Nation & World

Leaders urge ‘concerted effort’ to save firefighters’ lives

mhendricks@kcstar.com

The Star’s series on firefighter safety, examining deadly fires like the one in Dallas on May 20, 2013, that claimed the life of Stan Wilson, has inspired some in the firefighting community to call for changes.
The Star’s series on firefighter safety, examining deadly fires like the one in Dallas on May 20, 2013, that claimed the life of Stan Wilson, has inspired some in the firefighting community to call for changes. The Dallas Morning News

Fire service leaders and fire safety advocates across the country are calling for an intensified effort to prevent firefighter deaths and serious injuries in response to a special report on firefighter safety by The Kansas City Star.

The consensus of those who contacted The Star or posted comments on websites and social media was that many of the nation’s 30,000 fire departments need to change the way they operate, focusing more on safety.

Otherwise, they said, the disturbing pattern that The Star highlighted of firefighters dying preventable deaths in similar ways year after year will continue unabated.

“We need to get a concerted effort to change the American fire culture,” said Burton Clark, who recently retired as program chairman at the federally run National Fire Academy.

Clark and many others said The Star’s stories last week should spur departments to re-evaluate themselves and called the series a fair, thorough assessment of a problem that has vexed the fire service for decades.

“Absolutely the finest, most comprehensive article on (line-of-duty deaths) I have ever read,” Chicago deputy district chief Tim Walsh said in an email.

In addition to calls to change the fire service’s aggressive, risk-taking culture came specific recommendations for greater regulation, including mandatory minimum training standards nationwide.

Another recommendation was that every department establish a review team, like the one in Sacramento, Calif., to investigate serious or fatal injuries as soon as they happen.

“The goal of our accident review process,” wrote Sacramento fire Capt. Michael Teague, “is to learn from the event so that we don’t repeat the same mistakes.”

The federal agency assigned that duty now, The Star reported, doesn’t have the budget to investigate every fatality, much less review incidents resulting in serious injuries. Plus, as Teague pointed out, investigators from that agency, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, often don’t arrive on the scene of firefighters’ deaths for weeks.

“By this time, most of the evidence has been damaged or destroyed,” he said. “Also, the firefighters involved in the incident have spent weeks rationalizing their actions, and their memories are no longer accurate.”

The impetus for The Star’s monthslong investigation was the deaths of two Kansas City firefighters who were killed by a collapsing wall in October 2015.

Department investigators found that the two firefighters were in an area that should have been evacuated. The national safety institute had recommended that departments establish protocols to prevent such situations after similar incidents elsewhere in the United States.

The Star found that hundreds of firefighter fatalities and thousands of serious injuries could have been prevented over the past 20 years if firefighters and their departments had learned from others’ errors, including poorly considered tactics while battling structural fires.

Yet those safety recommendations, contained in hundreds of readily available federal and state fatality investigation reports, were ignored by many departments until tragedy struck them.

The Star’s series cited several reasons:

▪ A lack of federal regulations compelling fire departments to adopt safer practices, and many states without any rules of their own.

▪ No uniform training standards for firefighters nationwide, with close to half of departments nationwide unable to report that personnel had any formal training in structural firefighting.

▪ Legal restrictions that, in most states, make it difficult if not impossible for the survivors of fallen firefighters to force change by pursuing wrongful death lawsuits against fire departments.

▪ The U.S. fire service’s aggressive firefighting culture, which is slow to adapt and fiercely divided between those at the top, who advocate safer practices, and those firefighters who think an increased focus on safety will hamper their mission to save lives and property.

Kansas City fire Chief Paul Berardi said he found the parts of the series he’d read “interesting, but not surprising.”

A few firefighters criticized The Star’s project.

“Firefighting is an inherently dangerous occupation,” one eastern Jackson County firefighter wrote on his Facebook page. “There are no safe space or time outs in an emergency. We can, and do, change our tactics based on what we learn from previous events.”

Yet respected members of the fire service, responding to the articles, agreed with government and independent studies and experts who say most fatalities and serious injuries are the results of mistakes made by firefighters and their commanders.

Among them was David Griffin, who was a pump operator on the first engine to respond to a 2007 furniture store blaze that killed nine firefighters in Charleston, S.C.

“As you witnessed, this is a major problem in the fire service due to culture and attitudes,” he told The Star.

Investigators cited the department’s lack of focus on firefighter safety as a major contributing cause for those fatalities, as The Star reported.

“I am still on the job today in Charleston as a captain and travel internationally speaking on this event to ensure it doesn’t happen again,” Griffin said. “This is now my mission.”

Many career and volunteer fire departments base their standard operating procedures on national standards adopted by an industry group, the National Fire Protection Association.

Among those standards are minimum training guidelines. But they are voluntary.

Some states have adopted mandatory standards, but others, such as Missouri and Kansas, have not, The Star reported.

That needs to change, wrote Michael McCabe, an education program specialist at the National Fire Academy.

“We will never have a cohesive, competent profession,” he said, “until there is a system in place to provide minimal credentialing standards at all levels of responder.”

Minimum training standards are included in a set of proposed federal regulations that will get their first consideration Wednesday in Washington by an advisory panel to the secretary of labor.

But even if those regulations are eventually approved, the process could take years, and they would apply only in the 26 states that accept federal money to run their own workplace safety programs.

They would not apply in Missouri, Kansas and 22 other states.

The Star’s series reported that a bill before Congress would extend those protections to all firefighters and other local and state public employees across the country. But the bill, introduced by Sen. Al Franken last year, never got a hearing.

As he was leaving the Capitol building on Thursday, the Minnesota Democrat chuckled when a reporter asked whether there had been any progress. “Nothing that I know of,” he said.

Likewise, changing the culture will be a challenge, some leaders say, if it’s left to the fire service to transform itself without outside pressure.

“I liken it to throwing mud — some sticks but most doesn’t,” wrote Billy Goldfeder, a fire safety advocate, former fire chief and founder of firefighterclosecalls.com. “We fail miserably at training COMPANY officers and that’s where the push needs to be — as that’s all of our future bosses.”

The series’ emphasis on safety could move the fire service closer to the goal its leaders have been seeking for years: zero line-of- duty deaths, some said.

“Perhaps we need more external observations to help us change our culture ... rather than simply rushing in no matter what,” wrote Terry Spoor, a fire service instructor in Lincoln, Neb.

“I hope that the information you have presented will help to save firefighter lives in the future.”

David Lightman of McClatchy’s Washington bureau contributed to this story.

Mike Hendricks: 816-234-4738, @kcmikehendricks

Matt Campbell: 816-234-4902, @MattCampbellKC

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