A few weeks ago, we received an inquiry in the Research, Data and Analytics Division for data on the number of fires in U.S. fire stations. The request originated with a reporter, who may have been inspired to follow up on a recent news report of a fire at a volunteer fire station in Missouri that destroyed the building and the department’s three vehicles. In any case, it wasn’t a question I’d encountered before or given much thought to, but it was certainly a reasonable question and merited running the numbers.
So what did we learn?
Using data from the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) and the NFPA Fire Experience survey, we estimate that between 2010 and 2014, there were an average of 100 structure fires at U.S. fire departments each year, with direct property damage each year estimated at $2.5 million. There were no fatalities resulting from these fires. The data also indicate that there were another 170 vehicle fires at fire stations each year over the same time period, with an annual average of $2.1 million in direct property damage and one civilian injury associated with these fires. It’s worth noting that the vehicles on fire station grounds could include personal as well as official vehicles.
One-third of the fire station structure fires (32% of total) originated in a kitchen or cooking area. This is often the case with occupancies that have kitchen facilities. Almost one-quarter (23%) of the structure fires had incident type codes that indicated a cooking fire confined to the object of origin. Cooking fires accounted for just 3% of direct property damage associated with fire station fires. The second leading area of origin was garage or vehicle storage area, with 9% of fires and 8% of direct property damage, followed by fires originating in an office, with 6% of fires -- but 15% of direct property damage. Vehicle fires most often originated in the vehicle’s engine area, running gear, or wheel area of the vehicle (44% of total), with another 18% originating in the passenger area, and 12% in the cargo or trunk area.
As with other types of properties, fire stations are at risk of fire, whether due to mechanical or electrical failure, cooking materials, arson, or due to some other factor. Fortunately, many of these fires are small and don’t substantially impact fire department services. But in other cases, the fires may cause significant damage to vehicles, equipment, and infrastructure, and thereby threaten to disrupt vital services, as well as potentially undermine the health and safety of firefighter health and safety. Prevention efforts are accordingly as important inside the fire station as they are in the community.
The arrival of summer brings more than the prospect of outdoor activities and family vacations.
For firefighters, summer is a time when the already intense physical demands of firefighting become still more challenging. As we know, lifting and carrying heavy firefighting equipment and performing such tasks as rescues, extinguishment, and forcible entry – all while wearing cumbersome turnout gear and personal protective equipment – is arduous in the best of circumstances. Add hot and humid weather conditions to the equation and the work of fighting fires can easily become relentlessly taxing.
In our most recent report on Patterns of Firefighter Fireground Injuries during 2010-2014, we found that July was the peak month for injuries, with an estimated monthly average of 3,140 injuries (10% of the annual total). It’s reasonable to assume that the influence of weather conditions on the firefighter work environment had something to do with this finding. The types of injuries that occurred in July also suggested the influence of hot and humid seasonal conditions. For instance, the report found that July had the highest share of injuries involving exhaustion/fatigue symptoms (15% of the annual total), as well as the highest share of injuries caused by strain or sprain (34% of the total). Each of these outcomes can be reasonably associated with hotter weather-related work environments.
It’s important to keep in mind that the direct effects of working in hot weather are only part of the issue here. While heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and other heat-related outcomes represent serious health threats in their own right, the ability of firefighters to make good decisions and maintain situational awareness can also be compromised by fatigue that is exacerbated in hot weather conditions. In the fireground environment, where situations are dynamic and the consequences of miscalculation can prove fatal, it’s essential that fire departments have a program in place that recognizes the mental as well as physical implications of extreme weather conditions.
There are a number of steps that fire departments should take in order to safeguard firefighter safety and health when temperatures begin to soar – and it’s important to emphasize that this extra care extends to training, as well as fires in the community. At the top of this list, ensuring that firefighters are in good physical shape, always a critical factor, takes on additional importance in the summer months. Also important are ensuring proper hydration, rest and rehabilitation, adequate staffing, and medical monitoring by safety officers.
Hazards are always going to be part of firefighting, and weather conditions will be what they are. But planning, preparation, and standardized protocols can minimize risk for firefighters during emergency response and training, in hot weather months and throughout the year. Guidance on safety procedures is available in NFPA 1584 Standard on the Rehabilitation Process for Members during Emergency Operations and Training Exercises.
There is increasing concern in public safety and public health communities about the potential exposure of first responders to fentanyl, a powerful synthetic drug with health effects ranging from drowsiness to respiratory failure. Fentanyl can be taken into the body through different routes, including inhalation, ingestion, and dermal absorption, depending on the situation and the form of drug. Because of the hazards of fentanyl and its serious health concerns, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has developed recommendations for safe work practices and the use of appropriate personal protective equipment for activities in which fentanyl or its analogs may be present.
