Fire Fighter Deaths: Don’t Wait for NIOSH

Safety in the Digital Age

Heavy Fire

Fire/Rescue groups, including the International Association of Fire Fighters, helped to create the investigative arm at the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) which examines “line-of-duty deaths.” (LODD)

The NIOSH/LODD program has been extremely important in the effort to determine the elements related to these casualties.

Any LODD will have many causes, some immediate and apparent, some hidden in the backwaters of bureaucracy which ultimately affect how fire/rescue departments operate, right down to on-scene actions.

NIOSH has helped to identify how staffing, response times and procedures can lay the groundwork for a deadly outcome, long before a hoseline is charged at a working fire.

In fact, the root cause for many deaths lies deep in the details of staffing, training and leadership.

The weaknesses and failures in these and other areas culminates to create a scenario where tragedy occurs.

NIOSH has paved the way in exploring the connections in these factors.

Along the way, much has changed, perhaps the greatest area is in digital technology which has made the viewing of fire fighting activities both vivid and immediate.

Much the same thing happened during the Vietnam War, when, for the first time, camera crews were embedded with units in the field, capturing the nitty-gritty details of combat operations, including the helicopter evacuation of blood-soaked soldiers.

Viewers were stunned and horrified as the war took on new meaning and added impact.

A version of that is where we are today.

Digital technology, enabling smartphone video, helmet cameras and other data sources has literally changed the way we experience the fireground.

No more blotchy still photos or broken up radio audio.

Now, it’s high definition video with sound.

Those advancements have given us a view we never had before.

A recent fireground death caused one fire fighter to say that we would need to wait on NIOSH for the verdict.

Not so fast.

Fire service leaders, including those in labor, have the responsibility to take action (and to learn) when available evidence is indisputable and persuasive.

In so doing, we would only be following the lead of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB.)

The NTSB regularly publishes “Investigative Updates” when causal information can result in immediate safety improvements.

We should be using readily available information in the same way.

Digital imagery now provides documentation of activities including staffing, resources, deployment strategies and the manner in which fireground decisions affect events.

While NIOSH sifts for root causes, it is up to fire/rescue leaders to take swift advantage of emerging evidence which can be used to alter procedures or reinforce existing ones.

To do otherwise is to be complicit in an unsafe emergency response.

Some changes don’t require an expert from Washington, D.C.





1 Comment

  • Eric Lamar says:

    I completely agree with your comment, “the heat conditions worsened with the application of water through the back windows.”

    That situation would be significantly worsened in an unventilated environment.

    One purpose of ventilation is to prevent the downward travel of heat and fire gases.

    To state the obvious: you don’t need a truck to do truck work.

    Engine crews may need to be special called or reassigned to these duties.

    An interior attack on a building which has not been thoroughly ventilated and which is simultaneously undergoing an exterior attack is a risky proposition at best.

    The fireground commander must ensure that building conditions will reasonably support the assigned objectives.

    If they will not, then tactics must be adjusted.

    The cardinal rule is, of course, to refrain from moving into an environment where crews are overly exposed without an explicit and high priority objective.

    Searching an unventilated building, as you suggest, while it is under exterior attack without near certain knowledge of a viable rescue is not in keeping with the tenets of risk management.

    Thanks and cheers.

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