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Firefighters risk their lives to save lives and property. Many lives have been lost and hard lessons learned. Because of these lessons, we have discovered better ways to build homes and fight fires.

 

We have inspired building codes and code enforcement that have reduced the number of structure fires over the years. Yet, newer building materials and designs often make fire burn farther and faster than before. The "open floor plans" that homeowners want today offer few fire breaks. A kitchen fire used to be contained in the room by a door, thus limiting oxygen and fuel availability, containing the fire to one room. This would allow a little extra response time for the firefighters to save the home and contain the fire to the one room. Today the "open floor plan" means that a kitchen fire now spreads to the dining and living areas quickly with plenty of oxygen and more fuel. Even a very fast response often results in protecting neighboring structures and controlling the burn. (Mandatory sprinklers in new construction homes will save lives and property, but that discussion is for another day.)

 

Cutbacks in funding and staffing further add to the problem. The increased risk is felt by the firefighters. The nature of the job is to take risks to help save lives and structures. Even though we are seeing fewer structure fires each year, we are still having roughly the same number of fire scene deaths and injuries.

 

Firefighting has been and always will be a dangerous activity. Firefighters go into uncontrolled situations and do whatever it takes to bring the situation under control. All the while the focus is on saving lives and property at the risk of personal safety. Over the years, firefighters have become conditioned to take greater and greater risks. It shows in the increase in the number of injuries and deaths per fire in the U.S.

 

A recent study done by the University of Georgia1 found that cultural expectations have led to an increase in risk taking. "Firefighting culture should not be construed as one of negligence, but one based on a long-standing tradition of acceptance of risk. A job that relies on extreme individual efforts and has too few resources leads to the chronic condition of doing too much with too little" said David DeJoy, co-author of the study.


"If you get used to taking risks, it's easy to take a little more risk," David DeJoy said, "Most of the time when we take risks, like walking across the street or driving a car, nothing bad happens. This level of risk gets ratcheted up and becomes part of normal activity." Acceptance of risk becomes extremely perilous in a situation in which adverse events can happen at any time and margins of safety are very thin," he added.

If this sounds familiar in your department, then it is time to change!

 

I found this story recently: A fire captain was injured when he climbed a ladder unassisted to get to a fire. As he reached the top of the ladder he missed the roof with his foot and hit the rain gutter. This resulted in him losing balance. The ladder tipped and slid from the roof, and he fell from the edge of the rooftop to the driveway. He ended up in the hospital, because he had chosen to go up on the ladder without the required person supporting it from the ground.


The significant part of the story is the way it was viewed and discussed by reporters and fire officials. The perspective given was that the injury was caused by recent cutbacks due to budget problems. This takes the individual’s decision out of the equation when the individual’s decision to do the work UNSAFELY was the primary cause of the injury.


Sadly the cause of the injury was that the fire captain chose to do something in an unsafe way. That’s not to say that there are times you take greater risks to save a life. In this case it was a garage on fire. The better choice would have been to wait for more help and have a fire fighter hold the ladder. Putting safety first may have resulted in greater damage to the building; however, the fire captain would not have been injured.

Which headline is better? "Due to recent cutbacks we lost the building!" or "Due to recent cutbacks we lost a firefighter!" The only difference is the decision to act unsafely.

 

The Fire Service needs a new philosophy! New recruits and the "Old Dogs" need to be trained to respond to all calls as safely as possible, instead of as quickly as possible.

 

Firefighters practice donning gear as quickly as possible. They practice catching hydrants and pulling hose as quickly as possible. The location of tools and equipment on the trucks is standardized so the right tool for the job can be found as quickly as possible. Speed is vital to the fire service. But just like in manufacturing, the product is made with "Quality before Quantity," the Fire Service needs to put "Safety before Speed!"

Firefighters have dedicated their lives to protect and save other people. Now it is time to dedicate your lives to protecting yourselves while you protect others.

 

References


1 Authors: Kumar Kunadharaju, Todd D. Smith and David M. DeJoy


 Line-of-duty deaths among U.S. firefighters: An analysis of fatality investigations

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Replies to This Discussion

Jay, so true.

Mike,  After dedictating my life to helping people when they needed it most, I can now focus on helping those who help others.  I know you guys are working toward reaching this goal, but it is a slow and difficult process.  Thanks for the support and let me kow what I can do to help!

 

Jay

Mike France said:

Jay, so true.

You know i will Jay, I will be getting a hold of you soon to come down for a drill

Jay Lewandowski said:

Mike,  After dedictating my life to helping people when they needed it most, I can now focus on helping those who help others.  I know you guys are working toward reaching this goal, but it is a slow and difficult process.  Thanks for the support and let me kow what I can do to help!

