PERI Symposium on Firefighter Deaths and Injuries

Review of the PERI “Reducing Firefighter Deaths and Injuries: Changes in Concept, Policy, and Practice” Symposium Information

Near the end of September 2008, the Public Entity Risk Institute (PERI) conducted an online symposium for the purpose of looking into how to reduce firefighter deaths and injuries. Being an online or virtual gathering, a total of 19 papers, not counting introduction and closing, were posted during 10 days and open for forum discussion. The authors were notable fire service figures, a psychiatrist and others with experience in studying risk taking personalities. For review purposes this entry will briefly summarize each presenter’s paper as well as provide references.

Introduction to the Symposium
John Granito Ed.D. Symposium Coordinator
A general introduction, Dr. Granito notes that efforts to reduce line of duty injuries and deaths has a nationwide unified support yet the number of deaths show evidence of little change. He states the following “Many persons began to judge that we need to identify additional, new concepts about overall safety, leadership and supervision, looking once more at such areas as aggressive interior attack, general suppression tactics, “organizational culture”, firefighter wellness, and vehicle operations.” While nearly all the terms in this quote could be easily defined by even the youngest and inexperienced of firefighters, “organizational culture” is the least likely to be properly defined.
Organizational culture, defined best by Edgar Schein
[1], is a pattern of shared basic assumptions that a group learned by solving problems of external adaptation and internal integration. Those results worked well enough that they became valid for teaching new members of the group the correct way to exist with those problems. In “backstep” terms, the proven idea that you crawl in, get close to the seat of the fire and extinguish it, thereby removing the danger, solves the problem for us and the occupants and is generally the routine choice to make at the next fire presented. Our culture, our relationships in the firehouse, combined with our individual and corporate experiences dictate what we will most likely think to do at each alarm. Leaders (senior men, line officers, chief officers) that are not aware of their own cultures will become managed by the culture itself. “Tradition”, so often used to sneeringly describe why we do what we do becomes the last retort in a discussion about changing tactics or looking at a different method of fire attack. This culture dynamic in turn creates biases for each member. Personal beliefs, values and assumptions are shaped by organizational culture and cause individuals to question other individuals who may appear “different”. We are all familiar with this, just not as obvious as we might know. Everyone has Truck Company so and so that for some reason can’t get ladders to the building or take their assigned position. Likewise, any member we meet from Truck__ is initially considered as a yard shepherd, even though we know nothing about the guy. On the other hand Engine__ across town might always have a guy slightly burned every now and then but since they are as aggressive as we are, then they are doing the job right, right?

Preventing Firefighter Line of Duty Deaths…The Role of the National Fallen Fire Fighters Foundation
Chief Dennis Compton
This is a short overview of the purpose and efforts of the NFFF and partner organizations to reduce the number of line of duty deaths. By 2010 the goal is to have reduced the number by 25%.

In March 2004 the first meeting of 250 participants created the “16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives”. As the years moved on, the organizations developed additional resources and training in an effort to bring these initiatives to firefighters nationwide. Three years later, it was determined that more attention be given to the following areas:
Fitness for Duty
Vehicle Operations and Awareness
Offensive/Defensive Strategy
Crew Integrity in the Hot Zone

With the same original summit participants in attendance, as well as other fire service figures, they looked at the original sixteen initiatives and grouped them by commonality. Listed first in the grouping is “Change Fire Service Culture – Attitudes and Behavior”.
It is recognized that the culture that encourages and accepts unsafe behavior is the priority to focus on if we want to make improvements and reach that 25% reduction goal by next year (2010). This will require many departments and individuals to make a stand this year and possibly go against the grain of the very ones they are riding with. This is a hard choice for many; do I speak up about ___ getting his ears burned because he didn’t wear his hood, even though he got that lady out? Do I agree that he is a hero or is he doing his job, in a reckless and lucky manner? A hard choice indeed, the summit from 2007 calls us to not use the term” hero” for an individual who acts recklessly and disregards known safety procedures. Likewise they state that it should apply when the act occurs within acceptable practices and situations where the risk is justified and has no safe alternative.

What is acceptable in your department? What is justified? The hard answers to these questions are found in how we teach newer firefighters to make the necessary rapid decisions required on the fireground. The greatest influence in this teaching is not coming from the academy but from the dayroom. Culture, as explained above, teaches the new firefighter what the members on his or her shift value. They learn these values by hearing the spoken word as well as seeing what is rewarded and condemned, by us. An example:

Engine 1 and Engine 2 are respectively first and second-due on a box alarm in Engine 1’s area. As the new member of Engine 2, you and your crew make you way to the front of a private dwelling where you see the nozzle team of Engine 1 masking up for entry. The lineman of Engine 1 has dropped his hose of the ground near the front entrance. As he is donning his facepiece, a member of your company runs up, grabs the nozzle and a fold of hose from in front of the Engine 1 lineman and runs into the building. After you have donned your own facepiece and crawled in to backup this member, you find him at the closed door to the fire room, now donning his own facepiece, waiting for the line to be charged.
What have you just learned?
What have you immediately identified as accepted within your company?
What have you learned to be unacceptable by your company?

Our culture, in the dayroom, almost immediately tells the new member that nearly half of what he learned at an academy will never be used and the other half will be done a different way then taught. If we want to continue to encourage and teach the proven method of success that an aggressive interior attack possess, then we need to do some refining of our skills and more importantly, begin to learn how it is we actually learn what we do and why. Your department’s definition of reckless may very well be my department’s SOP written in black and white.

