They Did Not Choose to Die

This job requires a commitment

By Dave LeBlanc

Originally published 3 December 2013.

FACE 2011-31 On December 23, 2011, a 42-year-old male career fire fighter died during fire-fighting operations on the 2nd floor of a three-story apartment building. The victim was assigned to Engine 5 (E5) with a lieutenant and driver/pump operator. E5 was the first-due engine company at this fire. The Incident Commander ordered E5 to take a 1¾” hoseline and attack the fire in a 2nd floor apartment. The lieutenant stretched the line to the landing of the 2nd floor but did not realize there were two apartments on the 2nd floor. ……

Career Fire Fighter Dies during Fire-Fighting Operations at a Multi-family Residential Structure Fire – Massachusetts

FACE 2012-23 On July 16, 2012, a 30-year-old male volunteer fire fighter (victim) died after being ejected from a fire engine. The victim, riding in the right front seat, was responding on Engine 6-5 with one other fire fighter (the driver) to a reported motor vehicle crash. The fire engine traveled approximately 1.3 miles from the station when the driver lost control of the engine in a curve. The engine left the paved road and crashed into trees on the right side of the roadway. The victim was ejected from the engine and landed in a wooded area (see Photo 1 and Photo 2). The driver of Engine 6-5 exited through the windshield, located the victim, and began medical treatment. Other emergency personnel responded to the scene, and the victim was pronounced dead at the scene.

Volunteer Fire Fighter Dies After Being Ejected From Front Seat of Engine—Virginia

FACE 2011-20 On August 14, 2011, a 41-year-old career lieutenant died after falling through a roof and being trapped in an attic. The lieutenant was part of a two-man crew attempting to perform vertical ventilation of a two story multi-family apartment complex. The fire department had responded to multiple fires over the years at this apartment complex. The roof decking material was over 30 years old and would not meet the current building code. The fire on the first floor was quickly brought under control but had spread into the attic along the exterior wall and through the eaves. The fire had compromised the structural integrity of the roof decking material prior to the crew operating on the roof. When the lieutenant crossed over the peak of the roof to ventilate above the fire, he fell through the weakened roof and into the attic. His legs went through the ceiling of the second floor apartment while his body remained in the attic. He was wearing his self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) but was not wearing his facepiece and was overcome by the products of combustion. He was rescued by crews operating at the scene and transported to a local hospital where he died from his injuries.

Career Lieutenant Dies After Being Trapped in the Attic After Falling Through a Roof While Conducting Ventilation – Texas

While discussing any line of duty death or close call, there always seems to be an element of ‘it can’t happen to me’ with the conversation participants.  There is often an attitude or vibe of, “Well of course that happened, look at what he did”.  Some of this may be a defense mechanism, designed to protect our minds from the real possibilities.  Some of it is flat out denial, a refusal to accept that we could ever find ourselves in similar circumstances. 

There is one common thread that is woven between all line of duty deaths, an irrefutable fact.  Not one of these firefighters that paid the ultimate price set out to do so when the call came in.  Not one of them had as a goal, today I am going to lose focus and get killed.  Yet it happened.  Why is that?

In many cases these firefighters were victims of circumstances beyond their control, they were wearing all their gear, and operating appropriately and things went wrong.  In the aftermath it was discovered that maybe if things had been done differently a death could have been avoided.  But that is not 100% concrete proof there would have been a different outcome, it is a post incident review that reveals areas where things could have been done better.

Then there are the firefighters that took and action, or failed to act, in a way that directly led to their death.  Either through complacency or loss of focus, they made a mistake.  Unfortunately for them, this is a job where mistakes can have dire consequences, and in their case it did.

But as firefighters read these reports, often times their eyes glaze over as they say, “no way would I have even done that….” And then the bell rings and they do just that, leaving no doubt that there is an inability for us to learn from someone else’s mistakes, to take the valuable nuggets away from something we were not directly involved in.

So how are we supposed to learn?  Never before have we had the tools and information available as we do today.  Every LODD is investigated by NIOSH and each investigation yields a comprehensive report that combines incident specific problems, with a list of best practices in one neat package for any firefighter to download and read.  These reports are generic; no names are given, so that NIOSH can be a little sharper in their fault finding, without necessarily placing blame.  Many feel the reports don’t go deep enough, although I am not sure the Fire Service’s skin is thick enough for and honest and total evaluation of cause and result. 

In many cases the departments do an internal investigation as well.  These tend to be more pointed, and errors are quickly identified and corrections suggested.  These reports can be that way as the reviewers have a stake in the outcome in most cases.  Similar to a trial by a jury of your peers, you have to be prepared to stand up to that scrutiny and except that the results will be far more exacting.

Aside from NIOSH, we also have the Firefighter Near Miss Program.  This is a phenomenal tool that allows for both the anonymous submission of an incident as well as a comprehensive search of the incidents reported.  Never before have we had the ability to look at other peoples close calls and learn from them.  Never before have firefighters been able to tell others about what happened to them, why and admit their own involvement; without fear of ridicule.  And yet there is that old bias, ‘they must not train.  No way we would have ever done that.”

Until we accept the fact that what happens to them can happen to us, there will always be a reluctance to learn from the lessons of others.   And that is a sad commentary on our willingness to learn.  While your Department may not respond in the same fashion as the Department in the report, there will always be things you can learn from the event.  But you must embrace them as what there are, lessons learned the hard way by someone you may have never met.  And here is the rub; you owe it to them to learn from their event.  Whether there is fault or not, they paid the ultimate price.  It is senseless for us not to learn everything we can from their story. 

We are foolish if we think we are above complacency.  We are foolish if we think we can’t lose focus.  We are foolish to think we cannot make mistakes.  We are foolish if we don’t believe the words of Captain Paddy Brown, “you can do everything right on this job and still get killed.” 

This job requires a commitment.  You must be willing to constantly strive to be better than you were yesterday.  Close enough is not good enough.  Your training is not just for your own well-being, but also for the well-being of your crew.   And part of your training, everyday, should involve learning from these hard taught lessons.  Close calls, injuries and deaths all have a root cause.  Taking the time to study and learn what that those roots causes are will make you a better fireman.  Understanding that you are not above making a mistake, or being complacent, well that will open the door in your mind to learning from these lessons.

Each NIOSH report you read has a name attached to it.  A fireman that went on a run thinking it was just another call.  Pumped up with adrenaline because he /she were going to a job.  Excited and measured at the same time, finding that balance we all do are our senses try and overload our brains.  These firefighters put the risks out of their mind as they went to work, because you can’t operate effectively if you are expecting to die at any second.  They did what any one of us and every one of us do each day.  They did their job.  They chose to serve their community.  They chose to save lives.  They did not choose to die.

Published by Data Not Drama

Data Not Drama is writings that provide a point of critical thought about firefighter fatality data and education, line of duty deaths, and risk. The main focus is to encourage less risk aversion and better knowledge on the subject of firefighter fatalities in firefighters, fire departments, and fire service organizations.

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