" THE DEATH OF A FIREFIGHTER "
Firefighters don't die in peaceful scenes right out of the latest tear-jerking movie,
with the patient's life oozing away as the immediate family gently sobs
and watches as their loved one goes to a better place. It's not that pretty for us.
When we go in the line of duty,
it's cruel and painful and far too ugly for most of us to even imagine.
Not very many of us want to re-create the last living moments of
our fellow firefighters who have given the ultimate sacrifice.
But for that very reason, our own inability to come to terms with the
manner and reasons that our fellow firefighters have perished
while performing their assigned tasks, it is so vital that we study
and analyze the cause of how we die in this profession.
We die fearfully, hopelessly lost in the myriad of rooms of buildings
surrounded by flames and smoke, separated by mere yards
from the nearest hoseline, our air supply gone, choking and vomiting into
unconsciousness, while crews are unable to mount a rescue attempt,
if they were even aware that we were missing or trapped.
Sometimes we even drown in the water that fills the basement that we have fallen into,
without our colleagues even knowing that the thousands of gallons of water
they pour on the fire is rapidly choking our life away.
We die in unthinkable pain from the massive burns after being trapped in a flashover,
first an instant flash of light as bright as an atomic bomb explosion,
then an overall scorch so intense we roast in the flames as our skin chars and our nerves are destroyed,
our breathing apparatus harness and face piece, and our protective clothing melted away,
allowing the superheated atmosphere to engulf our breathing passages and burn our throat shut,
and leaving our burnt carcass lying seared to the floor like any other bit of fallen fire debris.
We die in fright as sections of wall and roof collapse on us without warning,
massive loads of thousands of pounds of wood and bricks and metal and concrete,
crushing us, tearing apart our skin, our bones, and finally exploding our internal organs
and suffocating us as we bleed out internally, just seconds and feet away from
the relative safety of a collapse zone never set up or intentionally disregarded.
We die instantly from a massive cardiac event that comes on so quickly
that we don't even have time to signal for help.
An instant flash of chest pain, and then a sudden collapse as our diseased heart's weakened muscle
just vibrates and wriggles out of control, pumping not even a single drop to our brain.
Not an entire battalion of nearby paramedics can breathe or medicate
or even shock a single moment or life back into us.
We die on the express lanes of the highway, fighting a lousy car fire at 2:00 in the morning,
as a driver nods off and his 5,000 lb. car plows into us without even a hint of braking action,
crushing our helpless torso from the 45 MPH impact
and folding the back step of our engine around the shape or our broken body.
We die a sad 100 or so every year,
and the way that we die has not changed a single bit from the time that organized firefighting began.
The numbers of us who perish have declined in recent years,
but so have the number of fires that we fight. We still need to lower the number significantly more.
Firefighting, an art, not an exact science, is still a very dangerous occupation.
But we can, and must, manage our risk.
Let's ask the widows of the latest batch of 100 firefighters who died in the line of duty a very simple question,
"Was the death of your firefighter husband worth the building he was trying to save?"
Anybody want to answer that one? If you, or those under your command,
cannot justify the loss of human life, the lives of firefighters,
for the sake of a burning building, then we must address the means and methods
to carefully manage the risk to avoid loss of our precious lives.
Make no mistake about it, we are not dying as we try to save women and children
trapped in the bedrooms of their homes. Nothing could be further from the truth.
We are dying in commercial structures and vacant unoccupied homes,
warehouses and tenements, caught in fire and collapse situations that were,
or should have been, recognizable for their hazards to our lives.
There is no glory to give your life to save (or make) a parking lot.
More often than not, the public will not even stop for a moment to pause at the spot that a firefighter has perished.
If our customers don't recognize a need to die for their building why should we?
Tom Brennan, perhaps the finest tactical thinker our fire service has ever seen,
showed our company a slide of a single family dwelling during a drill one afternoon.
He described the scene to our group, saying that a family was inside sleeping before the fire broke out.
"What is this building?" he asks, and the answer quickly comes back from the group, "an occupied structure!"
Then Tom puts the same slide back up, and simply states, "Same building, but this time everyone
is 100% confirmed to be out of the home before the FD arrival...now what is this building?"
Puzzled looks around the room until Tom declares in his wonderful New York tone
"A piece of shit, are you willing to lose your life for this?"
Your life and the lives of those who serve with you depends on your correct response.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
now investigates every firefighter fatality in the U.S., and issues a comprehensive report
based upon their investigation of these fires. You can access these reports
directly from the NIOSH WEBSITE at www.cdc.gov/niosh/firehome.html.
These reports are sad reading for those of us in the fire business.
While each of these reports condenses into a few pages a whole series
of tragic events that led to the death of a precious firefighter,
they are nonetheless an important tool for us to use.
These investigative summaries can never capture the human side of the tragedy of these events,
the feeling of hopelessness and failure on the part of those involved,
and the unbelievable sequence of events gone wrong that lead to a line-of-duty-death.
The simple fires are sometimes the most tragic.