‘Then and Now’ — Safety in today’s fire service

CarolinaFireJournal - Todd Shoebridge
Todd Shoebridge
10/14/2011 -

When I started in the fire service 30 years ago, we were riding the tail board of the trucks, had SCBA’s (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus), in plastic boxes on the side, or in the compartments of the truck, wore three quarter length day boots and the old “dog bed” lining long turn out coats.

We have come a long way since then. We didn’t run medical calls, do hazardous materials, confined space, swift water, high angle or any other rescue. We ran the occasional traffic accident, but our time at the fire house was much slower paced than it is today.


Inspections and pre-plans of a building were seldom done by the suppression division, if at all. There was no such thing as hydrant maintenance. Decontamination after a good fire meant taking a soapy brush and garden hose to your turn outs and boots, and hanging them out in the sun for two days to dry. There were no high tech gear washers and dryers. Chemicals likes Carbon Monoxide (CO), and Hydrogen Cyanide (HCN) were not chemical compounds that we knew anything about. There were no Rapid Intervention Teams (RIT), FAST teams, or HASTY teams. Many departments were using open cab trucks, and seat belts were the lap belts style only, no shoulder straps.

Even 20 years ago, I remember standing up in the back of an open cab truck, looking over the top of the truck putting on my turn out gear while enroute to calls. Thirty years ago there was one portable radio on the truck and it was as big and heavy as a solid core brick. Booster or trash lines were the hoses of choice to fight fires. They were light, maneuverable, and easy to pick up after the fires were over. Large diameter hose (LDH) was just being introduced to the fire service, and was very expensive to purchase. Most departments were using multiple two and one-half inch diameter or three inch hose as supply lines.

Unlike 30 years ago, we now do a lot more than just fight fires. We are called out for vehicle extrications, hazardous materials incidents, medical emergencies, carbon monoxide emergencies, disasters of nature, water rescues, acts of terrorism, confined space emergencies, high angle rescues, and structure collapses just to name a few. We, in the fire service, have become the “go to” agency for just about everything.

Today, we have more safety procedures and better safety equipment than we did in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s combined. For example: we do not ride the tail board anymore; we have self contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) mounted in the trucks for each firefighter, bunker gear is state of the art, portable radios for each riding position, personal alert safety system (PASS) devices, enclosed cabs, a collapse zone concept, rehab units and accountability via the incident command system (ICS); safety officers respond to assist the incident commander, and offensive and defensive fire attack procedures have been spelled out and incorporated in standard operating procedures (SOPs).

“Risk a lot to save a lot, risk a little to save a little, risk nothing for that which is already lost.”

There are no new reasons why firefighters are killed or why they are injured. We are dying in the same ways year after year. If a firefighter dies in the line of duty, that death will most often be a result of a heart attack caused by stress or over exertion, a traffic accident involving a department’s apparatus or privately owned vehicle (POV) while responding to or from a call, being caught and trapped by fire, smoke or toxic gas, falling or slipping, a collapse or coming in contact with a dangerous object, such as an electric wire. The types of fireground injuries are also the same each year. Firefighters suffer strains, sprains, wounds, cuts, lacerations, bruises, burns, and smoke or gas inhalation.

Although there have been some reduction in the number of firefighter fatalities since the late 1970s, a plateau seems to have been reached, but more aggressive efforts must be made to further reduce fatalities. We are currently struggling to reduce the number of line of duty deaths (LODDs). Each year we are averaging100 firefighter fatalities in the US. In 2004 the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation put together a list of 16 life safety initiatives in an effort to reduce the number of LODDs by half within a 10 year period, and make sure that “Everyone Goes Home.” They are as follows;

  • Define and advocate the need for a cultural change within the fire service relating to safety; incorporating leadership, management, supervision, accountability and personal responsibility.
  • Enhance the personal and organizational accountability for health and safety throughout the fire service.
  • Focus greater attention on the integration of risk management with incident management at all levels, including strategic, tactical, and planning responsibilities.
  • All firefighters must be empowered to stop unsafe practices.
  • Develop and implement national standards for training, qualifications, and certification (including regular recertification) that are equally applicable to all firefighters based on the duties they are expected to perform.
  • Develop and implement national medical and physical fitness standards that are equally applicable to all firefighters, based on the duties they are expected to perform.
  • Create a national research agenda and data collection system that relates to the initiatives.
  • Utilize available technology wherever it can produce higher levels of health and safety.
  • Thoroughly investigate all firefighter fatalities, injuries, and near misses.
  • Grant programs should support the implementation of safe practices and/or mandate safe practices as an eligibility requirement.
  • National standards for emergency response policies and procedures should be developed and championed.
  • National protocols for response to violent incidents should be developed and championed.
  • Firefighters and their families must have access to counseling and psychological support.
  • Public education must receive more resources and be championed as a critical fire and life safety program.
  • Advocacy must be strengthened for the enforcement of codes and the installation of home fire sprinklers.
  • Safety must be a primary consideration in the design of apparatus and equipment.

