2023: Major incidents, battery blazes, critical collaborations and more
Detailing the big news of the year
Many years in the fire service become known for significant events, large loss fires or other dramatic one-off events that tax individual fire departments in different ways. I’ll argue that 2023 is the first year in quite a while that all fire departments began facing similar response challenges from the same basic sustainable product – lithium-ion-battery-powered devices.
We reported on many of those incidents, and we have watched many “Johnny-come-lately” ideas floated for fire departments to effectively fight sealed battery fires. Most of the ideas fail to pass muster from the research, development, affordability and/or scalability standpoints available to most fire departments. And so the challenge remains: Find the best way to effectively break the chain of thermal runaway.
On Nov. 15, U.S. Fire Administrator Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell joined state and industry officials in New York City to discuss this national crisis. The two most significant takeaways from the event were that need for fire departments to learn more about the entirety of the risks and response, and the overwhelming need for additional (and improved) public education about the dangers of Li-ion batteries and e-mobility systems, especially those purchased through third-party manufacturers and/or with damaged components. FireRescue1 is proud to support UL’s Fire Safety Research Institute’s new Take C.H.A.R.G.E. of Battery Safety campaign, sharing key messages around Li-ion battery safety. For this series, Dr. Moore-Merrell called on the fire service to take the lead on this critical issue.
Of course, there was much more to the year than fire departments tackling the challenges posed by these products.
Bringing industry partners together
Another milestone for 2023 was the U.S. Fire Administrator’s Summit on Fire Prevention and Control. I was honored to join many of our colleagues and industry partners at the National Fire Academy for this event. The 2023 conference aligned with the 50th anniversary of the 1973 America Burning report, with Dr. Moore-Merrell reflecting that “America is still burning.”
President Joe Biden greeted the conference through a livestream video connection. Biden underscored his personal connections with the fire service and his appreciation for the sacrifices Americas firefighters make every day. Additionally, the event drew the full attention of the Department of Homeland Security, with Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell among the featured guests. Both participated in an hours-long question and answer session about 7 key areas affecting the fire service in general. You can read more about the summit here: ‘We must act now’: Fire service leaders spotlight critical issues at USFA Summit.
Data is king
Any fire service professional who has tried to identify trends, gather data or simply search for something fire-centric can relate to the long-overdue need to modernize the American fire service data system. Earlier this year, Dr. Moore-Merrell announced that this effort – the launch of the National Emergency Response Information System (NERIS), to replace NFIRS – would be carried out as a partnership between the USFA and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T).
The USFA has been working with UL’s Fire Service Research Institute to facilitate connections with the fire service to bring NERIS to reality. On Dec. 14, 2023, the USFA will hold a webinar to discuss the proposed framework for NERIS. This session will serve as an opportunity to hear directly from project staff, highlighting the project’s advancements, key attributes of the new framework, opportunities to offer feedback, and tangible benefits the system will offer to first responders, agencies and the public.
Collaboration beyond data
In another sign of collaborative progress, this December marks one year of the Fire and Life Safety Communicators Initiative, convened by the USFA. In my 40-plus years of fire service experience, this is the first time I have seen a sustained process that brings together all of our partners to focus on systemic progress and consistent messaging around common public safety efforts.
FireRescue1 is one of approximately 50 organizations invited to the monthly calls, and we have been represented by myself and/or Editor-In-Chief Janelle Foskett at each monthly zoom calls. We endeavor to not only represent the interests of fire service media outlets but also the functional interests of the fire service at large. Several FireRescue1 articles and podcasts have roots in the connections formed during these events, and we look forward to another year of collaboration in these monthly meetings.
Big fires and big news
While we covered lots of fire activity in 2023, two events not in the lower 48 states dominated our news feeds for months.
- Canada: During the spring and summer, wildfires burned approximately 45 million acres across Canada – roughly the size of the state of New York. At least four Canadian firefighters died in the line of duty on these fires, and approximately 200 structures were destroyed. Smoke from the fires spread from coast to coast, with some of our country’s worst health advisory days in 2023 being directly attributable to the Canadian fires.
