Firefighter Line-of-Duty Deaths: Are we Missing the Big Picture?
By: Dan Kerrigan & John Spera
“The Shortest Route to Fewer Firefighter Deaths is through the Heart.”
-National Fallen Firefighters Foundation
When an operational fire service line-of-duty (LODD) death occurs, we give it our full attention—and rightly so. There is a predictable chain of events for every single fireground operational LODD. The fire service community routinely dissects such incidents from every angle, down to a microscopic level, in order to find the lesson in the tragedy. We look at all the factors, and unfortunately sometimes even offer personal opinions without full knowledge of the circumstances, and blast them across social media. But without a doubt, the lessons learned can be very valuable, especially if deliberate actions are taken to avoid similar circumstances from happening again.
Unfortunately, we have become so used to this approach that we still fail to look honestly and objectively at what's causing the majority of our LODDs: Sudden Cardiac Death (SCD). We look at a SCD through a separate set of eyes—we mourn, we say that we must do a better job of caring for ourselves, and we move forward.
We rarely have the courage to look at the behaviors of the department and the firefighter to identify the cause and make changes based on those factors.
Did the department offer annual medical evaluations? Was workout equipment and training provided? Was there any evidence of a policy-backed fire department wellness program in place to limit the increased health-related risk factors we all know firefighters face?
We are not at all suggesting that we should downplay the importance of investigating every operational LODD. Every LODD is tragic and deserves our utmost attention and effort in order to learn from them and hopefully keep our brothers and sisters from suffering similar fate. Clearly we are part of a profession that must learn from tragedies of the past, and we have certainly seen a steady reduction in operational LODDs in recent years as a result of our efforts.
But we must also truly come to terms with the number one cause of LODDs. We must peel back the curtain of policy and culture that has shielded us from the obvious. We have to give the SCD the same priority and attention. And we must not only focus on the obvious cause, but the underlying story behind it—just as we do when an operational LODD occurs.
The tide is rising in the realm of firefighter health and wellness. We now have many industry leaders who have stepped forward to create the change we so desperately need. Firefighter health and wellness has become a priority in our publications and at our conferences. Our attitudes are slowly changing—the culture of the fire service is being stimulated and infused with the knowledge and tools needed to create a healthier fire service. But we can and must do more. For as long as our approach toward health-related LODDs stops at the intellectual agreement, we will never truly change anything.
It is easy to agree. It is much harder to act. But action on the part of every firefighter, fire chief, and fire department is the only thing that will help end the fire service cardiovascular epidemic. Become a part of the rising tide to create a healthier fire service—take action starting today.
Dan Kerrigan, MS, EFO, CFO is co-author of Firefighter Functional Fitness and Assistant Fire Marshal, East Whiteland (PA) Fire Department. A 30-year fire service veteran, he is a passionate advocate for firefighter health and fitness and regularly researches, presents and is published on firefighter fitness, health & wellness.
The Director of The First Twenty’s Firefighter Functional Training Advisory Panel, he also works closely with the IAFC, NFFF, and NVFC on strategies to improve fitness and reduce health-related LODDs in the fire service. He is a frequent contributor to Fire Engineering Magazine and Firefighter Toolbox.
He was the 2014 recipient of the IAFC-VCOS Emerging Leader Scholarship sponsored by Dr. Richard Gasaway.
Connect with Dan on Twitter (@dankerrigan911 & @FirefighterFFit), on LinkedIn, Facebook (@FirefighterFFit), and at FirefighterFunctionalFitness.com.
John Spera is a career firefighter/paramedic, certified strength and conditioning coach and the founder of Fit to Fight Fire. He is responsible for the health, wellness and fitness of his department. His primary focus is increasing firefighter durability and performance through physical conditioning.