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November 19, 2020 | View as webpage
Leaders,

Are you a numbers person or a big-picture thinker? Today’s newsletter spans data to philosophy. ► Share this newsletter with your fellow chief officers and discuss what actions you can take to reduce firefighter LODDs.

Chief Marc Bashoor
Executive Editor, Fire Chief, FireRescue1

 
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2019 LODD data: Analyzing the USFA report amid the push to ‘Get Below 50’
By Chief Marc Bashoor 

 
Firefighters and EMS personnel report to stations all over the United States every day knowing that it could be their last day on the job.

The U.S. fire service has done a phenomenal job in reducing line-of-duty deaths (LODDs), but there are still troubles that we as a fire service need to address.

As we consider what needs to be done, let's take a look at the U.S. Fire Administration’s recently released 2019 report on firefighter fatalities.

2019 LODDs: By the numbers

There were 62 on-duty firefighter deaths in 2019. Of those 62, 34 were volunteer firefighters, 25 were paid firefighters, and three were wildland firefighters. Thirty-seven of those firefighters died from activities related to an emergency incident.

Some additional data: 18 firefighters died due to activities at a fire scene, 12 firefighters died from activities at non-fire related scenes, eight firefighters died while responding or returning from an emergency incident, while five firefighters died while participating in training activities. When you add all that up, only 30 died on an emergency scene.

Because we tend to sensationalize the fire scenes, let's break down the 18 fire scene LODDs:

  • 5 died advancing hoselines
  • 3 died during incident command
  • 3 died during search and rescue
  • 2 during unknown circumstances
  • 2 during support
  • 2 during standby
  • 1 during setup at an incident

We tend to focus on the structure fires, but it is interesting to note that of the 62 LODDs in 2019, only 17 of those were at structure fires. Consistent with other years, 13 of those 17 were at residential fires; the other four were at commercial fires.

You might ask, “Why is it that more people are dying at residential fires?” First, we run a lot more residential fires than we do commercial fires. Second, while in theory that means we should be better on residential fires, I believe what happens is that we let our guard down.

Overexertion LODDs

As you look at the report a little further, you see that 60% of those LODDs for 2019 were related to an emergency incident, while 40% were related to non-emergency events. The statistic to note: 36 firefighters died from overexertion. Of those 36, 33 died from heart-related events, with 32 of those being heart attacks.

We can directly control our own health, wellness, fitness and diet plans. We know this is a stressful business, and we know that the tasks we perform can drive the adrenaline that trigger medical events, but we also know we have a lot of work to do with our own health. Just look around your stations and, yes, maybe it's time to look in the mirror. We can do better, we can have a significant impact on most of our LODD numbers through improvements in our health.

Working to “Get Below 50” LODDs

So much of the strong work to reduce the number of LODDs and track the data comes from the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) and the USFA.

The 2019 data provides a promising glimpse of the continued downward trend of LODDs. It is important to note that the 62 deaths recorded in 2019 is the lowest number in the 44 years that records have been kept by the USFA. 

Also important for perspective: The Hometown Heroes Act signed into law in December 2003 provided for presumptive language that recognizes heart attack and stroke as line-of-duty death. If you follow the trends and remove the Hometown Heroes Act LODDs in 2019, there would have been 52 LODDs.

After the Tampa 1 and Tampa 2 summits, the NFFF and the Truman Fire Forum have made a fire safe America their focus. The NFFF initiated the program to “Get Below 50” – that's to get below 50 LODDs.

Some in our service say, "The deaths are inevitable, get over it." That's hogwash. We've proven that we can reduce LODDs. We're nearly at 50. We're nearly at the point where we can start fathoming having no firefighter deaths.

Yes, this is a dangerous job, and yes, you could say it's inevitable that there's going to be incidents where a firefighter may have to pay the ultimate sacrifice; however, it is not an inevitable causation for a firefighter to die in the line of duty.

Looking ahead

So as we look to finishing out 2020, we need to remember that the word "inevitability" should have nothing to do with the expectation that when these firefighters and EMS personnel come to work that they're not going to go home; that should never be in the vocabulary.

Taking care of ourselves, looking at our own health, wellness and fitness, and making sure that we look out for each other. We know we can have an impact.

Are you up to the task?

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The case for a fire service ‘Stockdale course'
By Mike Vatter  

“The challenge of education is not to prepare a person for success, but to prepare him for failure.” – Adm. James B. Stockdale, U.S. Navy

The Stockdale course is the informal name for “Foundations of Moral Obligation,” an elective offered at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

It has been a difficult year for the nation. From the COVID-19 pandemic to the violence rocking many of our cities, the fire service is dealing with many challenges and dilemmas. Finding a course of action to guide and protect our communities, our members, our families, and ourselves is difficult at best and fraught with the potential of failure.

High-stress decisions are difficult because of the transient nature of the information we receive. That leaves us to fall back on our education and understanding of human nature. But for many of emergency services leaders, our education has been mostly technical, with a minimal amount of humanities and philosophy courses to our credit.

So how should the fire service address this issue? I propose that the National Fire Academy or one of the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) institutions develop a course like the Stockdale course offered at the Naval War College.

Military Roots

Four decades ago, Adm. James B. Stockdale, then president of the Naval War College, attempted to answer a similar question facing naval officers. He understood that many officers were facing great ethical and moral challenges in the post-Vietnam War Navy. They held highly technical degrees but lacked any background in philosophy and the humanities to guide them in these decisions.

