This year, the National Fire Fighter Safety Stand Down campaign will focus on situational awareness as the foundation for good decision-making. A joint initiative of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA), this year’s Safety Stand Down program will take place June 19-25.
Responder agencies are encouraged to focus on training and education related to situational awareness as well as overall fire fighter safety programs. To assist with this training opportunity, the Comp Alliance will provide daily safety tips for our members, which focus on specialty fire department exposures. Fire fighting is a difficult and dangerous profession and calls for safety awareness and knowledge to minimize risks to all responders. These safety tips should be shared throughout your department and municipal administration as a process to become aware of hazardous exposures and collaborate about solutions to reduce the injury potential.
Daily Firefighter Safety Tips June 20-24
Tip # 1 - Injury Overview
The week of June 19-25 has been designated as National Safety Stand Down week by a joint initiative by several national fire safety commissions and councils. Responder agencies are encouraged to focus on training and education related to a variety of hazardous conditions which are most frequently encountered as part of the high-hazard job responsibilities of fire departments. To get started with the Comp Alliance’s week-long safety tips to focus on training and education for your fire fighters, let’s first review the areas where we see the most workplace injuries occurring for these specialty personnel.
Injuries to fire department staff can originate from several sources and conditions. The causes of fire personnel injuries can vary significantly but the process to control most of these workplace injuries is similar. You must maintain the wherewithal to observe the conditions around you. Develop situational awareness of your environment.
Slip, trip and fall incidents contribute to the most frequent workplace injuries. This is true for fire departments as it is for just about any municipal department today. Injuries from slips, trips and falls can be minor or severe, they can include trips over a crack in the walking surface, a fall down a staircase, or a fall inside a burning structure. Firefighter slip, trip and fall injuries occur most frequently at the fire house, as they spend most of their time at this location. Inspect your facilities for the following hazards:
- Uneven walking surfaces
- Raised cracks greater than a half-inch in the garage areas
- Frayed carpets
- Missing stair handrails
- Poor lighting
- Floor obstructions
At the accident scene, however chaotic it appears, avoid slips, trips and falls by maintaining order and accountability and keep the site clear of unnecessary obstructions. Add lighting to improve visibility, arrange hoses so they can be seen and avoided, and make firefighters aware of hazardous icy patches and clear them when possible.
Physical exertion-related injuries are also frequent among firefighters and generally occur during emergency response or training exercises. These can originate from various causes such as introducing sudden rigorous activities, response to unplanned events occurring in unfamiliar settings, engaging in forcible entries, operating charged hose lines, and others. Injuries include back issues from lifting, heart conditions from over-exertion or over-excitement, knee pain due to donning heavy turn-out gear, hand and arm injuries from overuse of heavy tools and hoses, and knee and back pain from assisting injured civilians. Prevention of such injuries includes frequent and controlled training programs, maintaining some semblance of physical fitness, identifying stressors to employees, use of co-workers to assist when needed, use and training with proper tools, and augment firefighters at the incident scene.
Perhaps the most severe injuries sustained by firefighters are burn and inhalation injuries. Responding to a fire emergency can introduce fire personnel to the inhalation of toxic smoke. Smoke inhalation causes acute life-threatening injuries and results in long-term lung and neurological damage. Burn and inhalation injuries can be caused by entering a fire scene without proper PPE, failure of air packs, injuries sustained within the fire scene without timely rescue, or a downed firefighter at the scene. Incident Command Leaders must maintain focus and awareness at all fire scenes and develop accountability systems for all personnel on-site.
Additional conditions facing firefighters which are likely to lead to injuries include mental and emotional stress, vehicle accidents, responding to emergency calls from the public, and dealing with hostile/aggressive crowds. Mental and emotional stress contributes to physical and mental fatigue and increases potential for injury. Monitor your fire department personnel for signs of mental or emotional stress and utilize your municipal Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) when assistance is needed. Enforce safe vehicle operation policies and standards. Utilize local law enforcement when necessary to avoid crowd interference with firefighting operations.
One common thread significant to the prevention of injuries reviewed above is the achievement of situational awareness, both in department leaders and firefighters. Injuries occur from a multitude of sources, but the importance of every person to maintain situational awareness will go a long way to reducing hazards and their associated injuries.
Tip # 2 - Situational Awareness
Situational Awareness can be described as the perception of environmental elements and events with respect to current conditions, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their future status. For the purposes of Safety Stand Down week and firefighter safety, situational awareness involves knowing what is going on around us at any given time. It is the foundation for good decision making.
