In March 2004, nearly 200 fire service leaders gathered in Tampa, Fla., for an unprecedented event: the first-ever Firefighter Life Safety Summit. The attendees were united by a common goal: the reduction of firefighter line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) and injuries.
Ten years later (March 10–12, 2014), the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation will host TAMPA2, the second Firefighter Life Safety Summit. Although the overall goal remains the same, the question that lies ahead has evolved from the initial Summit: Will we—fire service leaders, young and old—go beyond the low-hanging fruit and come to a consensus on what’s required to reduce the incidents of death and injury?
For the past 10 years, the “Everyone Goes Home” message of the Life Safety Summit has served as a rallying cry for the fire service—and yet, some of the 16 Life Safety Initiatives (LSIs) that came out of the Summit have proven divisive among our ranks. For example, LSI #1: Define and advocate the need for cultural change within the fire service, is nothing more than a request to evaluate what we do, how we do it and why we do it. Nevertheless, it has been debated beyond comprehension. Even more troubling, LSI #15: Advocacy must be strengthened for the enforcement of codes and the installation of home fire sprinklers—which could virtually eliminate fireground LODDs and injuries—has received little to no attention.
The very essence of the LSIs has even been debated as a means of highlighting the inherent risk of fighting fires: Obviously, not everyone goes home. Of course, “Everyone Goes Home” is not meant to serve as a statement of fact, but rather a motto, which by definition is a brief statement used to express a principle, goal or ideal.
Regardless of the topic, change is needed. Since 2004, more than 800 firefighters have lost their lives and more than 800,000 of our brothers and sisters have suffered from an on-duty injury. And these numbers don’t include those who have perished in this same timeframe from occupation-related diseases and suicides.
To successfully reduce the number of LODDs and injuries, we must make a conscious effort to steer clear of the obvious excuses: money, staffing, training and equipment. Every department in America (paid or volunteer) can rightfully put forth an excuse when the recommendation requires a financial expenditure—but no one can say the same for recommendations of behavioral change.
Behavioral change requires no outside resources, no financial outlay and no advanced-level research. More importantly, it represents a conscious decision to appropriately prioritize safety and health:
- No firefighter shall ride on a piece of fire apparatus without wearing a seatbelt.
- No firefighter shall enter or operate within an IDLH environment without breathing air from an SCBA.
- No firefighter shall serve in a capacity in which a previously diagnosed medical condition might jeopardize their safety or the safety of others.
Simple recommendations such as these might seem obvious to some, but to others, they require a dramatic behavioral change, within individual firefighters and within departments as a whole. And yet, we should be encouraged, because they are entirely within our control.
We are public servants and as such, our actions and decisions must always be guided by the principles of safety and public service. Resisting change simply to cling to a self-proclaimed image of heroism, or to defend unsafe behaviors as a mark of aggressiveness, is a far cry from a true public servant who exemplifies humility, selfless courage and professionalism.
The Life Safety Initiatives exist for a reason—because the best and the brightest in the fire service identified them as the most effective means to reduce firefighter LODDs and injuries. Our sacred traditions, established tactics and past practices must never be permitted to compromise our safety or effectiveness. While we take pride in our ability to fight fires, we must never allow this to overshadow the importance of operational safety, effectiveness and the primary goal of preventing fires.
TAMPA2 will no doubt generate debate, and we may come away with new and different ways to profoundly impact firefighter safety. But regardless of how the specific recommendations change, one factor will remain: It will require behavioral change. Those who accept this challenge and willfully demonstrate the courage and tenacity to see it through demonstrate the greatest form of gratitude and honor to those who carry the scars of the past—and those who we’ve lost in our fields of battle.
The time for change is NOW.