The 9 Most Dangerous Things That Firefighters Do


One view of some of the dangers we face




I am a self-professed car and airplane geek. I was on the computer Sunday morning on one in the car websites that I subscribe to and an article about the nine most dangerous things that drivers do was one of the stories on the site and the inspiration for this article. We as firefighters take more risks that the average person does due to the nature of the job. Here are the most dangerous things we do.

9. Assuming the drivers ahead and behind us will yield the right of way when we respond.

Just because we are running with lights and sirens do not mean that we have the right of way. Lights and sirens ask John and Jane Q. Public to pull over to the right so we can pass. The problem is, with today’s technology loaded and sound insulated cars and trucks, they may not hear the sirens and drivers are so self-absorbed with talking on cell phones and bopping to the music. They see the flashing lights and may hear the sirens moments before we come up behind them and they vapor lock. Some hit the brakes, pull to the left instead of the right and some even speed up to keep ahead of us.  Those drivers behind the rig are no better than the vapor locked motorist ahead of us. Many feel that a rig running code 3 is an invitation to get across town quicker. They think they are race car drivers, drafting the truck mere feet from the tailboard. At night, the flashing lights and the reflective striping are, to some drivers, like flame is to a moth, an invitation to drive right into the back of the truck.

When dismounting the rig at a scene where one will be working in the roadway, look up, look, down, and look behind before getting off and wear the reflective safety vests; the reflective striping on our turnout gear isn’t enough.

8. Not wearing seatbelts.

According to the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration, 75,000 lives were saved between 2004 and 2008 just from wearing seatbelts. Today’s vehicles are designed with passenger protection in mind, with front, side and under dash airbags and crumple zones designed to absorb impact. In a fire truck, we have seatbelts and air bags, but in a cab over/cab forward rig, there isn’t much metal up front to crumple. While these areas are heavily reinforced, the laws of physics cannot be changed.

We all know firefighters can be as stubborn as a team of mules. Some will claim that seatbelts inhibit their range of motion in the cab; some will go as far as disconnecting the seatbelt alarms in the rig as to get away with not wearing them. Those who disconnect the alarms are putting their brothers and sisters at risk and need to be disciplined according to the department’s protocols.

It is the responsibility of the company officers to make sure that their crews are wearing seatbelt. If a firefighter needs a reason to wear a seatbelt, have them look at the pictures of their family that they may have in their helmet or in their wallet. Do it for them, if not for yourself.

7. Driving recklessly

Driving a fire truck with light and sirens does not give us a free pass to play race car driver. When we respond, we are allowed some leeway to go over speed limits and may have to weave in and out of traffic due to those drivers who vapor lock ahead of us. If a fire truck is involved in an accident, it will be investigated. If the accident results in serious injury or death, there can be serious repercussions in the form of jail time, heavy fines or both. If the death is to one of the members of the Department, it will cause ripple effects of survivor guilt and morale issues that can seriously affect the organization.

6. Not paying attention to weather conditions

Weather conditions have an impact on how we conduct firefighting operations. When responding, bad weather conditions will inhibit our response times. Heavy rain with low visibility, high winds, blizzard conditions and solar glare in the morning and late afternoon will affect response times and the way we handle an incident.

Temperature extremes will affect personnel on the fireground. The possibility of heat exhaustion and heatstroke in the summer, frostbite in winter and dehydration has to be considered. Rehab isn’t for quitters. It is for the safety of the personnel operating at the incident.

5. Not reading the building or fire conditions

Firefighters need to go out and do district familiarization on a regular basis, especially if there is new construction going on. Even in older neighborhoods, buildings are being rehabbed and converted to condos and multifamily housing. It is far easier to ‘read the building’ while it is under construction and make notes of it than it is when it is completed.

When we arrive at a fire, we may have “light smoke showing” and assuming it is a fire in the incipient or growth stage. Today’s construction materials and energy efficient window will hold a lot of heat in and the ‘tightness’ of the building will inhibit the amount of smoke we see. Couple that with modern furnishings and you have a recipe for disaster.  Upgrade the response right away. If the excremental matter hits the rotating oscillating air movement device, you will be ahead of the game. If you don’t need the extra personnel and equipment, you can always send them back.

