Details are key for the lessons we need to learn
An article this summer looked at firefighter fatalities, line of duty death numbers, managing safety, and managing risk, all in both narrow and vague ways that made an incorrect example of two fireground fatalities and made extraneous reasonings to convert a reader into risk management buy-in.
Two major claims to be considered from this that can be easily refuted are:
1. Efforts to reduce injury and death are largely ineffective, and
2. Fatality data over the past two decades has changed very little.
To counter the various selling points that the article promotes let us first look at the details and facts to be better informed and not so easily persuaded by the marketing of risk remedies.
Victims Never Had Hindsight
It’s hard to appropriate risk management to a recent line of duty death based only on the reports of the incident as it happened and without any investigative material. Some incidents, such as a firefighter ejected in a crash due to not wearing a seat belt, are outside of this because the cause may be clearly seen. The fireground fatality is not so easy to see. We can assume we know the why’s but without investigation material we are only guessing. Our blame culture is attached to hindsight and tells us ‘If you do X you get Y, therefore you should know what the result is of doing X.’ But like nearly every fireground line of duty death we must remind ourselves that lessons from the past tell us repeatedly that the victims usually did not know what X would get them. In other words, they never had the value of hindsight that you have.
One actual LODD example presented was the death of a firefighter in a post-fire structural collapse. Two firefighters were actually killed in this incident involving a fire in a large commercial structure under renovation. To date, the investigation news centers on complaints and counter complaints among the widows and engineering firms over who advised who on structural stability after the fire as firefighters went to work on hot spots inside. It is easy to say the dead received Y because they did X, but we were not there at the time of the incident. We are missing the critical pieces of communication, on-going size-up, command thinking, and incident fluidity – all in real time – to be 100 percent certain about the result of X. Instead all we are doing is hindsight estimating.
The second LODD example pointed at a firefighter killed while fighting a basement fire in an unoccupied building. Sadly, this example also misses many facts. As reported in the news and by sources directly involved with the building, the fire occurred in an occupied brownstone, obviously with occupied exposures on the left and right. In the fire building itself, people were on the upper floors and were the first to notice smoke coming from the basement. Pointing a finger at X and Y in this example and using “unoccupied” as the hindsight reason only serves to blame the fire department – again without all the facts.
As Jeff Shupe and other critical thinking firefighters say, “All firefighting is local.” We need to remember when we discuss LODDs that our natural bent is to carry hindsight and emotion into the subject. Instead, we need to first become aware of how departments operate and think and move instead of simply looking for the X and Y and placing blame. By the end of June 2018 there were 49 firefighter fatalities listed by the United States Fire Administration. Some involved interior firefighting but the majority did not. It’s a narrow prism to cherry-pick these two victims to sell better risk management practices while avoiding the lower hanging fruit.
Beware Data Without Source
I am personally not a fan of per 100,000 type data. It rounds the material making it seem something it is not as it lacks what we truly need to understand our fatality numbers – specifics. It also fails to account for the most important part of our data, the definitions and criteria. We should seriously avoid using per capita data since our fatalities are tallied very differently than other industries. We use a 24-hour window and we use a wide definition of ‘duty’, so if someone is giving you per capita data in the context of firefighter fatalities, you need to be aware that they may also include the firefighter who died wheeling a patient into the ER, the firefighter who died in a crash on the way to training, and the firefighter who died just by being woken to the pager going off (each of these is a real LODD that occurred).
Secondly, you should expect that whenever you are given fatality data, whether written or visual, that the source of the data is cited. We have three different organizations that collect LODD information and they have different methods so that neither has the same number. Anyone can create data, but a responsible writer or instructor will also give you where they get their data. We don’t own any of it personally so give credit where credit is due. It fosters trust and good dialogue on the subject at hand. Finally, comparisons of our fatalities to other industries are a terrible comparison for the reason of fatality and duty definitions.
