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Firefighter safety is about survivability
By pulling a page from the military's playbook, we can reduce firefighter injuries and deaths
In the 13 years since the 16 Life Safety Initiatives were first developed at the Tampa Summit, sponsored by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, we have seen much emphasis on firefighter personal safety. Consequently, we’ve also seen the number of fireground line-of-duty deaths and injuries decline.
And while that is certainly a positive trend, it’s a case of, “the more you know, the more you don’t know.” Fire service leaders have come to realize the term “safety” only reflects one piece of a much larger puzzle: firefighter health and wellness.
So, what else do we need to emphasize to complete the puzzle?
We now know the inconvenient truth: more firefighters are dying from non-fireground causes such as heart attacks, strokes and vehicle crashes. Enter the term survivability.
Close examination of those 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives reveals that survivability is interwoven throughout each of them. During the Tampa 2 Summit in March 2014, where participants refined and ratified those 16 initiatives, important discussions took place about improving survivability in the fire service.
What is survivability? In the military, survivability is defined as the ability to remain mission capable after a single engagement. Engineers working in survivability are often responsible for improving four main system elements.
- Detectability: The inability to avoid being aurally and visually detected as well as detected by radar.
- Susceptibility: The inability to avoid being hit by a weapon.
- Vulnerability: The inability to withstand the hit.
- Recoverability: Longer-term post-hit effects, damage control, and firefighting, capability restoration or escape and evacuation.
Isn’t survivability what it’s all about in the fire service? Just a few examples of how we can increase our survivability include safe and effective training, responding to and returning from emergencies safely, eating a healthy and balanced diet, exercising and maintaining a healthy weight, wearing and maintaining personal protective equipment, and understanding that repeated exposure to toxins can lead to chronic and terminal illnesses like cancer.
Those same four elements that guide our military personnel in understanding survivability are equally applicable for us in the fire service. Let’s consider what that can look like.
The goal of the soldier is to avoid detection so that they gain the advantage on their enemy. So how do we as firefighters gain the advantage on our enemies like fires, motor vehicle crashes, heart disease and cancer?
We can do it through size-up, information collection and analysis and risk assessment on every emergency incident. We can do it by using data on firefighter LODDs and LODIs to refine and focus our training and operations. And, we can do it through annual physical assessments that align with the requirements of NFPA 1500.
This pertains to the inability to avoid taking a hit from say a flashover, backdraft or structural collapse. But how about those non-fireground hits like heart attacks, strokes, exposure to infectious diseases or carcinogens?
Or, as we’re becoming increasingly more aware of, how can we avoid the adverse psychological impact on firefighters from single high-stress events or the accumulation of mentally stressful episodes?
This is comparable to the inability to withstand the hit because a firefighter was not following standard operating guidelines or the emergency incident was not being properly managed using the incident command system.
Other examples include the firefighter who was not seated and belted during response or who develops a cancer from repeated exposures during overhaul because he didn’t use his SCBA.
Yet another example is firefighters whose hearts can’t meet the increased demands of firefighting because they are obese and in poor physical condition.
When one of those hits occurs to a firefighter, what mechanisms are in place for medical care and rehabilitation for both physical and mental traumas? What are the workers’ compensation policies and procedures?
What are the department’s policies and procedures for determining firefighter fitness for duty following treatment? If the firefighter can’t return to full-time status, are there other employment options within the department or local government, policies and procedures for involuntary separation from the department or career counseling to assist the firefighter in obtaining new employment?
Fire service leaders agree that we’ve reached the time when it’s appropriate to move beyond solely emphasizing safety in the fire service. If we’re to continue making progress in reducing LODDs and LODIs from all causes, we must adopt the concept of survivability.
We must incorporate it into our fire service vocabulary, and embrace this concept in our understanding of our fire service culture.
The company officer’s role in survivability
Survivability means taking control. And there’s nobody better than the company officer to take responsibility for increasing survivability for their crew.
Here are seven early actions to take.
- Lead your crew members in becoming educated about the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives. Without action on our part, the initiatives are just words on a website.
- Institute an after-action review after every call. Talk about what went right and what needs to be corrected and share that with others who weren’t on the call. Prepare for what could be coming with the next incident by practicing.
- Inform and educate your team members using the most current information to help them become safer, more effective firefighters.
- Ensure that all crew members take proper care of their PPE.
- Encourage your members to get a complete physical examination with their health care provider.
- Be the health and wellness leader for your team. Firefighters who are in poor physical condition because of a poor diet, lack of exercise and lifestyle choices are a risk to themselves and the team. And that’s a risk with no reward.
- Be a leader in helping firefighters become more informed about the effects the work has on their mental health. Become skilled at reducing stress in the fire station and how to protect firefighters' mental health in the field.
Survivability means taking care of each other. And that begins with you, the company officer.