 

Jay

Mike France said:

Jay, so true.

Jay, excellent point of view and I couldn't agree more. Interesting enough this past Janaury I had a close call that shouldn't of happened. See here: http://community.fireengineering.com/forum/topic/show?id=1219672%3A...

There are many beating this same drum! We all need to beat it as loud as we can so we can make this culture shift so one day we can see all of our brother and sisters return home each and everyday year after year.

Wow, You are very lucky.  When I give Safety seminars I explain that Firefighters take on the task of responding to uncontrolled situations and overcoming them to bring them under control.  Many of the accidents that occur in the Fire service happen in uncontrolled situations.  Nearly 90% of our accidents have human error as a primary contributing cause.

The only thing we can hope to do is train and enforce our safety rules as strictly as possible.  Be aware of our surroundings and look for those unusual situations that can cause injury.  The draw attention to them so maybe our experiences can help others.  Thanks for sharing your story and pictures.

Hi Jay,

You bring up a really important point: that the choice of engaging in a high risk action or a low risk action is an individual decison.  The problem in the US fire service is that firefighters are not trained how to make good risk management decisions.  Other high-risk occupations, the military, and other fire service organizations around the world use a systematic process of operational risk management for making risk/benefit decisions during operational activities.  In the fire service, firefighters and company officers are directly engaged in the operational activities that create the hazards that put them at risk.  As a result, these are the individuals who must make critical risk/benefit decisions during emergency incident operations. Therefore, these are the individuals who who need to be trained to make good risk management decisions. 

 

When firefighters make good risk management decision, the result is improved safety and better operatioal results. Good risk management decisions result in effective and efficient use of limited resources, putting them where they can do the most good.  Bad risk management decisions degrade operational effectiveness.  When a firefigher becomse lost, trapped, or injured, resources that would otherwise be used to save the lives of civilians or their property are directed toward saving the firefighter. 

 

The recommendations in the recent study of line of duty deaths are necessary but not sufficientto reduce firefighter casualties.  In order to reduce injuries and fatalities, firefighters and company officers must be trained to make better risk management decisions.  The ability to make good risk/benefit decisions requires more than a statement or two about how much risk should be taken for how much benefit.  Operational risk management is a new skill for the US fire service and requires an extensive effort to train operational personnel to think differently and make different individual decisions about how much risk is appropriate and acceptable.  Unfortunately, it is apparent that until we accept personal responsibility for making good risk management decisions, we will continue to see high rates of firefighter injuries and fatalities. 

 

Best regards, Bill

William Pessemier

CEO

Firefighter Safety Research Institute

 

 

Bill,

 

You are so right.  We have studied the risks and risk/benefits enough to know what needs to be done.  Now is the time to do something.  I am fortunate to have the opportunity to present information to over 200 fire departments across New York.

 

I hammer on personal responsibility and after I provide the training I follow up with the Chief's to find out what, if anything, they have done to increase personal accountability.  In most cases I have seen some tangible improvement.  But as you said, this is a long process that requires cultural change and personal accountability.

 

Now is the time to teach Risk Management in the Fire Service.  Then help to hold one another accountable for these decisions.  I approach this using each department's loss history and then compare it to the National Average, using NFPA statistics.  Then I point out the level of personal decision making that contributes to the preventable accidents.  I know that my 2-hour, Drill Night presentations will never make a safety program complete, but perhaps these events will raise awareness and ultimately influence a cultural change, improving safety in the fire Service.

If you ave any suggestions or examples that you think would be memorable in a pressnetaiton that I could use, I would appreciate it. 

 

Many thanks!

 

Jay Lewandowski

 



William Pessemier said:

Hi Jay,

You bring up a really important point: that the choice of engaging in a high risk action or a low risk action is an individual decison.  The problem in the US fire service is that firefighters are not trained how to make good risk management decisions.  Other high-risk occupations, the military, and other fire service organizations around the world use a systematic process of operational risk management for making risk/benefit decisions during operational activities.  In the fire service, firefighters and company officers are directly engaged in the operational activities that create the hazards that put them at risk.  As a result, these are the individuals who must make critical risk/benefit decisions during emergency incident operations. Therefore, these are the individuals who who need to be trained to make good risk management decisions. 

 

When firefighters make good risk management decision, the result is improved safety and better operatioal results. Good risk management decisions result in effective and efficient use of limited resources, putting them where they can do the most good.  Bad risk management decisions degrade operational effectiveness.  When a firefigher becomse lost, trapped, or injured, resources that would otherwise be used to save the lives of civilians or their property are directed toward saving the firefighter. 

