A New Perspective on Firefighter Risk Reduction

Written by Robert Avsec
Executive Fire Officer

Mar 24, 2020

 

Q: What are the two most significant risks to firefighters today?

A: The risk of suffering a sudden cardiac event (SCE) in the short term and the risk of developing cancer in the long term.

The Short-Term Risk

Let’s take a quick look at those risks, starting with the short-term risk: The exposure to extreme heat while engaged in interior structural firefighting while wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) and SCBA. Fire suppression operations are hot, exhausting, and dangerous.

The short term risk

Figure 1. And that’s just inside the building where the firefighting is happening. When one adds the high ambient temperatures and elevated humidity levels outside, it gets very uncomfortable very fast. But heat stress is not just uncomfortable, it can kill you. Original graphic by Robert Avsec.

 

Current research, like that from the Science Medicine and Research & Technology for Emergency Responders (SMARTER) project, indicates that heat stress puts extraordinary assault on a firefighter’s cardiovascular system, the worst outcome being a sudden cardiac event like a stroke or heart attack. 

 

Heat stress

Figure 2. Hyperthermia and Dehydration, aka, “the Terrible Twins” of firefighter heat stress can cause a myriad of physiological and behavioral problems for firefighters. Original graphic by Robert Avsec.

 

The Long-Term Risk

In the long-term, we’re learning more every day about the consequences of firefighter exposure to the toxic chemicals, chemical compounds, and carcinogens that are present in today’s structure fires. Specifically, the risk of developing cancer at a higher rate than the general public.

Wearing their protective ensemble (PPE) and SCBA while in the hazard area and following decontamination procedures on scene and back at the fire station are necessary measures to reduce the risk of exposure. And while the former is proactive, the latter is reactive because the firefighter and their gear have both been exposed to those toxic chemicals, chemical compounds, and carcinogens.

 

 

And as long as the PPE is not a chemical protective garment that prevents vapors and gases from permeating the garment fabric, measures are reactive, and firefighters are still being exposed to those vapors and gases.

Q: So, what can fire departments do to proactively reduce those risks?

A: Redirect more resources toward developing a new fire protection model. Why do we continue to “hold on” to a fire protection model that is “overloaded” with risk and is expensive to operate? We should place a bigger responsibility on the individual to not cause a fire. This is a better way, but it’s a way that requires a fundamental shift in responsibility in our society. 

Fire service leaders and local political leaders need to “re-engineer” the fire protection model for their communities using the original “Three E’s” for fire prevention—Education, Engineering, and Enforcement—and two additional “E’s”–Economic Incentive and Emergency Response.

 

Education

  • Require that all residential property in a locality — rental and occupant-owned — has a copy of the locality’s fire-prevention code do’s and don’ts. This copy should be written in plain English and other applicable languages for the community.
  • Require fire departments and school systems to jointly deliver a standard fire prevention curriculum in elementary, middle, and high schools, every two years.
  • Require the completion of a fire prevention course as a prerequisite for obtaining a residential lease or buying a home.
  • Require insurance companies to inspect rental and occupant-owned residential properties before insuring the property.
  • Require policy holders to submit an affidavit to their insurance company stating that they comply with the fire prevention provisions of their policy and their locality every year as a condition to renew their coverage.

 

Engineering

  • Require residential sprinklers in all newly constructed one-and two-family homes.
  • Change building codes so that all building materials must pass fire resistance performance standards, not just “gravity-defiance” standards.
  • Change building codes in the wildland-urban interface to prohibit the use of combustible building materials. Mandate the use of block, concrete, stucco and other non-combustible materials.
  • Mandate fire-safe cigarettes.

Enforcement

  • Investigate all fires and issue a court summons to the building occupant if a fire is determined to have been caused by their negligence.
  • Bill the occupant for the cost of fire suppression services when a fire is determined to have been the result of occupant negligence.
  • Fine builders and contractors when a fire investigation reveals that improper building materials or building practices (a) started the fire or (b) contributed to the spread of the fire.
  • Fine rental-property owners who do not maintain their rental properties and whose properties are not in compliance with the locality’s fire prevention code.
  • Incorporate a locality’s level of fire protection and history of fire loss into the financial processes that financial institutions use to determine a locality’s bond rating.

 

 

Economic Incentives that Support Risk Reduction

  • Tax incentives for homeowners to install residential fire sprinklers.
  • Tax incentives for owners of multi-family dwellings who don’t experience a preventable fire in their properties for a predetermined period.
  • Insurance companies offer homeowners discounts on their premiums for having documented Home Fire Escape Plans and attendance at fire safety classes.

 

Emergency Response

Support the existence of an adequately staffed, equipped and trained group of emergency responders.

Sound rather harsh? Sound unrealistic? So does closing fire stations and laying off firefighters. So does continuing to expose firefighters to increasing levels of risk of injury or death because of negligence on the part of building occupants, developers, and builders. So does continuing to increase the fiscal burden to local taxpayers to pay for an antiquated fire protection model that is reactive rather than proactive.

Q: How can those measures reduce the risk to firefighters?

A: The fire that never happens is not just good for the homeowner or business owner, it’s also the best risk reduction strategy for firefighters as well.

Why? Because it’s a proactive approach to risk reduction. And while it wouldn’t necessarily eliminate all fires, an aggressive and proactive fire protection model such as this would keep those fires that do start, smaller and more easily contained. Fewer fires, and smaller ones that are contained with less effort, means less exposure to firefighters.

And that’s a cultural change that’s long overdue in the fire service. It should no longer be about who runs the most fire calls or how many working fires one has in a year. Our goal should not be solely on getting better at responding to fires and suppressing them but rather to do the work I’ve outlined above to make their workplace (the fireground) safer.

Firefighters in many states have worked hard to get firefighter cancer presumption bills passed, and currently 33 states in the U.S. cover firefighters for one or more cancers under Workers’ Compensation as a result of presumption legislation. But firefighters need to understand that politicians have a history of passing laws that their successors sometimes cannot afford. Firefighter cancer presumption laws are not a silver bullet.

 

Emergency response firefighter risk

Figure 3. At least 30 three states have some type of law that presumes certain types of cancer are a job-related illness for firefighters who apply for disability benefits. Arkansas has a law that provides death benefits to the family, but only if it is recommended by a state-appointed review panel. Source: The Pew Charitable Trusts.

 

As the number of firefighters developing cancers from on-the-job exposures continues to mount, firefighters can expect “push back” from local and state governments. Eventually, they will become overwhelmed with the number of Worker’s’ Compensation claims, and especially when those claims start turning into real dollars going to firefighters.

About the Author

Robert Avsec

Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree in Fire and Safety Engineering Technology from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in Executive Fire Service Leadership from Grand Canyon University (Phoenix, Ariz.). He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his freelance writing, Chief Avsec authors his blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS. Connect with Chief Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.

  

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