The Safety Mantra

“Courage is not the absence of fear but the judgment that something else is more important than fear.” Meg Cabot

On the subject of safety, has anyone considered that perhaps we may be going too far? Okay, maybe not too far but possibly in the wrong direction? If you haven’t considered that, by the end of this article you probably will. You may not agree, but this is a topic that needs to be discussed.

mantra pic

The fire service seems to be changing directions and those changes seem to be changing our mission. Don’t believe it? Ask Sirus Q Public what he expects from his fire department and it might be different than what we are discussing when it comes to fires. Most citizens expect their fire department to come save them when they are in trouble. They also expect that when their house is on fire their fire department is going to put it out. Granted those same citizens expect us to accomplish these objectives with 1 engine and 2 firefighters, but that is another discussion.

The fire service seems to changing its objectives. You see we are no longer talking about life and property; instead we are talking about ‘some’ lives and ‘some’ property. Discussions and trends are leading down a path of exterior operations when no life is at risk and picking and choosing which victims should be saved, not just by fire conditions but by building type and occupancy.

We signed on to protect life and property and while no property is worth a firefighter’s life, we have an obligation to do our best to save what we can. And like it or not, that may mean that we have to put ourselves in harm’s way. Certainly the citizens expect that.

Firefighter Deaths by Type of Duty (2008)
Type of Duty – Number of Deaths
Fireground Operations – 28
Responding/Returning – 24
Other On duty Deaths – 30
Training – 12
Nonfire Emergencies – 11
After an Incident – 13
Total – 118

People are killed every day in this world we live in. Statistically speaking only 1% of firefighters are killed a year and of that number only .03% on the fireground. So why are we abandoning our primary goals in the name of safety? And if we are not abandoning them then we are only paying lip service to the safety mantra?

This isn’t only about statistics and percentages. Those numbers represent real people, they represent our Brothers. But what caused those deaths? Was it going in or doing their job or was it a failure in some other way? How many reports come back and say that the reason for this LODD was that the firefighters entered the building? Usually they find areas where we could have done our jobs better or where our training and lack of preparedness let us down.

Have we considered that firefighters are dying because we are failing to prepare them adequately? Have we considered that we now have less experience because fire duty is down so perhaps our judgment isn’t what it used to be? While “Everyone Goes Home” is a good intent are we setting ourselves up for failure from the very beginning? FDNY Captain Paddy Brown is quoted as saying, “you can do everything right on this job and still get killed.”(1) There are things beyond our control; there are things we can’t change. Yet in the name of safety have we decided it is better to not go in? That if we stay outside no one will get hurt or killed?

I think that one of the problems today is that we look at safety as a separate issue; ‘Safety and Survival’; ‘Fireground Safety’; and ‘Firefighter Safety Training’. If we go back to the basics and train our people how to operate the right way, with safety being included in every step of the process, then we end up with a better result. Our people will have learned about safety, but not as a separate issue. It has been included throughout their training. They have learned the best practices and can operate accordingly.

However, if we continue to treat safety as a separate issue, then it gets over stressed. Like when you were a kid and your Mom used to tell you not to hurt yourself. Did you listen to your Mom? Sometimes, you did. Did you ever get hurt even when doing what she said? Again, sometimes you did. So why do we expect firefighters to listen now? They have their Mom experience to fall back on. If they are listening, then we have created a culture of “don’t do that or you will get killed.”

This job is inherently dangerous. That statement isn’t an excuse for the injuries and deaths that occur, but is a reminder to everyone that took their oath bad things can and will happen. We have an obligation to fix the things we can fix as far as safety goes. Sure we can change our diet and exercise habits. We can wear seatbelts. We can drive slower. We can train better and harder. Those are changes that can be made today, right now, by everyone. Will it eliminate all the LODDs in those areas? Probably not, as some accidents cannot be avoided, some firefighters will still have medical related problems that no diet or exercise will cure, and some incidents will tax all of training and experience. But if we can make some reductions in those areas, then we have made a good start. If we cut the non-fireground deaths in half, we will have saved 45 firefighters based on 2008’s numbers. Imagine 45 less firefighters dead, what a reduction that would be.

Our decisions should be informed and solid, but curtailing one whole aspect of our operations does not necessarily make us safer. In fact in this day and age of less fire duty it will make things more dangerous for us when we have to go in, when that life is on the line.
At the end of the day, Chief Crocker got it right. “Firemen are going to get killed. When they join the department they face that fact. When a man becomes a fireman his greatest act of bravery has been accomplished. What he does after that is all in the line of work. They were not thinking of getting killed when they went where death lurked. They went there to put the fire out, and got killed. Firefighters do not regard themselves as heroes because they do what the business requires.” Chief Edward F Crocker, FDNY

– Dave Leblanc

1. “The Last Men Out: Life on the Edge at Rescue 2 Firehouse” Tom Downey
http://www.usfa.dhs.gov/statistics/firefighters/index.shtm
http://www.usfa.dhs.gov/downloads/pdf/publications/ff_fat08.pdf
http://backstepfirefighter.com/2010/01/30/2009-lodd-summary-2nd-half/
Image courtesy Barrall/FITHP

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