Swedish firefighter, researcher schools FRI audience on safety

AP photo/Pressens Bild
Swedish firefighters tackle a car fire in Stockholm.

ATLANTA — Imagine a country where firefighters are rarely killed in the line of duty. In the United States it may seem like a fantasy, but in Sweden it's reality.

Just one firefighter has died in the Scandinavian country in the past seven years, while the United States already has more than 80 line-of-duty deaths this year alone.

Sweden has about 16,000 firefighters compared to approximately 1.1 million in the United States – but the difference in death rates is marked. 

Stefan Svensson, a firefighter and a research and development engineer at the Swedish Rescue Services Agency, outlined why his country is a safe haven for firefighters during a special session at FRI in Atlanta, Thursday. And he warned unless the United States takes drastic action, the disparity in fatalities will continue.

Svensson said one of the reasons for Sweden's impressive safety record is simple: "We do the same stuff today we did 45 years ago.

"We use a radio, we bring a hoseline and we work in pairs."

Stricter approach
Sweden also takes a stricter approach to firefighter health and fitness, according to Svensson.

Safety in the country's fire service is based on regulations set by the Work Environment Authority. It stipulates that firefighters must take a health test every other year, and an annual physical ability test.

While the United States is shifting more toward the use of CPAT, Svensson warned against using it as the yardstick for firefighter health.

"You have to be careful when you do testing like this," he said. "Is it really a physical ability test or is it a firefighter ability test?

"If it's only a firefighter ability test, you don't really have to be that physically fit. If you have the right technique, you can do it anyway."

Firefighter training in Sweden also differs from that in the United States, Svensson said.

U.S. training places a lot of emphasis on how to get out of dangerous situations, he said, while Sweden focuses on how to avoid getting into those scenarios in the first place.

He also raised concern at the existence of Rapid Intervention Teams, comparing it to a car driver feeling confident racing at dangerous speeds because he is wearing a seat belt and has airbags.

"It seems like it's, 'We have an RIT team, let's get into dangerous situations, someone else can get us out.' If you need an intervention team, should you be there in the first place? By using a RIT, there's even greater risk. It's still a dangerous situation, and you're sending more people inside? That's stupid."

Studious approach
The United States still overly relies on tradition and experience – the same way of doing things – and needs to take a more studious approach to firefighting in order to improve its safety record, Svensson said.

Sweden has adopted a more scientific approach in training firefighters in recent years, he added.

"We want them (firefighters) to understand the dynamics, the physics, the chemistry (of fires) and to handle situations based on that knowledge," he said.

While Svensson blamed inadequate training and poor fitness levels for a number of firefighter deaths in the United States, he said attitude also plays a big part.

While it is OK for the public to look at firefighters as heroes, he said, firefighters are "unprofessional" if they take the same attitude.
"I get the feeling firefighters in the United States think it's more or less OK to die trying to save somebody else. …It's not about getting there at any cost, it's about getting home at any cost in good time."

To improve firefighter safety in the United States, Svensson outlined a range of short- and long-term measures.

Quick actions include fining firefighters for breaching safety rules, such as not wearing seat belts or correct PPE, not slowing down fire trucks at intersections, and not taking part in regular physical activity.

Long-term measures are:

• Changing building codes
• Stricter physical demands for all firefighters
• Changing the scope, extent and content of training
• Encouraging safe behavior, not heroic deeds

"In Sweden, we do what we have to do to save lives," Svensson said, "but we try to do it safely, with science and thought behind it."

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