Chief Alan Brunacini
Chief Brunacini presented the premise that the possible reason for today’s aggressive fire service culture, “young man’s invincibility syndrome” is directly related, at least in theory, to the founding of the American fire service, specifically Benjamin Franklin. Personally I cannot make the connection, despite rereading this paper many times over. While Chief Brunacini sees the characteristics of young men in the 1700s being specific for firefighting, I do not. Having studied much of the history of both the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, I see the desire – and need – of able bodied men to fight a fire not at all different from the rallying cry to form a militia. “The original response routine that Ben established in 1740 has defined the cultural context of our service that beginning and has set the stage for how we have operated for the next almost 300 years.” Try as I might, I miss the connection, and offer a counter point by two simple words, ‘John Oyston’. Dr. Oyston received a patent in 1863 for a fog nozzle and wrote an article titled “Extinguishing Fires” detailing the methods of spray stream. It was republished fifteen years later in what was to eventually become Fire Engineering. In 1945 Chief Lloyd Layman wrote “Little Drops of Water” presenting the indirect attack method of firefighting. To fully understand Chief Brunacini’s points, something happened between Ben Franklin’s strategy for firefighting and Dr. Oyston’s nozzle invention that kept young able bodied men from fighting fires on the inside. If I am wrong, then by all means, share your information, and I will openly stand corrected.

The remaining days’ papers presented varying degrees of opinions and facts regarding the efforts to reduce line of duty deaths. For brevity, I will list them below and include my personal thoughts. Later this year (2009) I expect to write more in reference to some of the information below.

Improving Safety Performance by Understanding Perceptions of Risk and Improving Safety Management Systems
William Pessemier
– Excellent in understanding individual and social behaviors that influence risk; probably the best paper of the whole symposium.

Safe and Effective Fireground Operations
Ben Klaene

Heart Attacks: The Major Cause of Firefighter Line of Duty Death (LODD)
James S. Cole MD, FACC, Cardiologist
Commissioner, Matlacha/Pine Island Fire Control District (MPIFCD)

Attributes of an Active Safety Culture And Why They Apply to the Fire Service
Steve Thorne
– Written by a Fire Protection Engineer, Mr. Thorne looks at the corporate view of risk as well as positive and negative reinforcement.

Drifting into Failure
Bobby Halton
– After reading this, the idea came to me that ‘there are no abandoned buildings, just owners who are not held responsible.’ Instead of trying to beat each other senseless about the fire attack, the fire service nationally should begin to campaign against such building owners. If the joints are torn down, then the risk goes away.

Paul H. Stein

Michael Krueger, NSCA-CPT
– A paramilitary view (USCG) of the fire service, duty readiness, risk reward and views on fate.

Contributing Factors to Firefighter Line-of-Duty Death in the United States
Lori Moore-Merrell, DrPH, Ainong Zhou, PhD,
Sue McDonald, Elise Fisher, Jonathan Moore
– Clinical studies and statistics; keep in mind the PSOB definition of Line of Duty and when this changed.

Line of Duty Death in the American Fire Service:
Components of a better outcome
Mike Lombardo

Reducing fire fighter fatalities – the knowledge based approach
Dr. Stefan Svensson
– We should be very familiar with Dr. Svensson, “
From Sweden, a Critical View of U.S. Firefighters

Reducing Firefighter Deaths and Injuries: Changes in Concept, Policy and Practice
Mark Jones, Deputy Chief Fire Officer and Deputy Chief Executive, Essex County (UK) Fire and Rescue Service

– A very interesting look into the fire service culture and values; “We recruit from what is out there and it tends to be another generation with differing skills, values and cultures. Our regimes must adjust to that fact.” This and other information left me wondering if the public image we endear, especially in light of a LODD, is changing, as in the case of the Boston double LODD and the Maryland State Police medevac crash; does our ‘bad press’ contribute to the public image?

Some Views on Risk Taking
Herbert Schulman, MD (Psychiatry)
– Second best paper in the symposium, “- need to have mastered not only the technical knowledge, but who possess certain skills and attitudes.” A psychological and neurological view of rational and irrational risk; “Firefighters, perhaps in some measure, are
willing to take risk because risk-talking has been part of “the American Way.” Perhaps this is what Chief Brunacini was referring to in his paper.

Soldiers’ bravery is not the stuff of Hollywood – Veterans overwhelmingly downplay hero labels*” AP Article

To Die For
To discover why firefighters feel a duty to die, look beyond the obvious*
Brian A. Crawford
– “All drives and motivation by the conscious or subconscious are either inherent or learned.” Is poor behavior an addiction?

Heart Disease in the Fire Service: Cause for Concern
Thomas Hales, MD, MPH

Preliminary Best Practices Identification
Chris Neal

Where Do We Go From Here?
John Granito, Symposium Coordinator
– Next year (2010) the number is supposed to have been reduced by 25%. How are we doing?

From the Front Seat
Harvey Eisner
– “The FDNY recently stated to the members of the department: -“
· We are not learning
· We are not changing
· We are not adapting

[1] Edgar Schein is expert consultant in organizational culture, development and career dynamics. A Sloan Fellows Professor of Management Emeritus with the Sloan School, and Senior Lecturer, Dr. Schein served as the Chief of the Social Psychology Section of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, while in the U.S. Army (1952-1956). He is also a Fellow of the American Psychological Association and the Academy of Management.

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