4. Complacency

We all have our places that we respond to multiple times in a day, week or month. We tend to become complacent and assume that it is just another “smells and bells” call or the “frequent flyer” for EMS calls. We should treat our “frequent flyers” with the same respect as we would anyone else and expect fire on every alarm activation and be ready to go to work.

3. Not wearing our PPE

This should be a no-brainer, yet we still have firefighters who do not wear all of their PPE or wear it improperly.  There are firefighters who will not wear a hood because they feel that they cannot judge the heat in an area wearing one.  In the evolution of mankind, ears were not intended to be used as thermometers.

Some firefighters insist on wearing extrication gloves instead of fire rated gloves for fire operations, saying they have better dexterity. How much dexterity does one need to open a nozzle, pull down a ceiling or open up a roof with an axe or saw?

The biggest problem is wearing SCBA. Everyone wears it going inside, but once the fire is out, the face piece comes off during overhauling.  Facepieces need to be worn at all times until the conditions inside have been deemed safe through monitoring. At a recent fire in Providence, Rhode Island, a Captain who was transported to the hospital for a knee injury had his vital signs crash and he ended up in the ICU for cyanide poisoning.

2. The ‘know it all’ attitude

We all know firefighters who are ‘know it alls’. Some of them have a couple of years on the job and act like they are a 20-year salt-encrusted old veteran firefighter, then you have to 20 year + guys who never really learned anything past their probie year. You have the guys who always have an excuse for not going to training or complain when you are training on the bread and butter operations such as throwing ladders and doing hose evolutions. Let’s face it: the vast majority of our fire operations are the bread and butter variety.

You have officers who were smart once or twice in their career and managed to pass a test for promotion who think that the rank gives them the knowledge. Fire officers need utilize the talent and knowledge their personnel. Not all of the brightest minds in the fire service wear gold badges or have bugles on their collars. Some of the best are the grunts who know the job, do the job and share their love of the job.

1. The elephant in the room

Go on any fire website or social media page and one will see fire service ‘experts’ wailing and gnashing teeth about ‘firefighter safety’. How we should not be doing aggressive fire attacks, how we should not be searching vacant buildings or how we should be doing “victim survivability profiling” based on the amount of involvement. They use the number of fire service LODD’s as the basis of their argument.

Backstep Firefighter’s Bill Carey has been keeping a running tally of firefighters LODDs for the last few years, and the statistics say that most LODDs are caused by stress and overexertion leading to cardiac events.

ARA Human Factors, the sponsor of the Firefighter Combat Challenge says it is the toughest 2 minutes in sports. The firefighters who do the Combat Challenge train for it year round and can be considered athletes. Having done the Combat Challenge in the past, I can attest to the fact that it is tough, and anyone who completes it should be commended no matter what their time-frame was.

There is a huge difference between the Combat Challenge and actually combating a fire. The challenge takes a few minutes; fires can last for a few hours or even days. We must stay physically fit and eat healthier to maintain our ‘combat readiness’. The dinner plate has caused more firefighter injuries and deaths than fires have. The fire service needs to do a better job of medical monitoring and we have to take better care of ourselves through diet and exercise to reduce our risk for injuries and LODDs.


Photo courtesy of Lloyd Mitchell Photography


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RonBioPhotoPrior to his retirement, Ron Ayotte was one of four Deputy Fire Chiefs with the Marlborough Fire Department, Marlborough, Massachusetts. Ron began his career with the MFD in November of 1981, was promoted to Lieutenant in November of 1988, Promoted to Captain in August of 2000 and was promoted to Deputy Chief in 2006. Ron’s responsibilities at the MFD include incident command, communications, plans review, inspections and training. Ron also works per diem in the Support Services division at the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services/Massachusetts Firefighting Academy, working support for various Academy programs, including Recruit training, Call/Volunteer training, Certification and LNG-LPG firefighting training. Ron’s writings and musings can be seen at Chief Concerns.
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  • Jessica says:

    Great article! #2 was spot on. As an entry level firefighter it’s tough to deal with ff like that in the station. I ask a lot of questions and am always requesting training on the basics because I was taught so many things that are wrong! By the “veterans” who “know it all”

  • Bill Hodges says:

    Great article

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