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5 Root causes of firefighter line of duty deaths

With 2013 shaping up to be one of the worst years in recent history for line of duty deaths, adjust your practices with these root causes front of mind

This has been a terrible year for the fire service. Like many of you I’m numb with sadness and disbelief from the tragedies that have unfolded.

I’ve looked in the eyes of the survivors, listened to their stories about their loved ones, held their hands and wanted desperately to take away their devastating pain.

I wish I had answers to the innumerable questions. Of course that will come with time. What I do know is the number of firefighter fatalities so far this year is about equal with the total for all of last year — 2013 sits in stark contrast to the trend in recent years

Of years past
In early June, as we dealt with these losses, there was a reminder of the progress we have made. The National Fire Protection Association announced on-duty firefighter deaths in 2012 were the second lowest in the past 35 years.

In 2012, 64 firefighters lost their lives. Sixty-one died in 2011.

While the NFPA’s definition of an on-duty death is slightly different than the United States Fire Administration and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation for a line-of-duty death, all three organizations recognize that the number of firefighters who died while serving their communities is decreasing.

In fact, the Firefighter Fatality Report released by NFPA stated that over the past four years, the annual total has been well below 100, dropping the annual average for the past 10 years to 88 deaths.

At first glance, this was tremendous news and something that should be acknowledged. It illustrates that continuous training and education, combined with accepting personal accountability for safe practices is paying off.

It’s what we set out to accomplish when the NFFF convened the Firefighter Life Safety Summit in 2004 and later developed the Everyone Goes Home program.

Greater vigilance
But as we’ve seen this year, sometimes incidents are beyond our control; things go horribly wrong and consequently firefighters die.

So while the fire service should be incredibly pleased by the continued downturn in firefighter fatalities on the job, 2013 so far is a clear reminder we must be vigilant in our efforts to be safe. Furthermore, we must have the appropriate policies in place that will provide guidance in the event of a serious injury or the death of a firefighter.

Research has shown that aside from extraordinary incidents a firefighter dies in the line of duty because of at least one of these five root causes.

1. Lack of effective policies and procedures. Every department must have a clear set of policies and procedures that underscore safety. This includes every standard practice, from the minimum number of personnel on an apparatus to how to proceed through an intersection when responding to a call.

2. Lack of leadership. Department leaders must develop a clear set of policies and procedures for all aspects of the department’s operations, adhere to those policies and set appropriate examples.

3. Lack of preparedness. Departments must offer all necessary training. And, all department members must participate in necessary training and recertification in a timely manner.

4. Lack of appropriate decision making. Consciously refusing to follow standard procedures and policies interferes with firefighters doing their jobs effectively. In the end, it compromises the service we provide to our communities.

5. Lack of personal responsibility. We must take care of ourselves. As I’ve said before, and will say again, please treat and manage any firefighter medical conditions and properly use all the available personal protective equipment including seat belts and other restraint systems in all vehicles.

I can’t help but wonder what we will experience in the days, weeks and months ahead. All any of us can do is put forth our very best effort every day, on every shift.

The past four years have shown that accepting personal responsibility for our health, safety and wellbeing is effective and saves lives.

Chief Ronald Siarnicki began his fire service career with the Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department in 1978 and progressed through the ranks to chief. In July 2001, Chief Siarnicki retired from the Prince George’s County to become the executive director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. He is a graduate of the master’s program, school of management and technology at the University of Maryland, University College and has a bachelor’s degree in fire science management from UMUC. Prior to joining the Prince George’s County, he served as a volunteer firefighter with the Monessen VFD Hose House 2 and currently serves with the United Communities VFD in Stevensville, Maryland. Siarnicki is a member of the FireRescue1/Fire Chief Editorial Advisory Board. Connect with Siarnicki on LinkedIn.

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