For those readers unfamiliar with Firefighter Behavior, May marks the point where I have been writing for one year. This is a reflection on the purpose and value of that writing and common themes that were very prevalent in that year.
Firefighter Behavior, May 2009
A year ago I had begun my fire service writing with a reflection of the powerful statement in an article by Charles Bailey of the disconnect in learning within the American fire service. Bailey had shared that the problem is the process between crafting the messages and how the messages are learned are not conjoined. Despite all the constant reminders of safe practices via multiple media forms something (dependent upon the main idea the writer is trying to expound) is lost in translation. As this first year of writing came to a close I began to review if I had met my purpose and whether or not the purpose still led to additional writing.
The popular beliefs regarding line of duty deaths are missing the fact that the largest cause of line of duty deaths are medically related. If you read the various websites, forums and blogs you can easily surmise that a great majority of the average hundred firefighters killed each year have died while performing suppression operations. A small majority of writers and random comments refute this universal notion by redirecting others to the irrefutable evidence that stress, cardiac events and vehicle accidents are the greatest causes of line of duty deaths. Every year a report is produced that gives us detailed information about the previous year’s line of duty deaths. Likewise, an investigation report is produced for every line of duty death termed official, regardless of the nature and cause of death. While the death of any firefighter should never be taken lightly, the fire service has to be aware when it begins shaping tradition out of what is defined by PSOB benefit terminology. Collectively the fire service should work to stop wearing its deaths on its heart sleeve. Length of service to one’s department and related emotional commitment does not have an exact relation to cause and nature of death. A 70-year old fire-police member who dies in his sleep after performing traffic duty at an auto accident early in the afternoon should not be held on the same level as the 34-year old firefighter who dies in the floor collapse of a burning house (let’s leave it there for now, we’ll get back to whether or not said house is occupied later). The American fire service is steeped in tradition, a majority of which has created our cultural values and shaped the foundations of various training and public information. The typical line of duty death, pre-PSOB definition, was one where the fallen died within a direct time relation to firefighting duties (i.e. response, fireground and return to quarters). Now a firefighter can be a line of duty death if he is killed in an auto accident returning home from an association meeting. Compare that with the death of a firefighter killed in a flashover trying to get the child gate off a window he and the three-year old are trapped behind. Ask yourself honestly if they are equal sacrifices. Take this same premise of comparison to the medical cause of line of duty deaths and ask yourself at what point do you stop allowing the unhealthy firefighter to participate in fireground operations? While a cardiac death may not be as titillating as a roof collapse, you can read that a number of medical lines of duty death reports state the fallen had a prior existing history of insufficient cardiovascular health.
The problem of LODD information sharing and learning is the reluctance to recognize the disparity between traditional and scientific line of duty death. This was proven to me by the Firehouse.com News Director. I noticed that the site wasn’t posting the NIOSH LODD investigation reports that involved medical causes of death. When asked why, the reply I was given was that medical causes do not provide the typical lessons learned to readers that traumatic or significant injuries do (his personal opinion). While is it proven that the majority of line of duty deaths are medical related, this person with nearly ten years of work experience in one of the most well known fire service websites failed to see the correlation. Instead he proved to me the abstract that significant traumatic death is held at a greater peer acceptance despite the true data, at least in his opinion. A chief officer once spoke to me about this dilemma, the broad definition of LODD and its acceptance, in terms easy to understand. Take the American farmer; in his course of work from sunrise to sunset he is performing a variety of duties relevant to his occupation. If we allow a line of duty definition similar in task definition to cover the work of the farmer, then farming would most likely be the one of our nation’s most dangerous vocations. It is akin to trying to ‘out poor’ or ‘out ghetto’ each other (“when I was growing up I was so poor…”) but by recognizing that culture and tradition should not shape LODD definition we may take the bite out of the too safe/not safe debate. We are dead because we have been working with an 80% arterial blockage undiagnosed for a number of years and not because we may be too encapsulated by our PPE or we performed VES on a vacant structure.