 

The recommendations in the recent study of line of duty deaths are necessary but not sufficientto reduce firefighter casualties.  In order to reduce injuries and fatalities, firefighters and company officers must be trained to make better risk management decisions.  The ability to make good risk/benefit decisions requires more than a statement or two about how much risk should be taken for how much benefit.  Operational risk management is a new skill for the US fire service and requires an extensive effort to train operational personnel to think differently and make different individual decisions about how much risk is appropriate and acceptable.  Unfortunately, it is apparent that until we accept personal responsibility for making good risk management decisions, we will continue to see high rates of firefighter injuries and fatalities. 

 

Best regards, Bill

William Pessemier

CEO

Firefighter Safety Research Institute

 

I can attest to Jay's concern for this issue, Jay is our Workers Comp Rep. and we invited Jay this past weekend to a drill to observe and make any cooments on how we could change things . But the one key factor that is left is to change the mindset of the OLDER members [ older than I] who are Board members and make them understand that Safety is key in our job.

This is exactly spot on brother.

In my department we answer to the fire commisioners, which is populated by older past members who were taught "Old School", and they allow my chief to purchase ONLY TWO SETS of turnout gear a year.  Just last year alone we voted in 5 new interior trained firefighters that needed gear, and our stock of gear was all too old for interior use.  To try and explain this to them was an amazingly unbelievable experience.  They were more concerned with the money (we are volunteer, not for profit) than they were the safety of these new members.  We finaly got three new sets out of them with permission to buy 3 more in 6 months.

 

Its hard to change the way the old school members think when they used to run into fires with only a canvas coat and gloves, hip boots and a leather helmet and thought that was a safe practice.

 

Todays fires are more dangerous, filled with plastics and rubbers and synthetic materials...They get hotter and produce more dangerous by-products yet to buy up-to-date air packs, thermal imagers, and turnout gear for new members is not viewed as appropriate safety practices??  Its going to be a long hard fight, but thats how we got here to begin with I guess!! LOL

Stay Safe brother.

Mike France said:

I can attest to Jay's concern for this issue, Jay is our Workers Comp Rep. and we invited Jay this past weekend to a drill to observe and make any cooments on how we could change things . But the one key factor that is left is to change the mindset of the OLDER members [ older than I] who are Board members and make them understand that Safety is key in our job.

I totally understand.  I fought my first fire with a 3/4 coat and boots.  I used somebody else's steel pot!  My coat had buckles for crying out loud.  Some old guys have not kept up with the changes in structures, materials, building types and many other factors.  Each department has training on these things, but the Commissioner's do not attend.  This is crazy.  They require training and the training demands new and better equipment.  But when those of us who receive the knowledge come to them for the required equipment they balk.  I think that anyone who is on a Fire department Commission should be required to go through the trainings within the department.  They should be required to attend at least 80% of the trainings.  Otherwise we are  going to continue to have infighting and frustration.  Funny how they can spend $100,000's on a new truck with all the cool stuff, but cannot spend a few hundred dollars to protect the men.

 

When the safety of the members is at stake the Commission needs to be decommissioned!

Brian Jones said:

This is exactly spot on brother.

In my department we answer to the fire commisioners, which is populated by older past members who were taught "Old School", and they allow my chief to purchase ONLY TWO SETS of turnout gear a year.  Just last year alone we voted in 5 new interior trained firefighters that needed gear, and our stock of gear was all too old for interior use.  To try and explain this to them was an amazingly unbelievable experience.  They were more concerned with the money (we are volunteer, not for profit) than they were the safety of these new members.  We finaly got three new sets out of them with permission to buy 3 more in 6 months.

 

Its hard to change the way the old school members think when they used to run into fires with only a canvas coat and gloves, hip boots and a leather helmet and thought that was a safe practice.

 

Todays fires are more dangerous, filled with plastics and rubbers and synthetic materials...They get hotter and produce more dangerous by-products yet to buy up-to-date air packs, thermal imagers, and turnout gear for new members is not viewed as appropriate safety practices??  Its going to be a long hard fight, but thats how we got here to begin with I guess!! LOL

Stay Safe brother.

Mike France said:

I can attest to Jay's concern for this issue, Jay is our Workers Comp Rep. and we invited Jay this past weekend to a drill to observe and make any cooments on how we could change things . But the one key factor that is left is to change the mindset of the OLDER members [ older than I] who are Board members and make them understand that Safety is key in our job.

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