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How to investigate a firefighter injury

Understanding the root cause of an injury can help prevent their reoccurrences

CHICAGO — A firefighter injury, said Forest Reeder, is like a weed with the obvious causes above surface and the larger, deeper root-causes obscured.

Reeder is a division chief with the Des Plaines (Ill.) Fire Department, a firefighter training textbook author, a training consultant and one of those behind the Secret List. He spoke at Fire-Rescue International on the importance of chief officers being able to get at the root cause of firefighter injury.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration based on incidents reported, one in eight firefighters will be injured in the line of duty. That, he said, does not take into account the incidents that go unreported, which would push that figure up considerably.

Reeder said the Occupational Health and Safety Administration lists unsafe behavior as a cause in 95 percent of worker injuries. Hazardous conditions and system weakness are two other factors that are at play less frequently.

The difficulty with unsafe behavior, he said, lies in trying to correct it. “Nobody likes change because we want to be in our comfort zone,” Reeder said.

To illustrate just how difficult change is, he had everyone in the room cross their arms — then try to cross them with the opposite arm on top, which is harder than it sounds. It takes 300 repetitions to learn a behavior well enough to perform it without thinking; it takes 1,000 repetitions of a new behavior to train the mind not to do the old behavior, Reeder said.

Culture and initial training are powerful forces steering firefighters toward safe or unsafe behaviors.

Getting to the root cause of an injury incident is not just knowing what happened — like the person was not wearing a seat belt. It is understanding why the behavior occurred — like a culture of macho disdain for seat belts.

Once an incident happens there are five steps the company officer must take. The officer must first stop the activity to prevent further harm and then care for the injured member and the equipment involved. After that, the officer must secure the scene and equipment, followed by notifying supervisors and local authorities, and finally documenting what occurred.

The chief officer must then step in to identify and collect evidence, interview witnesses and initiate the documentation process. The greater the severity of the incident, the more time and care must be given to this investigation process.

During the analysis process, the chief officer must review the data, determine the immediate and root causes, and determine corrective actions.