Fire service information and the creation of our own participatory culture are another area of disconnect. The benefit that some fire service blogs have over websites and forum boards are that the ability to participate is easier and depending on the parameters allowed by the author, quicker. This allows for a faster exchange of information at a widely discernable quality to be posted to a related article. With the induction of Twitter by various fire service bloggers readers can have nearly minute by minute previews of someone they have chosen to follow. This flow of newly published information is great, especially for organizations and individuals such as NIOSH, the USFA and public information officers. In a conference about participatory culture attended by figures in press and media, the term was defined as having participants (readers) being not focused on the information but ‘addicted’ to their ‘friends’. The value to the reader is not the subject matter but who is talking and to whom. This I learned to be somewhat true on various fire service websites. On Firehouse.com forums, I learned that there are some persons in the fire service that while they have allegedly (I have to state ‘allegedly’ since it is basically anonymous users on the internet) attended various rapid intervention training they never heard of using a LUNAR report for a missing firefighter. Despite the number of websites covering rapid intervention, saving our own and close calls, as well as news about the same, LUNAR was a foreign concept. The second example from the same site was about users that had not heard of the technique for repositioning the SCBA waist strap on a downed firefighter for removal. Again, while it appeared to be foreign to a minority, I wonder if the important information we read is truly distributed to the masses or does it remain within various sub-cultures. To me this became paramount with the infamous Ray McCormack speech (if I have to explain it then we have another example of participatory culture) at FDIC. Not as much as the speech itself but the commentary and comments that followed afterwards that showed shallow participation by some individuals. Simply, the American fire service will never be able to come close to looking seriously into changing traditional tactics and strategy if the first salvoes of debate are nothing more than calling each other freelancing cowboys or safety sallies. Although everyone is not a writer or orator neither side will gain credibility if we give serious discussion nothing more than slapstick. Bobby Halton, who caved to FDNY Chief Cassano and pulled Ray’s speech, could have set a ground breaking event by instead calling for a nationwide roundtable to discuss what makes Johnny a poor leader. Imagine how much more of an impact the speech would have had if Halton had asked the IAFF, IAFC, NVFC, NIOSH and the USFA to participate and take it across the country in town hall meetings. Instead the most hype came from downloading it before it was pulled again.
A final note about participatory culture is the lack of participation in some specific areas. During this period of writing I came across two requests that I believed would surely be well known. The first and probably lesser known was the call for committee members to various NFPA committees. The very organization that a majority of firefighters believed to be taking the bite out of interior firefighting were asking for participation from firefighters. I am not a regular browser of the NFPA website or recipient of latest NFPA news, so I expect that such calls are relatively normal. I was surprised though that the request was not widely distributed. The same confusion applies to the request for comments to the vacant, abandoned, unoccupied structures draft also. Only on Fire Engineering did I see this mentioned among industry briefs. How is it that the huge numbers of medium we have miss these calls for input from the backstep firefighter? There are two reasons that I have experienced. Posting of fire service news is dependent on two things. First is the source of the site’s news. Feed subscription will give you what is on the 11 o’clock news. Industry-specific news such as the need for assistance with a committee or recommendation draft is rarely a feed item. One has to be either a very regular site visitor or receive regular updates via email. The second is the point where news information crosses a writer’s or editor’s desk. If you follow a particular fire service website for pertinent information, then you should know who it is that determines what information is posted and their public safety experience, or lack thereof. The journalist and editor without fire service knowledge, even at a rudimentary level, will decide for themselves what readers will be interested in. While the story and photos of a three-alarm fire gain page views, the advisory about a humat valve rupture will have a greater importance. But, if the advisory isn’t posted, you know nothing.
The great disconnect between teaching and learning will have to be resolved as Bailey suggests by including scientists, sociologists or behavioral scientists. This doesn’t imply that there needs to be a push to over-educate today’s firefighters and officers but that if we are serious about changing, or preserving, parts of our culture then catchphrases must give way to smart debate. Two examples of despite how close we may be to each other technologically, we are many miles apart.
"Introduction" Originally posted 29 May 2008