The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has a long-standing research program in firefighter safety and health. Because the demands and hazards of wildland firefighting differ in some important ways from structural firefighting (such as the need to carry heavy equipment over difficult terrain and long work shifts that may last multiple continuous days), NIOSH recently introduced the NIOSH Wildland Fire Fighter On-Duty Death Surveillance System. Of particular note to NFPA audiences is that our own Fire Incident Data Organization (FIDO) is one of three data sources that NIOSH is utilizing in creating this data collection system.
Just to be clear, surveillance in this context refers to the public health practice of systematically collecting and analyzing injury data in order to help identify opportunities for prevention. Think of fatal injury surveillance data as representing the “who, what, when, where, how and why” elements of injury events. By studying trends and identifying the circumstances of these deaths, it will be possible to better identify risk factors and to support prevention measures.
The reason that NIOSH is using three reporting systems is that different systems have different methods of identifying and defining cases for inclusion. Different criteria may be used in determining what constitutes a work-related fatality, for instance, such as whether to include a firefighter who suffers a fatal heart attack following an arduous work shift, but who was no longer on duty. Consequently, even though each of the reporting systems follows the same outcome of interest – wildland firefighter deaths -- they may produce slightly different numbers. By drawing from each of the three data sources, NIOSH hopes to create as complete a count of wildland firefighter deaths as possible, and also to assemble more detailed information on injury events than is available from a single data source.
NFPA’s internal FIDO database itself is an information-rich database that draws upon multiple data sources, including fire departments and other investigation reports. Launched by NFPA in 1971, FIDO data also includes records for significant fire incidents that don’t involve firefighter fatalities. In addition to FIDO, the other two data sources that NIOSH will be using in its surveillance effort are the National Wildland Fire Coordinating Group (NWCG) Safety Gram and the firefighter fatality data system sponsored by the United States Fire Administration (USFA). As the new system evolves, it should facilitate research that homes in on some of the special hazards of wildland firefighting and identifies opportunities for intervention.
I’ll have more on the new surveillance system and some of its early findings in a follow-up blog.