Photo courtesy of IAFF Local 60 James Robeson, who died Jan. 6, at a previous incident.
Thirty-nine and six — it's not a math problem, but it is a problem nonetheless. Although neither number seems significant at first glance, they are some of the most depressing I've seen in a while.
As of Tuesday, we've lost six firefighters and at least 39 civilians nationally already this year. I say at least 39 civilians because the United States Fire Administration uses news reports to gather civilian death data. This process is, by its own admission, far from perfect and they likely account for only up to half of all actual civilian deaths.
Clearly — or perhaps only hopefully — we won't keep this horrific pace. Traditionally at this time of year, we've always had a high number of residential fires, and they tend to be more deadly. But we still seem to be struggling to the achieve the lower numbers that we all seem to understand must be achieved throughout our industry.
Of the six line-of-duty deaths so far this year, three were stress/overexertion related leading to a fatal cardiac event. Two came while performing firefighting operations and the final one was a vehicle crash while the firefighter was responding in a personal occupancy vehicle. Does any of this sound familiar? It should; it's the same stuff that killed our friends in the fire service last year, too.
Commitment needed Maintaining and improving personal health and regular physicals need to be a commitment for many of us —myself included — for the coming year. And response safety, both in apparatus and personal vehicles, must be drilled into everyone's head. The attitude needs to be: If you're not wearing a seat belt in the rig with me, you are endangering my life as well as your own, so buckle up and slow down. In addition, training like it's real for when it is real must be our continual effort. Our families have every right to assume we are getting good training with good equipment, but it should not just be an assumption — we need appropriate training support.
As of Jan. 15, six firefighters have been killed in the line of duty.
So what are we going to do and what can we do? It not too late for a New Year's resolution. At the end of the day, firefighter safety doesn't begin at the United States Fire Administration, it doesn’t start at your state capitol, it doesn't start at city hall and it doesn't even start in your firehouse. It starts with you.
The only way we will see a true change in the fire service is to see a change in ourselves. We must each commit to that change. Precisely what must be committed will be different for each of us. Only you know what your greatest weakness is and only you can recognize it and address it. In doing so, you'll improve your chances of survival and serve as an example to those around you.
I was very lucky to have my "wise Irish grandmother" who taught me how to play poker, how to enjoy life and how to know right from wrong. She told me it's pretty easy to know the right thing to do: look at your choices and whichever decision seems the toughest, whichever is going to inconvenience you the most, is the right thing to do.
As we continue into 2008, we must each take a look at ourselves and our own weaknesses. The solutions exist, and they’re not too difficult to find in today’s electronic age. We just need to be honest — not brutal, just honest — with those around us so that the the number of firefighter fatalities are fewer and farther between. Remember that line-of-duty deaths should always be a shocking tragedy — and not just another number.
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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