Stockdale was awarded the Medal of Honor for his leadership and bravery as a prisoner of war at the Hanoi Hilton. He credited his survival and successes later in life to the study of classic philosophy that he undertook as a 37-year-old graduate student at Stanford. As an older student, he believed there was something missing from his education, which led him to pursue philosophy.

Stockdale’s idea was to distill this material into a one-semester elective at the Naval War College. It was called “Foundations of Moral Obligation.” It still exists today and remains one of the most popular electives. Although some of the readings have changed, the format of the course remains nearly the same as it was when Stockdale first taught the course in 1979.

Military officers must survive and make good decisions under intense pressure and risk. Stockdale believed leaders need more than just technical know-how to navigate these situations. He and another Naval War College professor, Dr. Joseph G. Brennan, scoured the writings on moral philosophy, looking for the best models of human beings under pressure. They selected a diverse list that included readings from the Book of Job to Lenin.

Application to the Fire Service

I think the parallel exists for senior fire officers, and the application to the fire service follows naturally. A fire service Stockdale course would require minimal changes to the Naval War College reading list.

The original course syllabus included the following:[1]

  • Week 1: Introduction: The Prisoner of War and the Human Predicament, The World of Epictetus
  • Week 2: Book of Job: The Problem of Evil
  • Week 3:  The Socratic Example: “The Four Socratic Dialogues of Plato”
  • Week 4: Aristotle and the Nicomachean Ethics
  • Week 5: Law: Of Conscience and the State, Immanuel Kant and H.L.A. Hart
  • Week 6: Happiness as Utility, Justice and Fairness, John Stuart Mill and John Rawls
  • Week 7: Individualism and the Collective I: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus
  • Week 8: Individualism and the Collective II: Vladimir Lenin and Soviet Philosophy
  • Week 9: Science and Values: Jacques Monod and the Moral Ideal of Objective Knowledge, Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Ethic of Silence
  • Week 10: Return to the Beginning: The Stoic Ideal and the Ethic of the Military

Over the ensuing years, the syllabus has been updated to reflect contemporary issues but remains true to its objective of preparing officers for the moral and ethical issues that they will face as commanders and leaders. The current syllabus contains the following readings:[2]

  • Week 1: Greek and Roman Stoics, Epictetus, Stockdale’s “Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot”
  • Week 2: The Greek Tradition: Socrates and Plato, “Euthyphro,” “Apology,” and “Crito”
  • Week 3: Plato: “The Republic”
  • Week 4: The Greek Tradition: Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
  • Week 5: The Western Religious Tradition
  • Week 6: The Enlightenment: Immanuel Kant
  • Week 7: Life in Society: UN Charter, Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty,” and Kant’s “Perpetual Peace”
  • Week 8: Finding Meaning in One’s Life: Leo Tolstoy and Elie Wiesel
  • Week 9: Non-Western (Hindu) Perspective: The Bhagavad Gita, early Christian Just War theory, and Karl Marlantes’s “What It Is like to Go to War”
  • Week 10: Some Skeptical Challenges: Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor,” Albert Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus,” and the Book of Job

Many firefighters hold bachelor and even master’s degrees, but those courses of study are often loaded with technical education. There is precious little in the way of philosophy or humanities beyond any core curriculum such as freshman English/composition, Introduction to Sociology, and a government course or two. I never knew about Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius until I began to read about Stoicism (an ancient Greek school of philosophy). I recognized Plato and Socrates but had never read their work. In fact, despite being a history buff, I had never read Lenin, although I did read some Camus in high school.

This leads me to the proposition that the fire service needs a Stockdale course. We face many issues similar to those faced by military officers. We must carry out policies we may not agree with and follow orders that may appear misguided. Conversely, we must provide guidance and leadership to our members, city leaders, and the community. We need to be aware of how a person’s upbringing, education, and social beliefs affect their understanding of an issue. A course of study like Foundations of Moral Obligation could create a more well-rounded officer cadre.

Hurdles to Overcome

The greatest challenge to creating and offering a fire service Stockdale course is finding the experts and talent to develop and teach the course. There are probably not many fire officers who hold a Ph.D. in philosophy!

Then there is the question of which institution could offer such a course. My first thought would be for the NFA to design and offer the course as post-graduate work for alumni of the Executive Fire Officers and Managing Fire Officers programs. On the other hand, one of the colleges that offers the FESHE program could develop the course.

A third challenge is the format of the course. At the Naval War College, Foundations of Moral Obligation is a 10-week resident course. What would it look like as a fire service course? Most assuredly it could not be 10 weeks and taught at the NFA. What does it look like as a distance learning course? Would it be 10 weeks long with a two-hour online session each week plus a final paper?

If nothing else, I offer this proposition to individual firefighters and fire officers who are working on degree programs: Try to find a way to broaden your course of study beyond the mandatory humanities curriculum. It may the best thing you can do for your long-term career. I wish I had known about the Stockdale course 40 years ago.

References

  1. Brennan, Joseph G. (1992) Foundations of Moral Obligation, Naval War College Press, Newport, RI.
  2. Gibbons, Thomas J. (2017) "Foundations of Moral Obligation," Naval War College Review: Vol. 70 : No. 3 , Article 8. Available at: https://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/nwc-review/vol70/iss3/8
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