It should have been a banner year for firefighter safety in America in 2017. In June, the National Fire Protection Association released its annual report on firefighter fatalities in the United States. The NFPA reported a total of 60 on-duty firefighter deaths, which is the fewest fatalities in a year since 1977.
If total firefighter fatalities are decreasing, including those in vehicle collisions, what do we make of the spike in incidents where emergency responders are struck and killed at roadside scenes?
However, encouraging as that milestone may be, another startling statistic jumps out from the report. Of those 60 firefighters who lost their lives, 10 died in the line of duty when they were struck by a vehicle at the scene of a response.
The average number of struck-by firefighter deaths over the last 30 years is four. Such a significant increase reminds us that industry standards and regulations must do more to ensure drivers can see emergency responders and have enough time to react.
The particular danger to responders outside their vehicles becomes even clearer when you consider the steady decline in fatalities from vehicle vs. vehicle crashes, which was once routinely among the leading causes of traumatic firefighter deaths. Yet, according to NFPA data, 2017 marked the fourth time in the last seven years that fewer than 10 firefighters died in vehicle vs. vehicle crashes.
If total firefighter fatalities are decreasing, including those in vehicle collisions, what do we make of the spike in incidents where emergency responders are struck and killed at roadside scenes? One response is to dismiss last year’s total as a fluke that will correct itself over time. However, first responders know better than anyone else that it’s never a good idea to take a passive approach to safety. As such, there should absolutely be a conversation about improving responders’ visibility on any scene they encounter. That starts with building on the current mandates regarding reflective gear; it’s time to consider adding lightweight illumination devices — wearable multi-colored safety lighting — to those uniform standards.
It has now been nearly a decade since the Federal Highway Administration beefed up visibility requirements. The 2009 version of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices requires anyone working on a federal aid roadway to wear an ANSI 107-compliant vest. In connection, the 2009 edition of NFPA 1901 requires ANSI 207-compliant high-visibility vests on all new fire apparatus while MUTCD 2009 allows emergency responders to wear them in lieu of ANSI 107-compliant apparel.
There’s no doubt it helps to have the current requirements of high-visibility vests, fluorescent striping, and retroreflective material on apparel or on fire apparatus, but as many roadside responders will admit, they often times don’t work as intended. Last year’s tragedies are a sobering reminder there is room for improvement when it comes to ensuring emergency responders are visible to oncoming traffic and fellow officers. Illumination is the standard for emergency vehicles as no one thinks twice about whether they should be equipped with increasingly improved lights and sirens. The limitations of reflective vests and striping cause us to consider how much we could enhance the uniform by applying personal wearable or mountable lighting devices, just as we do with emergency vehicles.
The reflective materials currently mandated are only designed to be seen from 1,280 feet away. A vehicle traveling at 65 miles-per-hour can cover that distance in just 13 seconds. Furthermore, the effectiveness of high-visibility safety vests or other reflective materials depends on several conditions: The wearable reflective items only reach peak visibility at just the right angle and brightness. Even then, the driver must immediately see the worker and react quickly enough. Meanwhile, the technology now exists to provide firefighters and EMS workers with wearable, affordable, and mountable lighting devices that drivers can see from as far as three miles away.
To add to the urgency in a quest to maximize visibility standards for roadside responders are changes in other variables since 2009. State legislatures are increasing speed limits all over the country. Earlier this year, Nebraska became the seventh state to allow speed limits of 80 m.p.h. Coincidentally, it was in 2009 that a study published in the American Journal of Public Health estimated speed limit increases contributed to more than 12,000 deaths and 36,000 injuries between 1995 and 2005. Adjusting for these new speed limits, a vehicle traveling at 80 miles-per-hour would cover those 1,280 feet in less than 11 seconds. That doesn’t even consider the slower reaction time of the ever-present threats of intoxicated or distracted drivers.
It’s simply unacceptable that we would consider letting personnel visibility shortcomings to continue in this day and age. The remedies are available on the market today. We should not allow our firefighters and EMS workers, already contending with faster-moving traffic and drivers more susceptible to distractions, to work under dated industry standards and regulations that fail to give these emergency responders the best possible chance to be seen. It is time to consider how personal wearable and mountable illumination safety devices could help ensure 2017 is the last year so many firefighters lose their lives in a way that’s entirely avoidable.