The Fatal Danger of Ignoring Fire Service Standards
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By Randall Hanifen
Contributor, EDM Digest
Recently, I had a conversation with another fire officer about a fire that he managed with a significantly larger span of control than is recommended in the National Incident Management System (NIMS), National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) documents and many fire departments’ policies. His argument for not using traditional fire service standards was since the fire had a positive outcome, the proper use of traditional standards did not matter. But I argued that it was mere luck that his fire management worked out.
The Development Process for Fire Service Standards
No fire officer agrees with all of the NFPA fire service standards. Many fire officers will tell you that they are written for a fictitious fire department. Others will state that no one can actually meet those standards or provide some reason why their department is so unique that such a standard cannot work.
While many fire service standards are created without a budget impact analysis and may appear to work better for large metropolitan departments, each of those standards is written by a committee consisting of fellow firefighters, academic professionals related to the fire service, representatives from the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and representatives from the International Association of Firefighters. Other prominent fire service associations, special interest groups, manufacturers and vendors contribute to the development of those standards as well.
How else would you have the expertise to know what is and is not scientifically possible, based on the current technology related to fire service equipment and vehicles? Essentially, everyone who has a stake in the game is allowed to apply for a position on the committee that develops fire service standards.
These standards, while having a large influence by the committees tasked with their development, are created through public input. That means that every person who complains that the standard is not practical or is slanted towards a certain type of department has the opportunity every few years to submit proposed revisions to the standard and their justification for the desired change.
The committee must act on every submission. This act could be to accept the submission without revision, deny the submission, or revise it based on their expertise. Next, they must write a justification for their action. This is all in plain view through the notes published for development meetings.
Why Fire Service Standards Exist
Like most activities in the fire service, we are not the most proactive. We usually need an impetus to make the change.
Often, this change involves an epidemic or a safety hazard that has become relevant across the United States. While NFPA 1710 was likely one of the most contested standards when it developed and published, to date the fire service had little to no nationwide basis for what equipment to deploy and under what parameters an emergency response should model until this standard was developed. It was likely known that more personnel to a certain point will increase the efficiency of a fire company.
It was also possibly known at the time that flashover and cardiac survival are time-dependent and that a fire department’s arrival prior to both events increases the odds of a successful outcome. However, fire services had not written down all of this information and had not developed a deployment plan that met the needs of first responder events.
Why Do Fire Officers Feel That If It’s Successful, It Must Be OK?
Aside from some particular departments in the country -- such as Baltimore, Washington, DC and Los Angeles -- most fire departments do not respond to fires on a regular basis. But fire services learn as much as possible and try to apply their knowledge at these events where many critical decisions are needed.
Outside of the large metro fire departments, we also lack detailed standard operating procedures that outline what will occur and who will take appropriate action at events such as structure fires. While this learning is moving in a positive direction, a good majority of the departments still lack a standard operating procedures manual.
Often, Incident Commanders must recall all of their learning, which varies by person and location, and apply it to an event that they have never worked on before or work on a very infrequent basis.
After all, who reads fire service standards word for word? Many people are just happy that the fire went out and everyone is safe.
Ego can also play a part in not using fire service standards. Fire service managers sometimes have a fallacy that they are acting correctly.
Because of this fallacy and getting lucky a few times, they begin to believe that they are good at either commanding a fire or serving as a company officer. Unfortunately, this mentality likely contributes to the deaths of firefighters.
What Can Fix This Mentality of Complacency?
In the past, the United Kingdom held incident commanders criminally responsible for their actions. While this way of thinking is not prevalent in the United States, adopting it would possibly shift some people away from thinking that everything was done correctly and to an attitude of examining how what they do could be improved.
Furthermore, I propose a metric by which every fire must be measured. It would include multiple standards, such as assigning a rapid intervention crew (RIC), proper command terminology, proper supervision numbers and proper number of personnel dispatched to the incident scene. This type of metric should be developed and be required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) or other regulatory agencies, which would provide a platform for improvement, document the deficiencies and provide evidence for criminal prosecution similar to the UK model. Until we hold personnel accountable and provide evidence that they are not performing to fire service standards, we will continue to be surprised that another firefighter needlessly died in the same manner as others have in the past.