Firefighting involves responding to any number of dangerous and chaotic environments, all of which can be better controlled and deemed safer through the implementation of situational awareness. Achieving situational awareness relies on one’s ability to perceive, understand and analyze the environment around you in the context of what you are trying to accomplish. Experience plays positively into one’s ability to achieve situational awareness. Experienced firefighters, or any experienced professional, can achieve greater performance than most rookie or inexperienced workers.
It is beneficial to have seasoned, safety-conscious firefighters mentor the younger professionals in safety procedures to help firefighters solve problems, prevent bad outcomes and make better decisions in what can be high stress environments. Situational awareness improves through training and experience by learning to focus on key aspects of any given situation, knowing what distractions to avoid, and listening to commands and coordinating efforts.
For emergency responders, situational awareness involves cooperation from administrative leadership to all fire department personnel. The backbone of situational awareness includes:
- The proper implementation of an Incident Command System (ICS)
- Considering the situation and conditions present
- Applying experience to predict what future conditions may present
- Communication of orders to applicable personnel
It is vital to instruct and empower your responders to maintain situational awareness throughout the duration of an emergency event and maintain constant communications with staff to report back what might be dangerous or ever-changing conditions.
Fire departments with an adept sense of situational awareness have a clearer picture and better control of their functions, personnel, and outcomes, with a key focus on employee safety. When all responders develop and improve their situational awareness, through training and experience, the fire department can improve safety and minimize workplace injuries.
Reference the NFPA website for more details on the Stand Down initiative and situational awareness highlights by clicking here. Additional fire department safety information is available on the Comp Alliance website. www.compalliance.org
Tip # 3 - Physical Health and Safety Overview
Firefighting requires a high level of physical ability to meet the demands of the job. During the recognition of Safety Stand Down week, we look at the demands on physical health for the tasks of firefighting and focus on improvements as part of conditioning programs.
Firefighting can be a very dangerous profession requiring good physical condition to access and use heavy equipment, manage charged hoses, lift accident victims and manipulate around dangerous environments. An initial physical fitness screening test is completed when first joining the department to confirm proper fitness levels.
Firefighter health and safety is positively associated with proper physical fitness and routine medical screenings. Strength training can also be an essential part of a firefighter’s physical make-up and maintaining good health. Firefighters and first responders have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cardiac arrest, and cancer illness. Traditional risk factors, including hypertension, smoking, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, thyroid disorders and other conditions, can often be identified during regular health screenings and routine blood tests.
In addition to taking care of your medical conditions through annual exams, you must look at your physical conditioning level, keeping in mind all things body appropriate. Age, previous injuries, body type and job requirements all factor into what is an appropriate level of physical ability for a firefighter. Medical evaluations will give you a benchmark from which to begin accepting a realistic set of fitness goals and time-specific exercises. Initial medical exams provide an accurate picture of a firefighter’s baseline health and applying specific wellness programs can improve this medical picture year-to-year. Cardiac health, oxygen volume, stamina, endurance and strength can all be evaluated utilizing medical exams with testing geared specifically to the firefighter. Stress tests, body fat analysis, cholesterol and triglyceride ratios, and even sugar production are just a few of the values of these examinations, providing greater understanding into what makes a healthy firefighter.
Within the fire service, safety standards such as NFPA 1500 have been developed. There are also fitness standards, such as NFPA 1583 and a medical standard in NFPA 1582. Tests performed during the NFPA 1583 fitness evaluation include aerobic capacity, muscular strength (hands, arms and legs), body composition, muscular endurance, and flexibility. In addition, there are joint labor and management initiatives in the International Association of Fire Fighters and the International Association of Fire Chiefs Wellness-Fitness Initiative.
Improving the overall physical health and mental well-being of firefighters has been shown to improve work performance and reduce work-related injuries. Start a physical fitness routine today and improve your health through diet, exercise, improved sleep, weight training, stress reduction and medical examinations.
Tip # 4 - Turnout Gear
Firefighters require the very best in clothing and equipment to allow them to battle fires and respond to dangerous situations. During the National Safety Stand Down week, we take a look at the requirements of turnout gear, advances in technology and the purpose of donning specific personal protective gear for firefighters.
