April 23, 2013 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 0Comment

The funeral services are beginning this week for the 10 volunteer firefighters and the five other individuals who were fatally injured by the horrific explosion at West Fertilizer.  The initial call about the fire at the plant was made to the West Volunteer fire department at 8:30 pm.  The explosion occurred 21 minutes later.   The Dallas Morning News is reporting that the firefighters knew the plant stored chemicals used in explosives, “but whether that knowledge factored into the attempts to put out the fatal blaze near the plant remained unclear.”   The Texas State Fire Marshall’s Office will not only be investigating the cause of the blast, but also examining how the volunteers attempted to battle the fire.  Both fields of inquiry can identify ways in which a similar disaster can be prevented.

That’s the same purpose of a small program within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).  Since 1998, Congress has appropriated funds to NIOSH for a “Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program.”   Its purpose is to “examines line-of-duty-deaths or on duty deaths of fire fighters to assist fire departments, fire fighters, the fire service and others to prevent similar fire fighter deaths in the future.”   Each year, about 100 U.S. professional and volunteers die on-the-job.

The program’s website contains nearly 500 investigation reports, dating back to 1998, of firefighter fatalities from all 50 States and the District of Columbia.    The incidents involve fuel tanker explosions, aerial ladder collapses, and drownings, as well as heart attacks and motor vehicle crashes and roll overs.  Each describes the circumstances leading to the firefighters’ deaths, and offers recommendations to enhance fire departments operating procedures and training.  For example, NIOSH investigated the deaths in September 2011 of two volunteer firefighters in South Dakota who were attempting to extinguish a fire in a coal storage silo.  In their attempt to apply water to the fire, the silo exploded.   The fire department didn’t fully comprehend the unique hazards of oxygen-limiting silos.   Among one of the recommendations made by NIOSH was for fire departments to conduct pre-emergency planning for all types of silos located within their jurisdictions.

As I browsed through dozens of the NIOSH firefighter fatality investigation reports, I noticed that certain recommendations kept appearing in the reports.  Specifically, that fire departments should implement a strong occupational safety and health program such as the one outlined in the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1500.  Among other things, the program is designed to improve  risk management, training and competency in fireground operations, tactics, and equipment.  Another key recommendation cited in previous reports involves the development, implementation and enforcement of a written Incident Management System (NFPA 1561).  Importantly, the incident commander continually assesses the “risk versus gain” of the operations.   According to NFPA 1500

“Where there is no potential to save lives, the risk to the fire department members must be evaluated in proportion to the ability to save property of value. When there is no ability to save lives or property, there is no justification to expose fire department members to any avoidable risk, and defensive fire suppression operations are the appropriate strategy.”

The staff from NIOSH’s Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program will be conducting an investigation into the factors that contributed to the deaths of the 10 volunteer fire fighters at the West Fertilizer plant.  Their report, along with that of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, will provide recommendations on ways to prevent similar catastrophes.   The challenge for policy makers will be taking the bold steps to learn from the fallen.


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