Lessons Learned: The Way Forward

Quantitative Analysis

Quantitative analysis of firefighter injuries and fatalities uses statistics to describe what has occurred and identify patterns and trends. Annual reports and longitudinal (multi-year) quantitative studies provide one way to examine firefighter safety performance.

Examination of firefighter fatalities and injuries over time requires consistency of method when comparing data from year to year. However, dividing fatalities and injuries into a small number of causes or injury or death provides a coarse grained picture of the problem. This is useful, but not sufficient.

Reporting system limitations in dealing with multiple causal and contributing factors also limits firefighter injury and fatality statistical analysis and reporting. Quantitative analysis is extremely useful in identifying trends and pointing to issues needing further examination. Identification of the increasing rate of firefighter fatalities inside buildings during structural firefighting is one example. However data and system limitations may preclude a fine grained quantitative analysis of this issue.

Qualitative Analysis

Qualitative analysis of firefighter injuries and fatalities often involves examination of individual incidents, describing in detail what happened in that specific case and identifying causal and contributing factors. The limited information provided by annual reports and longitudinal analysis of firefighter injuries and fatalities can be enhanced by examining individual cases.

The NIOSH Firefighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program investigates many firefighter fatalities as a result of trauma (see the NIOSH Decision Matrix). However, they do not generally investigate non-fatal incidents and do not investigate near miss events. In addition to not examining all traumatic fatalities there is often a considerable delay in beginning the investigative process. This delay may result in the building involved being demolished and loss of important detail in witness interviews.

My last two posts looked at the US Forest Service approach to Investigating Wildland Fire Entrapments and Peer Review Process to identify lessons learned. Application of these methods in structural firefighting would provide an excellent method for improving our understanding of applied fire dynamics, tactical operations, and decision-making as well as other hazards such as structural collapse, and firefighter disorientation.

The Way Forward

Fire service organizations should examine all events that involve structural fire entrapment, collapse entrapment, and disorientation. There are no commonly accepted definitions for these types of events. However, the US Forest Service definition for wildland fire entrapment could serve as a starting point for defining entrapment and disorientation in the structural environment.

  • Structural Fire Entrapment: a fire behavior related event involving compromise of normal (planned) means of egress; or thermal exposure resulted in, or had significant potential for death, injury, or damage to personal protective equipment.
  • Collapse Entrapment: A structural failure related event involving compromise of normal (planned) means of egress, or impact resulting from structural failure (load bearing or non-load bearing) that resulted in, or had significant potential for death, injury, or damage to personal protective equipment.
  • Disorientation Entrapment: Loss of spatial orientation while operating in a hazardous atmosphere that resulted in, or had significant potential for death or injury.

Note that like the US Forest Service definition of wildland fire entrapment; these events are inclusive of fatalities, injuries, and near miss events.

Investigating a near miss or accident involving a serious injury or fatality may present significant challenges to an individual agency in terms of resources and expertise. Individuals and organizations also filter information through cultural norms which define “the way we do things”. Use of a multi-agency team reduces these potential challenges. However, as in emergency response, it is important to define the process and develop effective working relationships prior to facing a serious injury or fatality investigation.

Who should be involved? Adapting from the US Forest Service Investigating Wildland Fire Entrapments individuals with the following skill sets should be involved in structural fire, collapse, or disorientation entrapment events.

  • Command Officer
  • Safety Officer
  • Fire Behavior Specialist
  • Structural Specialist (collapse entrapment)
  • Fire Investigator
  • Personal Protective Equipment Specialist (may be an external resource)
  • Photographer/Videographer

There are a number of considerations in determining the makeup of the investigative team. Depending on the nature of the investigation, some of these skill sets may not be as critical or a single individual may fill more than one role (e.g., fire investigator and photographer). Unlike the wildland community, there is considerably less clarity to specialization in structural fire behavior. In some cases this may be a fire investigator with specific training in fire dynamics and fire modeling, in others it may be a compartment fire behavior instructor. This will depend on the nature of the incident and available resources. In addition, the technical complexity of assessing personal protective equipment performance (particularly self-contained breathing apparatus) may require specialized external expertise.

As in wildland incidents, there is also great value in peer review of structural incidents. Like the more formal investigation, peer review is a team based process, but the team is comprised of a small group of experienced firefighters and fire officers who are known to be insightful, fair, just, and honest.

A Call to Action

There is not a simple cookbook approach to developing processes for entrapment investigation and peer review. The first step is to identify how your organization can effectively identify and communicate lessons learned. While serious accidents and injuries present a significant challenge, near miss events occur much more frequently and provide an opportunity for individual and organizational learning as well as an opportunity to develop the entrapment investigation and peer review processes. The following two actions provide the opportunity to improve firefighter safety while operating offensively at structure fires:

  • Members submit near miss reports to the National Firefighter Near Miss Program
  • Agencies use a team based, multi-agency approach to investigate structure fire, collapse, and disorientation entrapments (inclusive of near miss events).
  • Agencies widely share their lessons learned with other fire service agencies and organizations

Please post your thoughts on this process and how we can best develop and communicate lessons learned from entrapment events occurring during structure fires.

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO

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