100. It’s a nice round number; however, in this case there is nothing nice about it. In both law enforcement and the fire service, this number represents a benchmark we would like to avoid. Annual line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) seem to hover around 100 for cops and firefighters. Both disciplines use this number as a target: Law enforcement has the Below 100 initiative, and the fire service has Everyone Goes Home from the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (view our free on-demand Below 100 webinar). Both programs are designed to bring attention to the situations and circumstances that contribute to police officer and firefighter line-of-duty deaths and serious injuries.
In the beginning of my career I never gave this number much thought. I knew firefighters died in the line of duty, of course, but like many other participants in risky activities, I pushed it out of my mind. Only when I took on responsibility for others did my awareness of and concern about this number increase.
I had a few close calls over the years but never anything that really came close to “buying the farm.” My mindset really changed after a knee injury on a wildfire and a surgeon suggesting I find a “desk job.” Fortunately, I was able to transition to a training chief’s position, where I began to focus on how to prevent firefighter injury and death.
At that time (2004) we were seeing an approximate average of 100 firefighter line-of-duty-deaths per year. The numbers roughly broke down into blocks of 50, 25 and 25:
• Approximately 50 firefighters were dying each year from medical issues relating to their job activities, such as heart attacks and strokes.
• Approximately 25 were dying from vehicle incidents when responding to, returning from or operating at emergency scenes (many of these deaths may have been prevented if firefighters wore their seat belts).
• Another 25 were killed by all the other hazards associated with emergency scenes: thermal assault, suffocation, trauma from being struck by objects, collapse and electricity, to name a few.
My solution (or at least attempted solution) was to focus our training program on these general areas of concern. I designed our training program to encourage better physical fitness, focused on driver training and safety, and transitioned much of our training time toward the high-risk, low-frequency events that tend to injure and kill.
“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” – American Idiom
My organization’s efforts regarding training were well supported and funded. We spent a great deal of energy doing multi-company drills and education. Because of our aggressive schedule, we often had training planned early in our work day. This training often pre-empted our scheduled wellness time, making it more difficult to concentrate on physical fitness. When I arrived at our training division I made it a priority to honor our members’ wellness hour. I stopped scheduling drills during wellness time and encouraged captains to get their crews in the gym.
There was no mandate to use the wellness time for wellness, so participation was up to the individual. My goal was to encourage them to stay fit, or at least remove the excuse that it was “training’s fault” (training chiefs know exactly what I mean!) that they weren’t working out regularly.
Our organization had its share of accidents; fortunately, we had no serious personnel injuries. I knew, however, that like any department, we were susceptible to a serious accident at any time. We had policies for wearing seat belts and requiring minimum standards for drivers, but we wanted to do even more to improve driver training and encourage the use of seat belts. Note: Our primary motivation in requiring seat belts was not to decrease department liability, but to prevent injury and death. The wellbeing of our personnel was important to the department and to the members’ families.
When I was at the National Fire Academy, I took the seatbelt pledge. I made a commitment to myself, my family and my department to always wear my seat belt. Our chief at the time attempted to get our entire department to do the same. Unfortunately, the seat belt pledge was viewed as a potential means to impose discipline rather than encourage safety. This request was not greeted enthusiastically by our line personnel. The lesson I took away from that experience was how important relationships are when you are leading people to safety. Even the best intentions will be greeted with skepticism if your people don’t trust you.
Our second strategy for driver safety was adoption of a professional driver training curriculum. Firefighters drive the equivalent of a “big rig” truck but often without the same type of training as an over-the-road trucker. We had one captain with truck-driving experience who introduced me to the Smith System. After a little research, we decided that this would be a good training program for all our drivers. We invested time and money and sent training officers to become train-the-trainer instructors. We brought everyone through the program and even made the lessons learned part of our future engineer promotional exams. At first, personnel balked at the training, but eventually they came to embrace it.
Did it work? It’s difficult to measure. As I said before, we had some accidents in the past but none too serious. We did have some accidents after training but again—and fortunately—none too serious. We don’t know how many accidents were avoided due to the training; not all near-misses are reported by drivers. Often, training is similar to fire prevention efforts. Can we truly calculate how many fires are prevented because of our fire prevention inspections? Or how many millions of dollars we save in property losses when we extinguish a house fire? How far would the fire have spread if we didn’t get in its way? These questions are almost impossible to answer. Bottom line? We had a good program to create better drivers in an effort to save lives and reduce loss.
High-Risk, Low-Frequency Events
The last 25 percent of our LODDs occur from hazards we encounter on the emergency scene. To reduce this number, we must train to identify and control the hazards.
Our personnel are responding to hundreds and thousands of calls for service each year; however, fewer and fewer of these calls are for fires. Modern construction, building codes and fire codes have reduced the incidents of fire nationwide. Yet modern advances have also created more problems. Compared to the legacy furnishings of the early to mid-20th century, contemporary furnishings are basically solidified petroleum products just waiting for some heat to convert them back to liquid and gaseous forms. Once ignited, they lead to rapid fire growth and quicker flashovers.
The combination of fewer fires and more volatile fires sets the young firefighter up for disaster. We must ensure that our training is adapting adequately and pass on our lessons learned.
Our organization spent a good deal of effort studying modern firefighting techniques and creating standard operating procedures to follow on the emergency scene. We also added more companies to alarms to provide additional support to firefighters. We adopted a standard curriculum from the Nobody Gets Left Behind Training Group (one of their mottos is “preventing the next 100”) and trained all personnel in our county in firefighter survival and rescue techniques.
Predictable Is Preventable
These are a few examples of what my department did to improve firefighter safety. Our goal was to not add to the annual firefighter line-of-duty death statistic. By no means am I saying we had all the answers; there are countless approaches to improving safety and survival. But every one of them should start with an analysis of what is contributing to LODDs and injuries, and then what you can do to prevent further incidents. When you know what is causing the problem you can predict what will occur if you take no action. Better yet, you know what you need to do to stop it from happening. You know what Gordon Graham says: “Predictable is preventable.”
Teaching new members to recognize the situations that can lead to injury and death, and teaching them what to do when they encounter such circumstances, can go a long way in preventing tragedies. Creating specific programs to address the known problems is essential if we are going to break the cycle of repetition that we see each year in the LODD reports.
Our brothers and sisters in law enforcement are faced with similar and increasing numbers of LODDs. Next month I’ll take a look at how law enforcement approaches the effort to reduce LODDs and how it can inform our efforts. When either team loses a member, we are all hurt and grieve. Cops sometimes bleed red and firefighters sometimes bleed blue. If we learn from each other, we can all bleed a little less often.
SEAN STUMBAUGH is a management services representative for Lexipol. He retired in 2015 after 32 years in the American fire service, serving as battalion chief for the Cosumnes Fire Department in Elk Grove, Calif., as well as the El Dorado Hills (Calif.) Fire Department and the Freedom (Calif.) Fire District. Sean has a master’s degree in Leadership and Disaster Preparedness from Grand Canyon University, a bachelor’s degree in Fire Science from Columbia Southern University, and an associate degree from Cabrillo College in Fire Protection Technology. In addition to his formal education, he is a Certified Fire Officer, Chief Officer, and Instructor III in the California State Fire Training certification program. Sean has taught numerous state fire training courses and has been an adjunct professor with Cosumnes River College in Sacramento.