NFPA standards have an enormous impact on firefighter safety and efficiency, addressing staffing, risk management, fire apparatus, equipment, training, fire suppression systems, water supplies, and nearly every other aspect of fire department operations.
Understandably, firefighters often display more interest in topics of tactics and strategy than they do codes and standards. We were invited to a state fire chiefs’ convention a few years ago that included a Saturday morning session outlining and explaining current NFPA standards, and only five chiefs showed up. Early Sunday morning — definitely not prime time — we taught a class focusing on firefighting tactics and strategies applied to vacant building fires. The large classroom was filled, and the crowd overflowed into a hallway. While it is imperative that fire officers understand tactics and strategy, it is also important to ensure they understand how much standards can and do affect them.
NFPA standards have facilitated many improvements in firefighter safety. Probably the most significant milestone during our careers was the adoption of NFPA 1500, Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, in 1987. Many in the fire service opposed NFPA 1500, accepting the proposition that fighting fires is a dangerous business and that anyone who couldn’t accept the risk should find another occupation. Forward-thinking firefighters recognized the danger and also acknowledged that firefighters were often subjected to unnecessary risks. Fortunately, the forward-thinking group prevailed. On the fireground, the NFPA 1500 risk management program takes the form of an incident action plan based on a risk-versus-benefit analysis designed to minimize the various dangers to firefighters.
As a result, the fireground is much different today than it was when we began our fire service careers. Back then, terms like “incident commander” and “accountability officer” weren’t part of the lexicon. Many firefighters wouldn’t wear self-contained breathing apparatus or even the older filter masks, because being the top “smoke eater” in a company was a badge of honor — and it also resulted in the deaths of firefighters who found themselves in oxygen-deficient environments. Burn injuries were also common, because many firefighters would operate in the interior of burning buildings dressed in what were essentially street clothes.
NFPA statistics confirm that a comprehensive risk-management program can help dramatically reduce firefighter on-duty deaths.
Firefighter fatalities at the fireground each year are now typically a third of what they were in the late 1970s. Thanks to efforts by NFPA, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the International Association of Fire Fighters, the United States Fire Administration, and many other organizations, firefighter deaths continue to trend downward. Without question, firefighting today is safer than it has ever been. About the only thing that has remained constant over the decades is the fire service mission of saving lives and property.
We began this column back in 2000 to provide information specifically for the fire service. As with our book, Structural Firefighting: Strategy and Tactics, the objective of the column was to prepare the fire officer to take command at structure fires by fully using available resources in a safe and effective manner. This is our final “Structural Ops” column, and we appreciate the opportunity to share our expertise with NFPA’s fire service readers. We also thank NFPA for providing the technical assistance to make a still-dangerous job significantly safer.
Ben Klaene is the former safety/training chief for the Cincinnati Fire Department. Russ Sanders is executive secretary of the Metro Fire Chiefs Association and the former chief of the Louisville Fire Department.