27 fire service families I won't meet this year

With the right steps, even more line of duty deaths can be prevented

Editor's note: After each interaction I've had with Chief Siarnicki over the years, I've come away impressed with two things: his sincere and genuine care for firefighter well being, and his keen intellect. Those who've spent time with him understand this. So it gives me immense pleasure to have Chief Siarnicki join FireRescue1 as a regular columnist. Each month he'll be sharing his big-picture view of firefighter safety that will surely be of great value in every fire station day room. If even one less firefighter is killed or seriously hurt because of what is learned in this monthly column, then this venture will be an unqualified success. Please enjoy and be safe. — Rick Markley, FireRescue1 editor

One of the best parts about working for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation is traveling the country meeting firefighters, their families and members of the fire service community. As much joy as that gives me, I am even happier to tell you that there will be about 27 fire service families that I won't get to meet this year — for that I am extremely grateful. Let me explain.

For much of the NFFF's existence we have told the fire service and the public that on average we lose 100 firefighters each year. That is no longer the case. For 2012 that number is 73.

In fact, for the last four years there has been a clear downward trend in the number of firefighters who die in the line of duty.

That 2012 number represents about 27 families I won't be greeting come Memorial Weekend this October. But, of course, it's not just me.

Imagine how many people this impacts in a much greater way. Think of the immediate survivors, the extended families and the friends throughout the community. Think of the fellow firefighters. Think of the firefighters across the country.

There were 27 fewer firefighter funerals last year.

How we reached 73
This significant reduction in the loss and trauma associated with line of duty deaths is the result of hard work by our nation's fire service. The blueprint for this came almost a decade ago when NFFF brought together over 200 fire service leaders for the 2004 National Fire Service Summit in Tampa, Fla.

During the summit, an action plan was developed to reduce the number of firefighter deaths in a systematic fashion. That plan soon became known as the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives.

Since the 2004 summit, the fire service has witnessed many changes, developments and actions that can be attributed to those 16 Initiatives under the mantra of "Everyone Goes Home." This title was developed to be the recognizable battle cry of the entire fire-service community to reduce the number of deaths that occur each year.

While this reduction from more than 100 to 73 seems to be a very positive development, it is still not enough to eliminate all preventable line of duty deaths. I know that there are incidents within the fire service that are beyond our control and lead to firefighter deaths and injuries. But many of these occurrences can be prevented through a personal and organizational commitment to change how we work, act and play within the realm of delivering quality fire, rescue and emergency medical services.

Consider the statistical breakdown of the 2012 line of duty deaths: 

  • 40 cardiovascular incidents;
  • 28 trauma fatalities, of which 16 involved motor vehicle accidents; and
  • five others involving burns, smoke inhalation, asphyxiation, drowning and hyperthermia.

As has been a pattern during my career in the fire service, heart attacks and vehicle crashes remain our biggest killers. These two things are within our realm to control.

The ages of these fallen firefighters range from 17 to 74 and only one of the 73 fallen was female. For the families of these fallen, these statistics represent the most horrific events that can occur in one's life.

The next step
As the executive director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, one of my responsibilities is to review each case that is submitted for inclusion on the National Memorial in Emmitsburg, Md. and determine whether or not it fits the criteria of qualifying as a line of duty death. This is one of the most miserable functions I perform each year. 

Many of the cases read the same and with obvious hindsight could have been prevented if some type of intervention was applied when the circumstances of the incident began to surface or when a pattern of behavior was developing. This is the area within our industry that has to be addressed now and, if done properly, another 10 to 15 deaths can and will be prevented on an annual basis through firefighter physicals, wellness programs, seatbelt use and driver training.

The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation works diligently to promote and implement programs and activities that support the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives. When I was asked to write a monthly column, I thought about the chance this would give me, and the Foundation as a whole, to reach more of the fire service community with our message. It is an opportunity to communicate directly with many of you on the topic of firefighter line of duty deaths and what is being done across the country to promote and use the Everyone Goes Home program.

I am very appreciative of the time and space being offered to carry this message and hope that you will join me each month to discuss what is new and different in our efforts to keep more of our brothers and sisters safe, alive and well so that they can grow old with their families and friends.

Until next time, be safe.

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