- Hawaii: In August 2023, a series of fires broke out on the Hawaiian Islands, primarily on the island of Maui. The town of Lahaina was all but wiped out in a horrific wildfire that killed at least 100 residents. Early reports said 2,207 structures were damaged or destroyed, with 86% of buildings classified as residential. There was (and will likely be) significant finger-pointing between the power company and the fire department – none of which will help improve the situation in Maui. The investigation continues. Read more about the fire department response.
We also continued to cover active-shooter events. Of note was the tragedy in Maine in which 18 people were killed at a bowling alley/restaurant. Law enforcement officials noted that the annual murder rate for the entire state of Maine has historically been around 20, essentially doubling that rate for the year.
Chief Julie Downey wrote a strong piece to help fire departments navigate these dynamic scenes: “Go/no-go: Active shooter/hostile event response.” Fire departments should be working with their industry partners to employ the concepts of NFPA 3000, the first NFPA standard endorsed by both the International Associations of Fire Chiefs and International Association of Chiefs of Police Chiefs.
Furthermore, every year we see incidents that call into question the true commitment of some providers to our baseline mission of SERVICE.
In January, we learned of the death of Tyre Nichols – an incident that resulted in the termination of six Memphis police officers, two EMTs and one firefighter. The police bodycam showed an astounding lack of compassion for a dying individual and ultimately drove protests across the United States.
2023 line-of-duty deaths
The USFA reports 80 firefighter line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) in 2023. Several multiple-fatality incidents serve as a constant reminder of not only how dangerous the job is but also how important it is for all of us to actually LEARN the lessons from these tragedies. We cannot simply read the reports and relegate recommendations to problems identified but unresolved.
This year saw several multiple-LODD incidents across the country: New Jersey, California, Maryland and Ohio.
- New Jersey: In July, two firefighters died in a ship fire at a port in New Jersey. Five other firefighters were injured in the incident, and the fire burned unchecked for several days. While the fire department is still reeling from the incident, the Coast Guard recently cited a lack of training as a factor in the deaths. The investigation continues.
- California: August saw three firefighters (one a civilian firefighter pilot) killed when two helicopters collided while fighting a wildfire in Southern California.
- Maryland: The October double firefighter fatality rowhouse fire on Linden Heights Avenue in Baltimore was a double gut-punch for an organization barely coping with the triple fatality in a similar occupancy in 2022. The Baltimore Fire Department was still implementing lessons learned from the 2022 Stricker Street fire when the Linden Heights Avenue fire occurred.
- Ohio: A late November double-fatality incident from Ohio reminds us that firefighters often find themselves in precarious situations that have nothing to do with fires-directly. This particular incident involved to firefighters were attempting to make radio tower repairs, using a lift outside of the fire station. You can read more on this incident here.
The Chicago Fire Department has had a particularly tough year, losing four firefighters in the line of duty, the most in a single year since 1998. April was a double gut punch with a 57-year-old fire lieutenant collapsing on the 11th floor of a high-rise on April 5, his death ruled a heart attack. The next day, a 49-year-old firefighter died the result of smoke inhalation on an extra alarm fire. The third LODD was a fire lieutenant who died two weeks after being rescued from a basement fire. The fourth LODD was a 40-year-old firefighter who fell through a skylight shaft to the basement floor of a four-story building.
Additionally, a once-unimaginable milestone was met in October, when the number of firefighters dying from 9/11-related diseases surpassing 343 – the number of firefighters who died at the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. We must continue to focus on efforts to improve cancer awareness and detection to help prevent additional firefighter suffering.
Forging ahead, together
The fire service is struggling on many fronts. Many of our struggles are similar across government agencies – issues like recruitment and retention. The differences arise in our disparate funding mechanisms, call volumes, operational policies, political engagements and silly territorial disputes. But the most significant deficit I see is leadership at the local level, which is influenced by leadership at the county/township/state levels. (Note: We want to hear more about your experiences with and perceptions of poor agency leadership in our upcoming What Firefighters Want in 2024 state-of-the-industry survey, launching in a couple weeks.)
We must remember that our opportunities exist in our similarities, and in the progress of programs like NERIS, which stands to transform the fire service’s capabilities in data management and trend tracking. Our 911 callers don’t care about our differences, our pay status, our religion, our demographic or anything beyond that we SHOW UP at the right time and place, with the right people and equipment, to do the right thing.
We’ll be right here with you as we navigate the stories going into 2024.