By Bill Carey
5 April 2022
Misinformation has been a popular topic in recent years. Currently associated with news and politics it has been found in reactions to firefighter line of duty deaths and how the fatality data is understood and used. Misinformation may be accidental as well as intentional and as I have shared in past presentations each way has been seen in the fear of firefighter fatalities and the efforts to reduce firefighter line of duty deaths.
Last month in a presentation to the Prince George’s County (MD) Professional Fire Fighters and Paramedics Association Local 1619 I included the topic of misinformation with an example outside of the fire service. To show how something so emotional can be factually incorrect yet widely accepted I used the assumption about the short life span of a U.S. Army second lieutenant on the battlefield during the Vietnam War.
If you had any interest in the history of the Vietnam War you might have come across the statement that the average life span of a second lieutenant was anywhere from seconds to minutes. This short span is commonly attributed to the movies where cinematic liberty or cinematic freedom is used to embellish the danger and risk for emotional effect. The knowledge that there is no factual proof about this tale does not take away from the truth about the actual dangers and deaths on the battlefield. It is a semantic as it relates to the actual horrors of warfare and is sometimes used to intensify the emotions that go with the subject but that is all that is does.
When exploring what was behind this belief about second lieutenants, I not only found a wide range of their battlefield lifespan, but I also found that they were not supposedly the only ones believed to have a short time to live. I found the range for second lieutenants most often repeated in books and film included seven seconds, 16 minutes, one week, or two months. If being a second lieutenant seemed bad, consider these anecdotes about other soldiers and their lifespan in the Vietnam War. A radio operator supposedly lived only five seconds after touching down on a landing zone. An M-60 gunner was believed to only last seven seconds. Being above the battlefield didn’t help since a helicopter pilot was thought to live only 19 minutes.
Where these beliefs came from and how they became misinformation is difficult to figure out. Looking at material on combat deaths during the war did not supply any facts or any information where you could make a rational assumption. I believed that perhaps at least a grain of truth about second lieutenants came from wearing colored insignia.
In 1964 and 1965 President Lyndon Johnson ramped up the deployment of conventional forces on the ground of South Vietnam. From advisors to divisions soldiers wore a battle dress uniform that was adorned with colorful division insignia, rank and branch insignia on collars and headgear, and white name tape above the right shirt pocket. It was not until 1966 that the Army began a transition to the subdued (green and black) insignia for uniforms. No specific detailed reason is found for the change. The transition was not rapid, and it was not until 1970 that complete uniform change was in place although soldiers could be seen at the end of the war with color insignia.
A basic understanding of combat can give us easy understanding of why colored insignia may be consequential to the death of a second lieutenant. Standing out among other soldiers giving directions, pointing, talking on a radio, and wearing a uniform that stands out from others an enemy solider could rightfully target what he would consider to the be the leader. However, this does not give any credibility to the tale of a seven second lifespan. Sergeants wore black and gold chevrons on their sleeves and everyone, regardless of rank had a patch and name tape of gold, white, red, blue against an olive drab uniform. It is correct to say that firsthand experiences of the death of second lieutenants, or other officers, during combat have made their impression especially when discussing the chaos of combat as well as command and control. The actual loss of that command position has not been related to a fact about a lifespan on the battlefield, in seconds or minutes. Without facts we must presume that this tale, wherever it came from, is continued largely as misinformation due to an emotional attachment to the subject in most cases. The fire service is no different.
For nearly 20 years in the fire service media business, I have seen all type of reactions to firefighter line of duty deaths and close calls. Even before there was social media, firefighters would respond to tragic news in forums with the common response of “this is how we’re killing hundreds of firefighters each year.” This and similar reactions are common reader responses to news and video about a firefighter falling through a roof, burned in a flashover, or trapped in a collapse. Much like the attachment to the loss of a second lieutenant, these reactions are largely based on emotion. A traumatic fireground death is very engaging for the fire service news sites and their readers. That engagement is compounded on social media pages and becomes traffic numbers that are beneficial to publishers and event companies. This news is partnered with related content focused on reducing such deaths and in turn the readers are reminded of the incident for several days and again on anniversaries. This carries the readers’ emotions and is compounded on with little attention given to facts, until an investigative report is released a year or so later. Regrettably, social media has seemingly led to a lack of attention and reading comprehension and readers pick up the incident again and their associated emotions and the tales that they choose to believe.
Roof ventilation it seems has always been a third rail in the fire service. Line of duty deaths with this tactic have a large hold on our history. Research and training in recent years has both confirmed some beliefs and changed others but online the subject is still full of handwringing. Actual fatality data shows that to date we are nearly 10 years since a firefighter died after falling through the roof he was going to open. While zero fatalities do not prove less risk it can show probable improvement in working with that risk. It is not just roof ventilation though. Abandoned buildings is also another area of belief that several firefighters die inside of each year. While there is line of duty deaths even recently in these subjects, just like the tale of the second lieutenant the emotional hold of their stories leads to an acceptance of misinformation by many. The specific losses are not to be trivialized yet what happens over time is these deaths become held onto as the most of a number and are used to deliver information that is not always correct. The actual data could be used to show how the fire service is improving in reducing line of duty deaths but that is not as engaging with readers as is an anniversary post of an investigation report or video from the fireground.
Data shows that line of duty deaths in these two subjects have declined over the years, especially roof ventilation. This does not purport that the risks have lessened. On the contrary they are likely increased based on our increased knowledge of current building construction methods and the economy and housing issues. But we are not losing firefighters at an alarming rate to give any credibility to the “one hundred a year” belief and comment. Unfortunately, the data rarely makes a mark in your education, and it is instead replaced with that emotional engagement from your memories of tragedies and close calls, to get your more engaged with the remedy.
We should certainly be in favor of efforts to reduce line of duty deaths, but we should also be in favor of having truths and facts guide those efforts and our education. Misinformation has shown up in presentations, articles, and even textbooks and even if done so unintentionally it creates a false belief that detracts from truths about firefighter line of duty deaths. By asking hard questions about fatality data presented in our education we can gain a better understanding of what has happened and remove biased and unsubstantiated fears that affect decisions within departments.
Top photograph courtesy of Associated Press.