Imagine this scenario: You go out on a call for a cardiac arrest. As you arrive on the scene, other public safety officers are already doing compressions and you set up your AED.
You put the pads on and turn on the machine ... but nothing happens. Everyone looks on in horror. Except that is for you and your partner because you know that the batteries don't always work in this unit, you told the shift commander, and he informed you that it wasn't your problem.
And, after all, it was the heart attack that killed the civilian, not your poorly maintained equipment.
I know, too crazy of a scenario – who would put themselves in that sort of situation?
Well, apparently NIOSH would! Regardless of your stance of NIOSH's role in determining line-of-duty deaths and regardless of what you think of the normal whitewashed crud they’ve continually given as an excuse for a dead firefighter, the PASS situation was ridiculous!
To know that PASS alarms, an integral part of what we depend on to save ourselves and our brothers and sisters, were failing and do nothing is as inexcusable as the scenario described above.
Makes no sense Even if you buy into the "red-tape" argument of what responsibility NIOSH had, their actions don't make sense. I think anyone who has moved up through the chain in any organization, but especially a fire department, knows this wasn't even good bureaucratic paper shuffling.
Even if this wasn't NIOSH's job, the buck could have been passed on a product failure to the Consumer Product Safety Commission or the Mine Safety Administration. But they apparently thought the issue was of no great concern. Apparently they were wrong.
Now, you may be able to tell from the above that I'm in favor of more heads rolling at NIOSH than the Court of King Louis during the French Revolution. But, as personally fulfilling as that might be short term, we must make sure that we have a better solution than just shaking up these anesthetized report writers.
We in the field need qualitative reports that allow everyone from chief officer to firefighter to change these tragic losses into clear tactical decisions and actions. Only through that bright light of analysis can we try to ensure that we have the information we need to make strategic and tactical decisions on the fireground that help to ensure we all go home.
If you're wondering exactly what and why such analysis might be helpful, let me give you an example.
British military Historically, the British military after a battle would evaluate the success of their campaign. First, they would see if they had met their overall strategic objective. Then, they would review their tactics; most notably they would look at the numbers killed and wounded.
They referred to this as "The Butcher's Bill." It may be morbid and a bit cold for today's modern and sensitive world, but exactly how and why firefighters are killed and injured, our own Butcher's Bill, is what we need to determine how we lower the cost in human lives at the next call.
Web sites such as FirefightersCloseCalls.com have done an outstanding job, as has the IAFF/IAFC's joint project, the National Near Miss Reporting System.
Some folks within the fire service such as Battalion Chief John Salka FDNY were beginning to sound out a warning about PASS device failures early on.
We cannot, however, rely solely on word of mouth and anecdotal evidence to change our strategy and tactics on a national level. But we must lend the full force of NIOSH, or some other agency if need be, to determine these facts. Otherwise, we are doomed to repeat these mistakes.
About the author
Tom LaBelle serves as an assistant chief with the Wynantskill (N.Y.) Fire Department where he is responsible for training. He has been employed by the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs since 1995. Prior to joining NYSAFC, Asst. Chief LaBelle served as the legislative director for the New York State Assembly's Sub Committee on Fire Protection Services. He provides support for career and volunteer departments from the nations largest to smallest. He currently sits as a voting member on the NFPA 1720 committee. He is a certified fire instructor and fire officer. Chief LaBelle can be reached via email at Tom.Labelle@FireRescue1.com.
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