NIOSH Examines Future Directions To Prevent Fire Fighter Fatalities

May 25, 2007
Each year an average of 105 fire fighters die in the line of duty. To address this continuing national occupational fatality problem, NIOSH conducts independent investigations of fire fighter line of duty deaths.

In 2006, the National Institute for Occupational Safety (NIOSH) held a public meeting and conducted a survey of fire departments regarding its future role in fire fighter death and injury investigations. On May 1, NIOSH released its recommendations to guide future directions of the Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program (FFFIPP).

NIOSH sought stakeholder input at a public meeting on March 22, 2006, and through a public docket, and conducted a national survey of U.S. fire departments focusing on the use of NIOSH recommendations and information products. NIOSH announced it is making several modifications to the FFFIPP based on stakeholder input and survey results. The intent of these modifications is to ensure that the FFFIPP meets stakeholders’ needs and to increase the impact of the FFFIPP on fire fighter safety and health.

A total of 37 non-NIOSH attendees participated in the public meeting, and presentations were given by individuals representing the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG), the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), among others. Eleven individuals submitted written comments to the docket. NIOSH received considerable positive feedback about the FFFIPP, and suggestions for improving the FFFIPP.

“The future directions adopted by the NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program (FFFIPP) were made in response to the feedback received at the March 2006 stakeholder meeting and a U.S. Fire Service survey are not prioritized in any particular manner, nor is any one change or modification to the program considered more significant than another,” says Robert Koedam, M.S., supervisory safety and occupational health manager and chief, Fatality Investigations Team, Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation Program. “It is felt that all of the changes and identified future directions of the program will enable NIOSH to improve customer service and provided needed resources to the fire service for the prevention of future fire fighter fatalities.”

In the spring of 2006, RTI International conducted an evaluation of the FFFIPP. The evaluation was based on a nationwide survey of 3,000 fire departments and a series of focus groups with front-line fire fighters. The evaluation served to determine the extent to which FFFIPP reports, recommendations and other products are being utilized by the fire service for training; development of procedures, guidelines, policies and practices; and other prevention efforts. The evaluation also helped to identify enhancements that could further the FFFIPP’s impact.

Below is the summary of future directions for the FFFIPP based on stakeholder input and survey results:

Investigations and Fatality Reports

  • Continue to make the main focus of the program performing fatality investigations, and maintain investigative activity at or near the current level.
  • Make the prioritization of investigations transparent by posting the program’s decision flow chart on the FFFIPP Web site.
  • Document and make recommendations applicable to the training of the incident commanders/line officers on the incident scene.
  • Address the issue of safety “culture” by looking more thoroughly at the incident department’s occupational safety and health program.
  • Increase the evaluation of fire “behavior” during structure fire incident investigations.
  • Strive to make recommendations more straightforward and practical.
  • Increase references to “best practices” and standards in reports and recommendations.
  • Investigate selected non-fatal cardiovascular (CVD) incidents.
  • Increase the number of draft reports reviewed by external experts.
  • Explore modifications to the FFFIPP fatality reports to make them more user-friendly and to enhance messages, including formatting changes and the development of training aides for reports.
  • Continue to ensure that FFFIPP reports are finalized and posted to the FFFIPP web site in the timeliest manner possible.

Other changes NIOSH plans to implement based on public comments and survey results include:

  • Continue to develop documents, including Alerts and Workplace Solutions, that identify trends and hazards, and recommend equipment, training, and /or procedures to abate those hazards.
  • Enhance efforts to disseminate FFFIPP publications to small, rural and volunteer fire departments through direct mailings and e-mail listserve dissemination.
  • Enhance the FFFIPP website by providing additional search capabilities and organizing materials by broad topic areas.
  • Continue to expand outreach and partnership activities to fire service organizations, and pursue activities that complement and support prevention efforts of others.
  • Increase routine and in-depth analyses of available data on fire fighter deaths and injuries (e.g. fatality data collected and reported by USFA and NFPA, data from the National Fire Incident Reporting System and data from occupational injury and illness databases such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries). Such analyses will be used to add knowledge about patterns and risks for fire fighter injury and illness, identify needed improvements in available surveillance data, and help focus FFFIPP investigations.
  • Increase efforts to foster research that builds from NIOSH investigation findings and recommendations, and leverage resources to conduct such research.
  • Increase coordination with other NIOSH Divisions conducting research on fire fighter safety and health, including the NIOSH National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory.

IAFF Suggestions Well Received

Nearly all of the IAFF’s recommendations for FFFIPP were incorporated in the NIOSH summary, causing IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger to say, “There is no greater issue than the health and safety of our members. The IAFF is in full support of NIOSH continuing its involvement and will continue to advocate for and support additional funding for NIOSH to enhance such investigations.”

As the creator of the investigation process under President Bill Clinton, the IAFF participated in the review process, testified during the stakeholder meeting and made a number of recommendations, including:

  • No reduction in investigations and, ultimately, a significant increase in investigations when funding levels allow.
  • Conduct follow-up investigations to ensure implementation of recommendations and a significant impact on safety.
  • Disseminate information on the status of all fatality investigations regularly.
  • Stakeholder groups must fully support NIOSH participation in investigations and facilitate coordination with other NIOSH divisions.
  • NIOSH should partner with other federal departments and agencies, including DHS (FEMA, USFA), NIH and DOT to conduct research during and after investigations to develop new technologies and operating procedures to improve the safety of fire fighters.

“The short-term goal of the recommendations and the FFFIPP are to continue implementing the changes and future directions of the program so that the program may provide an effective service and increase impact,” said Koedam. “The long-term goal of the recommendations and the FFFIPP are to work together, with the U.S. Fire Service and all of our stakeholders to prevent fire fighter deaths. NIOSH is not alone in this mission, but we will do everything in our power to assist in providing effective prevention materials and will continue to conduct research that can be used to prevent these deaths in the future.”

Click here for the “Future Directions for the NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program."

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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