(Everyone Goes Home)
Fire service tradition and culture often dictate our actions as individuals. We leave our families, report for duty, and dedicate the absolute best of who we are to the profession we love. Being a firefighter means different things, depending on the region you work in, the type of service you work for, and even the house you respond out of. Those traditions and cultures blend together and create the American fire service as we know it today. This great service was built on the shoulders of people we view as giants.
Ben Franklin is credited with cofounding the first volunteer fire company in Philadelphia in 1736. He also identified safety issues to reduce the fire problems, including licensing chimney sweeps in the city.
John Damrell, Boston (MA) Fire Department, was a strong advocate of building codes to improve safety. However, his warnings fell on deaf ears until a fire in 1872 reduced 65 acres of downtown Boston into smoldering rubble.
The late Alan Brunacini, chief (ret.), Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department, had been a huge voice in modern times on topics such as customer service, rapid intervention crews, Rescuing Our Own, and other safety issues.
Brian Hunton, firefighter, Amarillo (TX) Fire Department (AFD), changed the fire service, its culture, and its traditions when he lost his life on April 25, 2005, responding to a fire call. Brain’s legacy and sacrifice has not been forgotten.
AFD’s Ladder 1 was called to a structure fire on Polk Street the evening of April 23, 2005. As the truck left the station, Brian was standing in the cab. He was donning his turnout gear and self-contained breathing apparatus, preparing (like he had done numerous times before) to arrive on scene and be instantly ready to go to work. As Ladder 1 made a right-hand turn on to 3rd Street, the rear door opened. Brian lost his balance and fell backward from the truck, striking the back of his head on the roadway. Suffering severe head wounds, Brian was rushed to Northwest Texas Hospital. He died two days later.
We all have stated, at one time or another, that firefighting is just inherently dangerous. Albeit the statement is true, but unfortunately it seems the context of those words sometimes is misused as a badge of courage rather than a word of caution. Too many of us are quick to dismiss unsafe, or even dangerous, acts as “part of the job.” This mindset doesn’t seem to match up very well with the risk-vs.-benefit analysis we are supposed to make on every call.
For every risk we take, we should be able to back it up with a solid reason why. Sometimes the reason is well-justified, and we move into more aggressive action, knowing that the high-risk/low-frequency situation we are in could and should result in saving lives. Sometimes, however, the risks we take are completely unnecessary and, when we really think about it, impossible to justify.
Since Brian’s death, there has been a major push to encourage firefighters to buckle up. Two months after Brian died, Dr. Burton Clark created the Brian Hunton National Seat Belt Pledge [https://www.everyonegoeshome.com/seatbelts/]. During that time, the memories of the incident were fresh and the sting of another line-of-duty death (LODD) was real.
Fire service members from all over the country signed the seat belt pledge, and awareness about this serious issue was top priority. The fire service, ever-steeped in unyielding tradition, was attempting to change. There were leaders in fire stations across America who understood the importance of this issue and how such a small change could save so many lives. But the process is long and getting buy-in takes time. Recently, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) revised and gave the pledge a more modern look. The members of the AFD have embraced this new pledge; 100 percent of its membership sign the pledge. Some members had signed the original pledge yet still chose to sign the new one.
Signing a pledge may not sound or seem like a big deal or even be important to some firefighters, but the AFD promised to never forget Brian Hunton, and we haven’t.
A short time ago, several members of AFD had lunch with Brian’s parents and sister. We talked about Brian and we talked about Amarillo’s continuing and renewed commitment to the seat belt issue. Brian’s father wanted to be clear that he didn’t believe Brian “did anything wrong,” and nor do we. That statement is the core of this whole issue: LODD in the fire service should never be a blame game.
Our culture and our people should be reading about the dangers that are continually killing us and taking steps to initiate positive changes to prevent these types of accidents. We should be reading and reviewing every LODD to identify ways in which we can operate more safely and still maintain the tactical speed and proficiency required to save lives. Using simple arguments about how much faster it is not to wear a seat belt simply doesn’t match up with the type of risk evaluation that any professional should be doing.
Reviewing LODD reports and making sense of the events that occur can be a time-consuming and quite frankly tedious task. As leaders in the fire service, however, it is our job to learn from this crucial information and apply it to our work in every way possible. We would not expect the members of our crews to be able to perform the multitude of tasks they are asked to do daily without training. So why is it that the service continues to lose members to the same type of accidents? That question is difficult to answer if we are honest with ourselves. Reading the summaries of these reports and sharing them with your crew is an important task that is sometimes overlooked or under justified.
Shockingly, vehicle crashes and traffic incidents account for about 25 percent of firefighter LODDs annually. Seventeen firefighters died in this manner in 2016. Of those 17, only four were reported to have been wearing their seat belt. If the data are correct, and the use of a seat belt reduces your chance of death by 50 percent, that means that seven of the remaining 13 may have been spared if they had been wearing their seat belts. Seventy firefighters lost their lives in the line of duty in 2016. Those seven lives would account for a 10 percent overall reduction in the whole LODD problem.
Reducing the LODD total by 10 percent would be a huge victory for the fire service. Being able to reduce that number without sacrificing anything in the way of service offered is even bigger. There will always be those personalities who have an argument for any type of safety change; effectively getting their buy-in can be difficult. But it can be done. Many departments across the world have changed their outlook on seat belts and now use them with 100 percent compliance. AFD is one of those departments, and we have experienced very little change in turnout or response time. Our members believe in wearing seat belts and don’t want to experience the pain and loss that come with losing a brother in this way ever again.
Fire service culture is hard to influence and even harder to change. We pride ourselves in statements like “200 years of tradition unimpeded by progress” and “We’ve always done it like that.” Both of those statements make our service sound archaic and possibly undereducated. The most important tradition that we should be upholding is service above self and taking the absolute best care of our citizens as we can. There will always be the “seat belts make us slow” and “I need to get my gear on en route” arguments. My rebuttal to those is, “If we don’t make it to the call alive in the first place, we can’t help anyway.” Changing the way people think can be a hard task, but it can be done.
Losing Brian was a severe blow to the AFD. The pain has become more bearable over the past 13 years, but the fact remains that firefighters are still dying because they aren’t wearing their seat belts. I want to encourage every member of every department to look into signing the National Fallen Firefighters seat belt pledge or renewing the one that has already been signed (https://www.everyonegoeshome.com/seatbelts/).
A signature on a pledge will not reduce the numbers of our brothers and sisters dying in the line of duty. But a signature along with consistent action and a devotion to reducing this problem will lead to a cultural shift that will save lives every year, and that is what we are here to do.
Lance Vinson entered the fire service in 2001. At that time, he was working at a large uniform delivery service company and decided to enroll in the local fire academy. During that year he became a member of a rural volunteer fire department. Following graduation from the fire academy, Vinson began his first career assignment working as a firefighter at a DOE facility. He worked there until 2005. In April 2005, he lost one of his friends in a LODD from falling out of a moving apparatus while responding to a structure fire. Following that event, Lance left the DOE facility and began working for the municipal fire department where his friend had been employed. He is currently a captain with 13 years of experience in his current city.