Last year was a “good” year for line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) in the fire service—according to the NFPA, 72 firefighters died in the line of duty, continuing the declines of 2008 and 2009. But still, that means that 72 families went through the heart-wrenching experience of being notified that their loved one was killed while on duty. And the hard truth is that many of the departments who notified those loved ones weren’t prepared to do so.
“It’s one of those things that departments think isn’t going to happen to them,” says Chief Kyle Ienn of the Ralston(Neb.) Volunteer Fire Department. “It’s limited to the other guy, the big cities. They’re so busy training, preparing, recruiting if they’re a volunteer department or trying to keep their paid staff if they’re a career department. There’s just not a lot of time to prepare, so it gets put to the back burner. But then when it happens, they think, now what?”
Ienn has devoted a lot of his time to answering that question. The seminar he taught today at Fire-Rescue International, “Line-of-Duty Death? Not in My Town!” with Firefighter Brian Zinanni from Clayton, Mo., is just one of his efforts to help departments be more prepared for LODDs. “It’s not if, it’s when,” he says. “The hazards are there, the dangers are there. Departments that haven’t had a LODD are lucky. When everyone comes home after a call, It’s not always because they did everything right or everything safe, it’s because they’re lucky. And luck runs out at some point.”
Local Assistance State Teams (LASTs)
Fire service conferences are filled with passionate, sorrow-filled presentations by chiefs and officers who have experienced an LODD in their department, and realized after the fact what they didn’t know, and what they wish they’d known. Such leaders should be commended for sharing their stories, for baring their mistakes so others can learn from them.
But Ienn has a different take. As the coordinator for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s Nebraska Local Assistance State Team (LAST), Ienn has responded to LODDs in Nebraska and Missouri, but he has never had to deal with the experience in his hometown.
“Fortunately, thankfully, I have not had an LODD in my department,” Ienn says. “When I became a chief, an LODD was one of my biggest concerns, because I knew that if it ever happened in my department, I would be changed for life. An LODD is a life-changing event for a department and for a chief, and that’s true even if you did everything right.”
Ienn’s work with the NFFF and the Memorial Weekend has underscored the importance of good preparation. “The last four or five years I’ve attended the survivor’s conference that the NFFF holds,” he says. “We spend time with the survivors, listen to their stores. And there are some horror stories about how they were notified and how they were treated, and the things departments have said to them. That can be avoided through training and background information.”
The NFFF started the LAST program to give departments resources so that survivors would be treated respectfully and appropriately. “When there’s an LODD, it’s chaotic, people aren’t thinking straight. You need procedural stuff to take over,” Ienn says. “That’s why we stress utilizing the LAST. LASTs don’t come in and take over; they do what’s asked of them, from providing over the phone information, to responding in person, to bringing the whole team in and helping with the funeral. The department doesn’t need to be able to do it all themselves, but they can at least associate with the state team and have the contacts in place so that at 2 a.m., when a firefighter falls through the floor and dies, you know who to call.”
3 Key Factors
Ienn identifies the following three key priorities for departments to address when an LODD occurs:
- Notification. When a LODD happens, the first minutes are crucial. “It’s got to be done immediately, and it’s got to be done right,” Ienn says. “You don’t want a spouse or a parent to find out about an LODD by way of text, Facebook, stuff like that. A notification that’s not done properly can make a bad situation worse.” Related to how quickly the notification is made: what to say. “Tell exactly what happened,” Ienn says. “Survivors deserve to know. At the same time, you must be prepared for the survivor’s reaction. You have no clue what that survivor’s reaction will be. It’s more than just walking in and saying it and walking away; it’s a process.”
- Honoring the firefighter through the service. LODD funerals have a lot of details that can be daunting for a department—the folding of the flag, final salutes, crossing of the aerial ladders. LASTs are familiar with all of them and can help execute them. “There’s the tradition that no firefighter is ever left alone, so you should have someone stay with the deceased around the clock until they reach their final resting place,” Ienn notes. “Little things like that can mean a lot to the family.” And the service must be done in the way the family wants. “Some families don’t want a lot of fire department participation—maybe they’re mad at the department—while some want 100% fire department participation, because the fire service was the firefighter’s life,” Ienn says. “Be prepared for a number of different scenarios.”
- Benefits. LASTs take care of benefit issues too; in fact, this is the main purpose of the LASTs. “We’re funded through the Department of Justice, which administers the Public Safety Officers Benefit (PSOB) program,” Ienn says. “We assist families with the paperwork and documentation to get the PSOB filed so they can get the bills paid. Because the bills still come in, and the sooner you get it filed and filed properly, the better.”
Because of their experience with the whole range of firefighter funerals, LAST coordinators can bring a perspective that may be missing within the grieving department. For example, it’s important for people to understand that there’s a difference between an LODD and a non-LODD service. “There are different protocols and procedures to be followed,” Ienn says. “Of course this isn’t law, just recommendation, but there are things like placement of the casket, guarding the casket, that should differ. If you have someone naturally pass away and you go all out, and then the next year you have an LODD, what are you going to have in reserve to give them something more, to honor their sacrifice?”
The Bottom Line
Despite recent reductions in the number of LODDs, we’re a long way from eliminating them. As Ienn notes, even for a prepared department, an LODD is a life-changing experience. But you can do everything in your power to ensure that you known the resources available to you. “Contact your local LAST team,” Ienn says. “They have the resources and the connections. Invite them out to do a brief presentation as a guest speaker, even if it’s only 10-15 minutes. It’s very important because anything you can do ahead of time will make honoring that firefighter a lot easier.”
And that much easier for the families who must endure that heart-wrenching notification.
For more information on the LAST program, contact Chief Kyle Ienn at 402/578-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.