows and grows.

As firefighters, we mourn the loss of comrades each year in private, in local ceremonies and at the annual Fallen Firefighters Memorial. The mourning, though, is simply not enough. This past March, a first-of-its-kind Firefighter Life Safety Summit was held in Tampa, Fla. Sponsored by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and the U.S. Fire Administration, with the support of Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security, the summit brought together more than 200 fire and emergency service representatives from more than 100 organizations and departments. The summit attendees produced a preliminary report that detailed initiatives and recommendations for drastically reducing firefighter fatalities and injuries. This April, a follow-up meeting was held in Arizona to review the report and begin putting action behind the words.

The momentum is now building toward accomplishing a significant goal -- reducing firefighter deaths by 25 percent within 5 years and 50 percent in 10 years. Take a moment to think about that goal - it means dozens, ultimately hundreds, of men and women will go home safe after their shift. It means they will see their children grow up and their families will have a parent, a sister, an uncle, a son sitting around the Thanksgiving dinner table each year rather than lying in a final resting place. Look at yourself and your department. The lives that are saved may be theirs - or yours.

Sixteen initiatives came out of the summit. Briefly, they are:

      1.    Define and advocate the need for cultural change related to safety, leadership, management and personal responsibility;

      2.    Enhance the personal and organizational accountability for health and safety;

      3.    Focus greater attention on the integration of risk management with incident management at all levels;

      4.    Empower all firefighters to stop unsafe practices;

      5.    Develop and implement national standards for training, qualifications and certification;

      6.    Develop and implement national medical and physical fitness standards;

      7.    Create a national research agenda and data collection system that relates to initiatives;

      8.    Use available technology to produce higher levels of health and safety;

      9.    Investigate all firefighter fatalities, injuries and near misses;

      10.   Ensure grant programs support the use of safe practices and/or mandate safe practices as an eligibility requirement;

      11.   Develop and champion national standards for emergency response policies and procedures;

      12.   Develop and champion national protocols for response to violent incidents;

      13.   Provide firefighters and their families with access to counseling and psychological support;

      14.   Provide public education with more resources and champion it as a critical fire and life safety program;

      15.   Strengthen advocacy for the enforcement of codes and installation of home fire sprinklers;

      16.   Make safety a primary consideration in the design of apparatus and equipment.

These initiatives are not necessarily new or represent land-breaking inventions; they are based on information and fundamental truths and may cause discomfort and even controversy. They will also take a huge commitment of energy and resources over several years. We need not shy away due to either the size of the commitment or the fear of controversy. We can no longer accept that dying on the job is a normal way of doing business. Yes, the work is inherently dangerous and no, the death toll for firefighters will never be zero. But firefighters are dying unnecessarily and that must stop.

As work on these initiatives gathers steam, the U.S. Fire Administration and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation will strive to keep you informed. You need to stay aware, involved and interested. Achieving our goals will not happen overnight and it will not happen without you.

Every individual in the fire service has to accept personal responsibility for his or her health and safety and the health and safety of their colleagues. Leaders and members of fire departments and fire service organizations must be accountable for themselves and for others. The work is inherently dangerous but we must manage risks, to function safely within an unsafe environment. Risk management will play a key role in reducing deaths. Risk management means identifying situations where predictable risks are likely to be encountered and then making decisions that will reduce, eliminate or avoid them. While we are willing to sacrifice our lives, it should not be taken as an excuse to take unnecessary risks. Firefighters shouldn’t be losing their lives while trying to save property that is already lost or people who are already dead.

The time has come for mandatory training and qualification standards based on what duties an individual is expected to perform, no matter what their status is within the fire service or the type of organization. Standards must be clearly defined. A basic system of professional qualifications standards already exists, but applicability depends on too many different factors to be effective. Qualification and certification standards also must require continuing education, refresher courses or some other training component and not be a certification for life that requires no additional action throughout a firefighter’s time in service.

Mandatory physical standards must also be implemented. An increased emphasis on health and wellness is essential to reduce the number of deaths from heart attacks and other cardiovascular causes. Statistics show that this could be one area of significant reductions in loss of life, particularly in the volunteer firefighter departments.  In support of this, USFA, in partnership with the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), has recently developed the Health and Wellness Guide for the Volunteer Fire Service.  This document, which provides detailed information and examples of effective health and wellness programs aimed at the needs of the volunteer firefighter, is available free of charge from USFA in print and Portable Document Format and from the NVFC on CD-ROM. 

Another productive strategy for reducing risk is to simply reduce the frequency and severity of fires. Easily said, not easily done. Code development and enforcement and adoption of automatic sprinkler laws are all important measures that will be expanded on in support of our goal.

USFA recently started the National Residential Fire Sprinkler Initiative which outlines specific national strategies that might reduce the number of deaths, including those of firefighters, due to home fires each year.

More information on this can be found on the following page of our Web site: http://www.usfa.fema.gov/inside-usfa/media/2003releases/03-071503.shtm

And, finally, greater emphasis must be placed on revising emergency response policies. An average of 10 firefighters are killed each year in vehicle accidents while responding to emergency incidents, often related to excessive speed and unsafe driving. Culture change in this area can start with something easy - wear your seat belt!  USFA has numerous programs aimed at enhancing emergency vehicle safety; further information may be found on this page of our web site: http://www.usfa.fema.gov/inside-usfa/research/safety/vehicle.shtm

You can read the entire Summit report by going to www.firehero.org. I urge you to read the report, to visit the USFA Web site for updates and to get your department involved in this revolution. Being a firefighter is a privilege and an honor. It is also hard, difficult work that requires many sacrifices. We need to ensure that the job does not require more sacrifices than are necessary.

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
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Last Updated  March 24, 2005
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