In a recent blog, NIOSH provides more details on fentanyl and exposure risks for first responders and provides links to its interim recommendations for law enforcement when dealing with fentanyl. The NIOSH blog also encourages the first responder community to offer comments related to fentanyl.
NFPA has seen a flurry of activity from first responders regarding exposure to fentanyl and carfentanil, and posted a blog warning about the health and safety risks to first responders when the NIOSH recommendations first came out. While NFPA has no official guidance to offer at this time, several documents or standards may be useful for first responders in taking precautionary measures. These include:
Earlier this year, NFPA Journal®
In a previous blog, I wrote about a new surveillance system to collect data on wildland firefighter fatalities (the Wildland Firefighter On-Duty Death Surveillance System) under the aegis of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). As mentioned, NFPA’s Fire Incident Data Organization (FIDO) is one of three separate sources of information on wildland firefighter deaths that will be utilized in this effort. I want to follow up in this blog with a brief description of some of the new system’s mechanics, as well as early findings.
A starting point is to identify the criteria that NIOSH has established for determining just what counts as a wildland firefighter death, a necessity that emerged when NIOSH researchers found discrepancies between the numbers of fatalities reported by the three information sources owing to differences in how the deaths were defined.
Consequently, NIOSH drew up a multi-part case definition to ensure consistency of its fatality data. Here, fatalities are defined as any fatal injury or illness sustained among wildland fire fighters while on-duty at a wildland fire-related event or while performing wildland fire duties in the U.S.; wildland fire is defined as a non-structure fire occurring in vegetation or natural fuel, including prescribed fire and wildfire, and wildland firefighter is distinguished as a person with a principal function of fire suppression, whether in a career or volunteer capacity. NIOSH also further defines on-duty as:
-- a wildland fire or non-fire activity
--the act of responding to or returning from a wildland fire; performing other officially assigned wildland fire or wildland fire fighter duties
--being on call, under orders, or on standby duty, other than at one’s own home or place of business, and
--events covered under the Hometown Heroes Survivors’ Benefits Act of 2003.
As deaths and incident details are received from the three data sources, they’re entered into the NIOSH surveillance system, sometimes after follow-up to reconcile conflicting information. Drawing on the three data sources, the NIOSH surveillance system has identified 247 wildland fire fighter deaths that occurred between 2001 and 2012. Already, the strength of combining data sources is suggested by what NIOSH found when comparing its injury count to those of the individual data sources. NIOSH reports that 181 of the 247 deaths (73%) were captured by all three data sources, while 31 of the deaths (13%) were commonly identified two data sources, and 35 deaths (14%) were identified in one source only.
Moving forward, the payoff of the surveillance system will be determined by how effectively it can be used by partners who can leverage the data to target high risk practices or populations, identify training needs, promote protective factors, evaluate prevention outcomes, inform policy, or contribute in other ways to the ultimate goal of reducing wildland firefighter deaths.
For more on the NIOSH wildland firefighter fatality surveillance initiative, see: https://blogs.cdc.gov/niosh-science-blog/2017/02/16/wildland-ff-surveillance/
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 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.
NFPA’s new report, Patterns of Firefighter Fireground Injuries, indicates that seasonal factors are likely to influence the types of injuries experienced by firefighters. NFPA estimates that there were an estimated 30,290 firefighter fireground injuries each year during the five years from 2010 to 2014. The vast majority of injuries came in the course of fighting structure fires, with fires at residential properties accounting for almost three-quarters of the total (73%).
The leading causes of fireground injuries included overexertion/strain (26% of total), exposure to hazard (21%), slip or trip (13%), contact with object (13%), and fall (11%. The leading symptoms associated with these injuries involved strain or sprain (28%), pain only (13%), thermal burn (13%), cut or laceration (7%), and exhaustion/fatigue (6%).
Seasonal factors as a likely influence on injury events were most noticeable in hot and cold weather months, with January and July each recording the highest numbers of injuries. However, the leading injury events in January differed from those in July. Slips and trips caused the highest share of January injuries (21%), substantially higher than the portion of slips and trips in July (9%) or the annual average (13%). Injuries caused by falls were also proportionately higher in January (14% of annual total) than they were in July (8%) or the annual average (11%). In July, on the other hand, 34% of injuries were caused by overexertion or strain, compared to 18% in January and 26% of the annual average (26%), likely reflecting hot weather working conditions.
Information on seasonal factors in firefighter injury causation should be useful for firefighter health and safety officers in alerting crews to potential hazards and leading discussions about injury prevention strategies. Firefighters are likely to have little control over some potential interventions (such as staffing levels), but realizing that there are times when special attention is needed to proper hydration, lifting techniques, fitness assessments, fall hazard awareness, and other injury prevention practices may help mitigate seasonal influences on firefighter injury.