Well, it's the beginning of another year and hopefully your resolution is to make it a safe one for you, the members of your department and the fire service in general. There was no final figure for Line-of-Duty deaths in 2016 as I prepared this article, using the USFA as my source, but the figure on December 14th was 82. We can and must do better in the reduction of this annual toll of lives taken in the line-of-duty and it will require a total commitment from all in the fire service.
Staying out of harm’s way is not easy as we go about the performance of our duties with all of its inherent dangers. There exists tremendous potential from all forms of hazards that we encounter and are exposed to on a daily basis that can result in serious injury or death, even when we are observing caution. Imagine what can occur when you are not concentrating, relaxed, and lowered your guard, or do something just plain dumb. One must maintain the proper attitude relative to safety in order to remain safe and stay alive, and if you don’t, you can easily become a statistic.
So, what can we do to help reduce this annual loss of life? You can start out by maintaining, or getting in good physical condition, since the leading cause of firefighter deaths is still heart attacks. Remember, round is not a shape unless you are a ball, so get in shape! It will enable you to perform at high physical stress levels, with less risk of a heart attack.
Cigarette smoking is another major contributing factor for heart attack, so if you smoke, do your best to kick the habit. Believe me, I have heard all the stories and glories about "eating smoke at a fire, so why should I quit smoking??" Well for starters, the days of the smoke eater are long past and you should be using SCBA. Secondly, if there is one habit that contributes to almost every medical ailment known to science, it's smoking. Some fire departments have a no smoking policy that they have had in place for many years and in these departments’ retirement and pension, benefits hinge directly to this no smoking policy, especially should heart and lung medical illnesses arise. It might be the perfect time for the entire fire service to incorporate this, or a similar policy.
In conjunction with a no smoking policy, it may also be time the fire service begins enforcing a physical agility standard on an annual basis that requires all firefighting personnel to meet the standard or confront dismissal from the department. It may appear as an unreasonable option, but it may just be what is needed for some individuals to finally decide to take the necessary steps to keep his/her position, while improving and maintaining their health. Many career departments have volunteer participation physical agility programs, and if they have full compliance programs, they generally do very little policing of those who fail to meet the standard. In the volunteer service, where recruiting new members is becoming more difficult and getting a crew out during the week is difficult, the last thing you want to do is stop anyone from responding, so we sometimes look the other way.
Another key factor relative to heart attacks in the volunteer service is that many members are much older than in the career departments. Many career firefighters have retired by the age of 55, whereas in the volunteer fire service, a member may continue active into his/her 70’s. With the increase in age also comes the increase in the potential of having a heart attack while performing stressful activity. It's tough to hold back some of the old dedicated members, and surely they would be missed, so it is incumbent for the department to make sure these members have a minimum medical examination and get plenty of monitoring and rehab when assisting at the emergency scene. Even then, there still remains the increased risk.
If we can reduce the annual stress related line-of-duty deaths, we will have taken a major step in decreasing the annual death toll. We will not have eliminated LODD’s, but we will be moving toward a goal of reducing the annual death toll. Motor vehicle and apparatus related deaths need to be reduced. Risk management has to be reviewed and some logical determinations made by command officers, as to how much risk will be taken on the fire ground in order to save what? I realize the saving of life is our most important mission, and that includes our own personnel, but after that, almost every material item can be replaced. The life of a firefighter caught in a collapse, trying to save property from further destruction by fire, is too high a price to pay.
So, as we enter this New Year, let us all resolve to do all we possibly can to reduce the annual death and injury toll. It can be done!
Till next time, stay safe and God Bless!