There’s an old saying in the fire service: “Complacency Kills.” As stated above, look at the number of firefighters that are killed or injured each year in fires. Add to that, the overall number of fires is down 54 percent. We don’t get the exposure that we use to. As first responders, we get plenty of training checking pulses and taking blood pressures, but we tend to forget about the other side of our job. The firefighter end, for what we are named.

What fire fighting training we do is geared toward residential structures, because that is our usual response. We have become good at those scenarios, but then when we get a fire in an industrial building, what do we do? We go back to our training and what we have learned.

Industrial or commercial fires are a whole different animal, and cannot be treated the same way that we treat residential fires. This is where we get complacent. When your low air alarm sounds/vibrates you need to be outside the building. Not getting ready to leave, not working the extra five minutes and then racing to the doorway or window when your mask is sucking to your face. Your low air alarm is your emergency air supply in the event that something happens to you, i.e.; floor or roof collapse, you become disoriented or entangled, the emergency air supply that you have left maybe the difference in your fellow firefighters rescuing you alive or dead.

The solution to this problem is called “ROAM” (Rules of Air Management). It was adopted by the Phoenix Fire Department after losing one of their own during the Southwest Supermarket Fire.

For too many firefighters, “air management” still means waiting for the low-air vibration alert or alarm to sound, signaling it’s time to leave the building. Many firefighters consider that such a procedure is acceptable during a routine room-and-contents fire in a small building.

Somehow, we have to change our mentality in the fire service. Running out of air, coming out of a building with black soot all over our faces, coughing and gagging, sucking in carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide, to briefly mention the toxic twins is harmful and deadly. Take a look at how many firefighters have “run out of air” in residential fires and lost their lives! Here are some things to consider:

  • No air in an IDLH atmosphere of today leads to rapid asphyxiation (HCN/CO).
  • No air during a thermal insult event will result in immediate and fatal burns to the throat and lungs.
  • No air during a structural collapse means a lack of time for rescue and asphyxiation.
  • No air when lost or separated leads to panic and/or asphyxiation.
  • No air requires the firefighter to breathe the products of combustion — toxic smoke and hazardous gases that are proven to be poisonous, carcinogenic, and fatal.
  • No air means that even if the firefighter survives the initial assault on their respiratory system the toll on their wellness will be immeasurable.

As a rule of thumb, firefighters undertaking hose-lays up a stairway and completing a search pattern in a training situation, will reduce the air supply of 30-minute cylinders to around 20 minutes (to empty) and 45-minute cylinders will be reduced to about 30 minutes (empty).

By using up 75 percent of cylinder contents, leaving a 25 percent time to allow exit, means that 30-minute cylinders may only allow five or six minutes to exit and 45-minute cylinders will allow seven or eight minutes (air reserve to empty).

  • Allowing yourself or anyone else under your supervision to inhale the smoke of the modern fire ground is a dereliction of duty.
  • Ignoring the need for air management training increases the chances that your members will be involved in “close calls,” “near- misses” and tragedies.
  • Staying in the hazard area until your low-air warning alarm activates makes it virtually certain that your crew will eventually be exposed to the “Breath from Hell.”
  • Using “filter breathing” or “sucking the carpet” as anything other than a last resort is foolish and deadly.

To an individual fire department, the death of a firefighter can appear to be a random and extremely rare event. However, a look at the national experience can provide valuable lessons to all departments. Changes in operating procedures and attitudes must be made to improve fire fighter safety.

Changing the mentality and culture of the fire service is a full time job that takes every firefighter — young and old. No one likes change, however it is easier to accept new ideas if you are continuously exposed to them. There are those that will initially fight change, but the more they are exposed to new ideas, the more accepting they become of the new techniques, and ideas of today’s fire service.

Every month look in any fire service publication and you will see that there are new ways of training, new firefighter safety and survival practices, new equipment, new apparatus, roundtable discussions, and new view points from firefighters, company officers and chief officers of departments all over the country. Seasoned, more experienced firefighters will always be needed to mentor new firefighters coming up through the ranks. That is part of their job. That will keep this great service going. The fire service is now, and now is the time to change. With a change in mentality and a change in culture, Everyone Goes Home!

Todd Shoebridge, is a 30-year fire service veteran, and Captain/EMT with the Hickory (NC) Fire Department, where he has served for 19 years. He holds certifications as a National Registry (PROBOARD) Fire Officer III, Rapid Intervention and NFA Mayday Instructor, Hazardous Materials Technician, Level II Fire Service Instructor, Basic VMR Rescue Technician, and Fire/Arson Investigator (CFI) through the NC Fire and Rescue Commission. Shoebridge has associate’s degrees in Biology and Ecology from Montreat College and is completing his Bachelor’s Degree in Fire Science at the University Maryland.
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