An Overprotected Fire Service?

WHY am I pondering the cost of U.S. firefighters' injuries? The bottom line of a sincere, recent effort to count these injuries and estimate their cost is no great shock to me: There is no clear bottom line. Applying five possible methods to the 80,800 U.S. civilian firefighter injuries in 2002 produced cost estimates from an impossibly low $300 million all the way up to $16.7 billion. The "Economic Consequences Of Firefighter Injuries and Their Prevention" report threw out the highest and lowest, leaving a final estimate that is between $2.8 billion and $7.8 billion.

What is startling is part of the report's analysis of the 20 percent decline in injuries since 1992. Contributing factors include a drop in fires fought, safety features added to fire vehicles, better PPE, improved safety practices, and federal grants that allowed many departments to acquire improved gear and equipment they once lacked, said the report, which was prepared by TriData Corp. of Arlington, Va. for the Building and Fire Research Laboratory of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

What else does it say? Firefighters' PPE may be getting too good. "The use of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) is the norm in fire suppression operations, and most firefighters are equipped with Nomex hoods, which cover their ears and neck. A new problem is threatening to develop, however," the report says. "As protective gear has improved, firefighters can get deeper into a fire and remain there for long periods of time before they feel the heat and realize they should retreat. This situation puts the firefighter at risk. Protective ensembles may have become almost too effective."

I haven't heard anyone complain modern police vests are too bulletproof or body armor protects troops in Iraq too well. But seeing TriData acknowledge seven active fire department officers for technical assistance tells me this overprotection concern must exist among high-ranking fire service personnel.

The report's top recommendation is improving public education and prevention to reduce the number of emergency calls. No argument there; prevention is always smarter than cleanup or protection. Other recommendations cover safer training, use of robotics, instilling safety awareness in firefighters, sensors to transmit pulse rates and detect wounds, early detection of building collapses, and much higher adherence to NFPA's 1583 standard on fitness programs for firefighters. But my gut tells me PPE can't be too protective in the face of a $5 billion annual injury cost. If it is, let's look to the wearer's attitude rather than push for lesser products.The report is online at www.fire.nist.gov/bfrlpubs/NIST_GCR_05_874.pdf.

This column appears in the June 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the June 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Jerry Laws is Editor of Occupational Health & Safety magazine, which is owned by 1105 Media Inc.

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