4 ways to reduce firefighter injuries and prevent fatalities

Although the number of fatalities has dropped in the last 20 years, it is because there are simply fewer fires

New research puts the economic impact of firefighter injuries at $1.6 billion to $5.9 billion annually – a staggering sum. Better understanding firefighter injuries is critical for reducing the physical and economic impact they have. Join Lexipol Senior Fire Advisor Billy Goldfeder and a panel of fire service experts for the webinar “The Cost of Firefighter Injuries,” focused on how we can collect information to better understand the problem, and how we can use policies and safe culture practices to reduce firefighter injuries. Register for the webinar today.

By Bill Pessemier, Contributor to In Public Safety

Firefighter fatalities are occurring at the same rate today that they were 20 years ago. Although the number of fatalities has dropped, it is simply because there are fewer fires. The following graph shows fireground fatalities per 100,000 fires over the last 20 years.

This graph shows fireground fatalities per 100,000 fire over the last 20 years.
This graph shows fireground fatalities per 100,000 fire over the last 20 years. (Photo/In Public Safety)
Firefighter fatalities are occurring at the same rate today that they were 20 years ago.
Firefighter fatalities are occurring at the same rate today that they were 20 years ago. (Photo/Pixabay)

Despite all the efforts that have been made to reduce firefighter fatalities and injuries over the last two decades—such as changes in command and control procedures, improvements in personal protective equipment, and deployment of rapid intervention teams—these measures have made little impact, as shown by the black trend line in the graph.

Over the past two decades, there’s been an annual average of more than 76,000 injuries and almost 90 fatalities in the U.S. fire service. These numbers are five to seven times higher than the firefighter injuries and fatalities that occur in other western industrialized nations such as the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, France, and Germany.

Why are firefighter injury and fatality rates so high in the U.S. fire service? What are we missing?

There are four significant things that fire service organizations around the world are doing differently that have resulted in much lower injury and fatality rates.

1. Risk and rescue

Fire service organizations in other countries have developed clear ethical and moral principles of risk and rescue. Examples include the principle that all lives have equal value, so trading the life of a firefighter for the life of a civilian provides no benefit. Another is the principle of “do no harm.” In other words, fire suppression operations should not make things worse, which is exactly what happens when a firefighter is lost or trapped in a fire. When this happens, the focus of the operation shifts from saving civilian lives and property to saving the firefighter.

In addition, the concept of moral duty has been more clearly developed, giving firefighters a better sense of how much risk is acceptable in different circumstances. The U.S. fire service must make it clear that we do not expect firefighters to save lives at all cost, including the cost of their own life. No life is worth a building or its contents, yet firefighters continue to die when responding to fires in abandoned buildings or in buildings where the occupants are clearly out and safe. A building and its contents can be replaced. The life of a firefighter cannot.

2. Preventing injuries

Secondly, fire service organizations and other high-risk organizations around the world put a much stronger emphasis on preventing injuries. In the U.S. fire service, we focus more on preventing fatalities, yet injuries make up 99.88 percent of all casualties (as seen in the accompanying chart).

Injuries make up 99.88 percent of all casualties.
Injuries make up 99.88 percent of all casualties. (Photo/In Public Safety)

The cost of injuries is estimated to be approximately $4.2 billion annually, while the cost of fatalities is approximately $622 million. In addition, fewer than six percent of fire departments in the U.S. have suffered a firefighter fatality in the last 20 years, while every fire department has had firefighters injured. Injuries occur frequently. Fatalities are rare. But the activities and hazards that cause injuries and fatalities are the same. A shift toward preventing injuries, which are much more immediate and relevant, is more likely to result in effective change in both injury and fatality rates. A stronger focus on preventing injuries would involve more research on the causes, contributing factors, cost of injuries and the development of programs at the national and local level.Thirdly, fire service organizations in other countries take a much more comprehensive approach to managing safety. Those in the commonwealth, such as the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, have used a standard for occupational health and safety management that has proven to be very successful at achieving high levels of safety performance as well as operational performance. This standard was adopted by the American National Standards Institute several years ago and is known as ANSI Z10, Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems.

3. Managing Safety

The stated purpose of the standard is to provide a framework for continual improvement in health and safety performance, minimizing risk, reducing the occurrence and cost of injuries, illness, fatalities, and to facilitate improvement in operational performance, service outcomes, and employee satisfaction. Who doesn’t want all that? The main elements of the standard include Management Leadership and Employee Participation, Planning, Implementation and Operation, Evaluation and Corrective Action, and Management Review. The core of the standard is the development and implementation of a hazard analysis and risk management process, which is the last missing piece.

4. Managing analysis

In the U.S. fire service, firefighters are trained to take risks. In other fire service organizations, firefighters are trained to manage risk. This crucial difference results in higher levels of safety performance (low injury and fatality rates) and high levels of operational performance (low fire loss and civilian casualty rates). Training firefighters to make good risk management decisions is very different from putting up sayings on the wall, such as the now common “risk a lot to save a lot, risk a little to save a little, and risk nothing to save nothing.” Without good training in the process of risk management, firefighters will do what they have always done and continue to take unnecessary levels of risk. The risk management process includes five steps:

  1. Clarify Benefit (what are you trying to save?)
  2. Identify Risk (what hazards could cause harm?)
  3. Compare Risk and Benefit (if risk is high and benefit low, something needs to change)
  4. Decide (on a course of action and controls to minimize risk)
  5. Act (implement your plan, supervise and review).

If firefighters are not trained how to manage risk and how to make good risk management decisions, then they will fall back on their initial recruit training, which is to take risk no matter what. And the result will be another 20 years with no change in the firefighter injury or fatality rate.

Making Changes for the Long Term

If the U.S. fire service addresses shortcomings in these four areas, the result would be significantly lower injury and fatality rates, improved operational performance, and reduced costs. If the injury and fatality rates could be reduced by 50 percent, for example, then in 10 years more than 380,000 injuries and 440 fatalities would be prevented. This is the equivalent of over $24 billion saved.

A transformation in the approach to reducing injuries and preventing fatalities is necessary to begin to see real change. Initiating discussions with your crew members about the ethical and moral principles of risk and rescue is a good place to start. Keep track of the causes, contributing factors, and cost of injuries over time and use that data to drive change in your department. Developing a comprehensive approach to managing health and safety in your department starts with an audit using the ANSI Z10 standard.

Training firefighters and officers to make good risk management decisions requires committing time and resources to put every operational member of your department through a well-developed operational risk management training program. If you can make these changes happen in your department, then the fire service will also begin to change. Injuries will be prevented, lives will be saved, and families will be spared the emotional pain of these events. Firefighters must remember that getting hurt or killed in the line of duty is not a job requirement.

About the Author
Bill Pessemier has spent 25 years in the fire service and is the former Fire Chief in Littleton, Colorado. In addition, Bill was a professor at Oklahoma State University teaching courses in Political Science and Fire and Emergency Management. He has a master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of Illinois and a doctoral degree in Public Affairs from the University of Colorado. His dissertation was on the development of a model of safety culture for the fire service. Bill has authored several articles on safety culture in the fire service that have been published in various academic journals and presented at conferences around the world. Bill is currently the CEO of Vulcan Safety Solutions. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

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