If a logger is killed felling a tree, his death is obviously a workplace fatality. But if a logger dies of a heart attack after dinner, after coming home from work, his death is not a workplace fatality. In the fire service we count your death if you were going to training; sleeping in the bunkroom; getting sick while at a meeting; falling ill in a parade; and due to the Hometown Heroes Act, if you die within 24 hours of an emergency response due to a heart attack or stroke. That is an average of 15 fatalities in the past 10 years (current to 2008 pers USFA) just based on the 24-hour window. To compare our fatalities to other blue-collar jobs, without considering our wide definitions, gives you a false amount of material that generally makes us seem reckless, callous, and operating without the necessary due regard. Never mind the whole difference of operating between the vocations.
The other admonition against data without a source is the liberal use of lump sum statements without any supporting data at all. Most of this occurs when someone is giving you a 10-year or greater number or statement. In the context of the writing we look at in this article the position was given that little has changed over 20 years in the rate of firefighter fatalities. It does not go into specifics, which really would not do that statement any justice as it is unequivocally false. One major highlight that only FireRescue Magazine, FirefighterNation.com, and Fire Engineering have promoted is that in 2017 the fire service experienced only one firefighter fatality inside a burning structure. There were 93 total fatalities but only one occurred while the victim was still operating inside a burning structure. A terrible loss but also a significant landmark in the efforts going on to give you training to operate better on the fireground.
Again, yearly data is affected by data definitions and criteria, and differences in reporting by various national organizations. According to USFA data from 2016 to 1996, an average of 114 on-duty deaths were recorded. This includes those killed in the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. This does not include those brought in by the Hometown Heroes Act starting in 2004. Significant are the years from 2004 to 2016 when there were only three years when the number was above 100. Looking at NFPA data in the same time range there were an average of 111 line of duty deaths. Again, this included the terror attacks and not Hometown Heroes. Again, the last eight years of their data (2009 to 2016) the yearly number was below 100.
The position taken on this yearly average (it’s not referenced in the article where the average comes from) is that the nature of these deaths is simply due to the nature of the trade and not properly managing risk. It tries to fool you into thinking that every one of these fatalities is the result of that loss of management. Again, when considering data criteria, we are looking at firefighters who died drag racing; firefighters who died getting boats ready during a winter storm; and firefighters over 80 years of age who went home not feeling well after a call (all of these are also real on-duty deaths from previous years per USFA). And again, as all firefighting is local, all risk management is also local.
So what risk are you to manage? It’s obvious that the bill of goods is to better manage the fireground risk. It ties itself to the tired and often curtailed remedies of culture change, challenging tradition, and embracing behavioral changes toward safety, all without plausible explanations for our trade. It also, as seen where we started, picks out two incidents to kick off the change you are supposed to embrace (using the incomplete details of firefighter deaths to leverage your attention and response) while neglecting the excellent work and results we know exist and ignoring the majority cause and nature of our fatalities.
Details, Details, Details
Being a blue-collar trade, it is natural for our training to be hands on. That doesn’t negate the value in other types of training we encounter, but we must be aware that when dealing with education regarding managing risk, vague concepts, generalizations, and incomplete data, it does not make the impact needed for students who are culturally prone to learn all the details and as many details as possible. There are very good risk management tools that we should be aware of and use as best as possible in our area. The key is determining the majority risk your firefighters face and the means available to implement, review, and adjust to gain the most benefits. When dealing with education and training on our fatalities and reducing them it is imperative that you be given as much details as possible in order the manage your risk. Anything short of this is simply trying to get you to buy the latest version of snake oil from the latest salesman coming down the road.
Bill Carey is the online public safety news and blog manager with PennWell Fire Group, or more specifically FireRescue Magazine/FirefighterNation.com and FireEMSBlogs.com. Bill started in the fire service as a third generation firefighter in 1986 on the eastern shore of Maryland and then continued after moving to Prince George’s County. He served as a volunteer sergeant and lieutenant at Hyattsville. Bill’s writing has been on Fire Engineering, FireRescue Magazine, FirefighterNation.com, and other sites. His recent writing on firefighter behavioral health was nominated for a 2014 Neal Award for Best Subject-Related Series.