By Brian S. Gettemeier
The fact of the matter is line of duty deaths in the United States are still occurring at an alarming rate. As I update this article on December 28, 2017, I have received my 93rd e-mail from the US Fire Administration notifying me of a line of duty death of a firefighter in 2017. In the past decade we have seen the numbers drop from an average of 100 to about 75. Tragically there are some re-occurring themes, firefighter’s continually becoming injured or killed in incidents similar to ones that have already occurred. A close friend of mine, Assistant Chief Steve Rinehart Maryland Heights (MO) Fire, says "There is no greater respect to a fallen brother than to learn from their tragedy and no greater disrespect than to allow the same tragedy to happen again"
We all have growth opportunity. We can all learn from others. Take professional football players for example. They represent an elite class of football players, where only a very select few will make it to the big leagues. However, after a game they review film. Even being a top player in the world they understand there is always an opportunity to grow by studying past behavior.
The calendar for 2018 represents the game film of the fire service. Incidents that have forever changed a department, a community, and many families. Incidents that we as the Fire Service promised we would never forget.
In 2018 let’s continue to honor the fallen. One of the hardest task that I had when developing the calendar was to choose what incident to profile on a given day. Each incident represented a human life, a family member, a firefighter, and an organization. Each life is valuable. Ultimately I selected the incidents based on the learning opportunity that they presented. The 2018 calendar features 83 new line of duty death incidents and 11 updated incidents.
I challenge all of us to review the calendar each day and review the incident. Take a few moments to honor that firefighter and improve our job performance at the same time. There are learning opportunities from every incident. Too often we hear our brothers that say “that will never happen here”. How do we know that? Line of Duty Deaths are occurring in departments big and small, urban, suburban, & rural, paid & volunteer, busy departments with lots of experience and departments with few opportunities. No one is exempt. The fire does not care. Many of us have a false sense of security because our organization has not had a line of duty death or a close call. Many of us confuse luck with solid tactical decisions and are over confident with our skills and abilities.
Challenge yourself and your crew to truly look at the incident. If you believe it will not occur at your organization ask yourself why? Solid tactics? If that is the case have you compared the tactics with the current research? Science is proving a lot of our tried and true tactics are not as efficient as we thought they were. Charleston South Carolina was very successful at being aggressive firefighters with deep tradition, the job and organization pride we all love. Tragically the employment of residential tactics on a large commercial structure with a heavy fire load cost 9 firefighters their lives and have forever changed the fabric of the Fire Service in the US. Many departments acknowledged they would employed similar tactics having trained on the bread and butter residential incidents. However, just 6 years prior the Charleston incident the Phoenix Fire Department lost a member in a large structure. After that incident Phoenix did a completely transparent report of what occurred that tragic day, May 14, 2001. How many organizations did not review the Phoenix report because they believed it would not happen within their organization?
If you still believe “it will not happen here”, ask yourself why? Is the answer is because of solid standard operating procedures (SOP)? If that is the case, review the SOP. Is the answer is because of solid training? Then review and refresh the skill. If you are truly competent and efficient it will not take you very long to complete, but be honest with yourself. Did your truly perform the task optimally? The fact is we need to perform a skill thousands of times to be proficient. Professional athletes are at the top of their game, because they practice. Can you challenge yourself, on the one in a million chance that this incident will occur? If you are proficient with forcible entry try it in a confining space, try it blindfolded. If you are proficient with your emergency SCBA procedures challenge yourself to do it laying on your stomach, left side, right side, upside down, in the dark. We can always grow. Many line of duty deaths have no correlation to tactics. Unfortunately, Heart Attacks and stress related deaths still account for 50% of our line of duty deaths. We know to work out and eat healthy but there are other ways to prepare. For medical related line of duty deaths take the opportunity to complete the task for that firefighter. If the firefighter was laying a supply line, then review your water supply training that day. Take the time to discuss what you would do if a member of your crew went down. What if they went down at the station, in a fire, at an MVA, on a medical call? Maybe the task that day is to review your affairs. Is your paperwork all up to date with your organization in the event of your death? Are your beneficiaries correct? Does your organization have a document that explains your wishes for a funeral? Is it up to date? If you do not have such a document maybe you could get your organization to adopt a document.
There are truly some incidents that will not occur in our organizations. If I work in a major metropolitan urban area it is highly unlikely that I will get an incident involving a grain silo. However, dust is explosive, do we have a manufacturing facility in our industrial area that store products in bunkers or silos? Do we have an explosive dust risk in our community? When we look at the events of September 11th we can say it will not happen here because most of us do not have twin 110 story towers. What we can do, is discuss being combat ready just like the FDNY firefighters that climbed the stairs to perform their job. We can review our high rise procedures. We can review the terrorism data in the Emergency Response Guides.
Brian S. Gettemeier
Brian S. Gettemeier, a 21-year fire service member, has served the last 18 years as a career firefighter with the Cottleville Fire Protection District of St. Charles County, Mo. A second-generation firefighter, he has a bachelor’s degree in fire service management from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and holds numerous state certifications. Gettemeier teaches all-hazard classes for numerous organizations throughout the state of Missouri.