The unthinkable has happened: A member of your department has died in the line of duty. As chief or commanding officer, what are your next steps? Do you have all the information you need about the incident? Do you know who in the firefighter’s family to contact and how to reach them?
Preparing for the untimely death of a firefighter is a critical requirement for all department leadership. Just as we must know how to respond quickly and efficiently to myriad emergency incidents, we must know how to respond with swift resolve and compassion to the devastating news that one of our own has died.
Finding the Right Words The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) has created a program, “Taking Care of Our Own,” to assist department leadership in preparing to manage this highly emotional and personal issue.
“Taking Care of Our Own” was designed in 1997 to help chief officers and line officers be better prepared if someone from their department dies in the line of duty. The one-day course was developed after many survivors commented that the way they were notified and the interactions they had with the departments afterward were often awkward and painful. The NFFF decided to find a way to reach out to the departments and help them better communicate with the families of fallen firefighters.
“Everyone wants to do the right thing, but this is an extremely difficult situation, especially since many of the department leadership have never had to make a death notification before,” says Vickie Taylor, LCSW, a behavioral health specialist with the NFFF. “The Foundation wanted to find a way to help the chiefs and officers make compassionate and caring notifications, and learn about actions they can take to be supportive over time.”
The program is presented in five modules: self-assessment, pre-incident planning, survivor notification, dealing with grief, and ways to provide support to the department. “We address many different issues and details in the course, from how to dress when going to notify a family, and what should and should not be said, to helping members of the department with their grief, and how to honor and remember this person,” says Bill Hinton, coordinator of Taking Care of Our Own.
The first module includes a self-assessment for participants to assess where their department is in terms of preparation for a tragedy. Following this discussion, a department chief and a family member who have each lost a firefighter describe their experiences of delivering and receiving this tragic news. These personal perspectives at the beginning of the course help to set the stage for the rest of the day.
“We have found that the participants have a new appreciation for why they must be better prepared after hearing directly from the survivors about their experiences,” explains Cathy Hedrick, who is not only a program trainer but also a survivor of losing a firefighter. Cathy’s son, Kenny, died in the line of duty in 1993 and since 2004 Cathy has worked for the NFFF on this and other programs for survivors. “The chiefs are willing to talk openly with the participants about what was done well in the situation and what could have been handled differently. Likewise, the family members share how they received the news about their loved one and may offer little details that provided comfort in such a devastating moment.”
In the Details Each module of “Taking Care of Our Own” emphasizes pre-incident planning and the correct procedures for handling administrative tasks, demonstrating to departments how preplanning makes the tragic event of an LODD easier to confront. Example: Collecting and maintaining current medical and personal records for each department member, including complete contact information for next of kin, is essential for making proper notification.
Departments also learn to create a checklist of what to do after learning about a death. Real-life scenarios are discussed by the group to reinforce how to appropriately manage this tragic event. And every imaginable detail is discussed.
“Some survivors have told us that no one will mention their loved one’s name because they’re afraid it will be upsetting,” Taylor says. “But what they don’t realize is that sometimes that makes the survivor feel like their loved one has been forgotten. We want the members of the departments to know it’s OK to talk about the person who died with his or her family, even if it means there will be tears.”
The “Taking Care of Our Own” training manuals include extensive information about survivor benefits, ways to support the family, examples of LODD standard operating procedures (SOPs), funeral protocols, investigations and other useful resources. Materials from the class can also be downloaded from the NFFF’s website (www.firehero.org) to make it easier to create or expand procedures and policies for individual departments.
“We ask the chiefs to consider many possible issues. For example, what if the next of kin is the firefighter’s father and in the records you find that he has a heart condition,” Hinton says. “As the chief, you may want to be sure you have an ALS crew standing by when you go to deliver this news. The scenarios also provide opportunities to learn from each other. We talk about cultural and unique logistical issues that some departments may encounter.”
Take Action Participant feedback is essential to ensuring the continued success of “Taking Care of Our Own.” An evaluation form is sent to each participant six months after completing the course. Participants are asked what actions they have taken as a result of the course, to provide suggestions, and to share any procedures or plans they have developed.
Senior fire officers, chaplains and other personnel reported taking the following actions after participating in the training:
81% updated employee emergency contact information
62% reviewed and revised an existing plan or policy for LODDs
59% used the training materials to develop documents and plans in their department
76% used the Benefits Checklist and/or the NFFF’s list of state benefits to update information on benefits available to department members
39% developed SOPs for LODDs
42% assigned personnel to key positions such as family liaison, notification team, etc.
The class has led to the development of numerous resources:
SOPs and other guides developed by agencies and departments whose members participated in the training program are now available through a Resource Clearinghouse on the NFFF’s website (www.firehero.org).
A Resource Guide containing key materials from the class provides a ready reference for departments to use. The NFFF has disseminated more than 30,000 copies of this guide.
An electronic newsletter gives participants information on updated survivor benefits, legislation related to LODD issues and new course materials and resources.
“Our goal is to make this terribly painful notification as smooth as possible for everyone involved,” Hedrick says. “We want the chiefs and department leadership to think about how they would want to have their families receive this news, and be mindful of the delicacy that is needed to make sure that everyone is truly taken care of.”