There is a lot to consider for the firefighter having to wear personal protective equipment (PPE), as it can be heavy, cumbersome and hot. The average weight of basic firefighter gear is around 45 pounds. This includes boots, pants, coat, gloves, hood and mask. However, the weight can vary greatly depending on what extra gear a firefighter decides to carry with them. In addition, gear gets heavier when it gets wet from the water used to extinguish a fire, from building sprinkler systems, or from natural elements like rain, snow and ice.
Turnout gear needs to provide proper fit and function. Studies have shown that improperly fitted gear can greatly compromise mobility and even effects the decision-making of firefighters. Reduced mobility means a firefighter works harder, gets tired easily and suffers dehydration and hypothermia more quickly. Regular use can put a lot of physical and mental stress on wearers. Current turnout gear must meet the safety standards of NFPA 1851 for selection, care and maintenance of firefighting protective ensembles. This standard also establishes a maximum service life of 10 years on gear, after it is placed into service, or sooner if rips, tears, defects or heat-related wear are found.
Proper function of turnout gear can be subject to the conditions for which it is needed. Firefighter situational awareness can contribute to what gear is necessary given a specific condition or response. It’s important to have the ability to assess the potential hazards and then select PPE that can best address those risks. This will help avoid a situation where the firefighter faces serious injury, dehydration or hyperthermia. The final call on PPE is made by the Chief, with an understanding by all that the safety and well-being of fire professionals at the scene is of utmost importance.
Consideration may be given to alternate turnout gear during non-firefighting operations as the “one size fits all” structure fire gear may exacerbate injury risk. Fire department personnel should conduct a review of PPE performance and use during a post-incident review session. Review information asking the following questions:
- What was the overall call assessment?
- What PPE was used?
- Was it effective?
- What PPE could have been used that wasn’t?
- What would be done differently given a similar call in the future?
The good news for fire crews is that there are ongoing attempts to improve firefighter gear by making it lighter and safer. The current weight and the health risks involved means that even just a couple of pounds decrease, or PPE sized effectively, could have a positive effect on worker safety. It all comes down to being able to use proper-fitting, lighter materials and perhaps fewer layers without compromising the protection against heat and flames.
Tip #5 - Summer Exposures
Summer conditions, including extreme heat and humidity have a significant impact on the physical and mental well-being of fire department personnel. Firefighters are increasingly susceptible to the dangers of excessive heat exposure due to their strenuous work in extreme heat, high-stressful situations, and heavy clothing and equipment. Firefighters can overcome these hazards and their associated health complications by understanding the risks and proper preparation for them beforehand.
Heat related illness occurs when our bodies cannot dissipate heat quickly enough and our internal body temperature keeps rising. This will lead to workers experiencing thirst, irritability, heat rash, cramping, heat exhaustion or even heat stroke. Heat stroke is the most severe heat-related illness and workers may experience decreased work performance, mental dysfunction, unconsciousness, confusion, disorientation, and slurred speech. Fire departments should learn to recognize the symptoms of heat-related illness in themselves and fellow firefighters, and follow reporting protocols should such symptoms be observed.
Make certain personnel do not take “short cuts” with personnel protective equipment (PPE) while attempting to stay cool. Call for extra alarms and resources sooner rather than later. Summertime heat will require augmenting firefighters over a shorter time span, as frequent breaks will be necessary. Remember, help can always be returned if not needed. Wearing turnout gear for an extended time in extreme summer weather will reduce the body’s ability to cool itself by evaporation of perspiration.
Heat exhaustion can be severe and is also caused by an electrolyte imbalance. The firefighter suffering from heat exhaustion will exhibit profuse sweating, nausea, dizziness, headaches and an elevated body temperature. Removal from the environment into a cooler one with the administration of fluids will assist with recovery, but left untreated these conditions can lead to the more serious condition of heat stroke. The key to keeping firefighters safe during extreme heat conditions is hydration. Firefighters should be aggressively hydrating throughout the day prior to getting a call during hot, humid days. Water and other cold fluids containing electrolytes are the most important items that should be consumed to maintain proper hydration during these conditions. Soda or juices have been shown to slow absorption into the body and can have a detrimental effect in these situations. It is recommended that firefighters consume at least 1 quart of water per hour when working at these times. Fire apparatus should carry drinking water for its crew in case the necessary rehab resources are not on scene.
It is important during extreme summer weather to monitor fire personnel and make certain they stay hydrated and continuously operate in a safe manner.
Additional fire department safety information is available on the Comp Alliance website. www.compalliance.org