Risk Management Practices in the Fire Service and Firefighter Fatalities in the United States
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) document “Risk Management Practices in the Fire Service” is a comprehensive guide “that helps fire and emergency service providers understand the concepts that form the foundation of risk management principles and practices” (FEMA, 1996, p. i).
Risk is defined as “the possibility of meeting danger or suffering harm or loss or exposure to harm or loss” (FEMA, 1996, p. 4). The manual describes risk identification, evaluation, probability of incident occurrence, and harmful consequences, and requires application through a written risk management plan (FEMA, 1996, p. 14).
The manual further defines the fire department’s mission as “managing risk for others” (FEMA, 1996, p. 23). In carrying out this mission, the manual lists ways a fire department can manage individual risks or “things that go wrong when departments attempt to deliver services that define this mission” (FEMA, 1996, p. 24). The areas discussed include personnel, fire inspection precautions, administration and communication.
Next, the manual discusses application of risk management. Recommendations are given regarding assessment of risk and bravery in the face of risk. Bravery may be accepted to save lives but it is inappropriate to risk one’s life, “when there are no lives to be saved” (FEMA, 1996, p. 64). The manual describes public expectations, occupational safety and health, principles and development of incident action plans, incident commander responsibilities, and roles in the firefighting organization. Examples are given with regard to unoccupied buildings, unusual situational risks, time factors, unacceptable risks, strategies, communication, personal protective equipment, experience, judgment and training. The manual also emphasizes the importance of pre-incident planning and management of information.
Even with this focus on concept and application, the manual is missing key elements that could reduce fatalities among firefighters. Perhaps the answer lies in a look at how fatalities have recently occurred. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates on-duty firefighting deaths at about 0.1% from 1994-2004, and
Half of the deaths among volunteers were caused by heart attacks and 26% by MV-related traumaFor career firefighters, 39% were caused by heart attacks, 29% by other causesand 20% by asphyxiation (CDC, 2006, pp. 453-454).
The CDC further recommends that, in order to avoid heart attacks, departments require preplacement and annual medical evaluations, stress testing for some firefighters, and fitness and wellness programs (CDC, 2006, pp. 454-455). To avoid motor-vehicle related trauma, departments should require seat belt use, and twice-a-year training in driving safety. For avoiding deaths resulting from being trapped in a structure, CDC recommends adherence to NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, meaning more extensive personnel training on these practices is warranted (CDC, 2006, p. 455).
How commanders communicate may also prevent deaths. According to Rita Fay, NFPA manager of fire databases and coauthor of an NFPA report, “Taking the time to re-evaluate departmental command techniques is an important means of reducing the risks with which firefighters are faced (Fire Engineering, 2000, p. 40).
In summary, careful procedures need to be outlined to stop the large number of deaths from heart attacks and motor vehicle accidents, and FEMA’s risk management manual does little to help establish guidelines in these areas.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CD). “Fatalities among volunteer and career firefighters – United States, 1994-2004.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 55 (16), 453-455. Retrieved July 10, 2007, from Ebscohost database.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (December, 1996). Risk Management Practices in the Fire Service. FA-166. December, 1996. Retrieved July 9, 2007, from http://www.usfa.dhs.gov/downloads/pdf/publications/fa-166.pdf
Fire Engineering 153 (7), July 2000. “NFPA: On-duty U. S. Firefighter deaths reach 10-year peak.) Retrieved July 10, 2007, from Academic Search Premier database.