By Audrey Fraizer
The number of Line of Duty Deaths (LODD) both stagger and humble the public service professional and, according to Lisa Kalmbach, should provide plenty of reason to raise an alarm for discussing the topic no one wants to approach.
“How would you handle a situation that affects all your people?” asked Lisa Kalmbach, Operations Supervisor, Manatee County, Emergency Communications Center (ECC), Bradenton, Fla., during the “LODD—Is Your Center Prepared?” session that she and Brian Kalmbach, Lt. Firefighter, East Manatee Fire Rescue, Fla., gave at NAVIGATOR 2011. “Do you have any plans in place? The unthinkable does happen, and the role of dispatch can reduce the risk if prepared.”
While there is the question of how to support staff following an LODD while maintaining operations, the Kalmbachs emphasized learning from the experience of others: how something happened and how a situation resulting in fatalities could have been avoided and, from there, developing a plan of corrective action.
“Start the conversation,” Lisa Kalmbach said. “This is what we did well, and this is what we learned.”
First, look at the major causes of LODD, which does differ between police, fire, and EMS. Poor health/fitness/wellness and lack of personal protective equipment are primary factors contributing to on-duty firefighter deaths1, while roadway deaths are often cited as the leading cause of on-duty deaths of EMS and law enforcement.
Despite situations unique to each service, there is one factor carrying a high LODD potential common to all three, Lisa Kalmbach said.
“Human error happens in professions responsible for saving lives,” she said. “It usually involves poor communication or not understanding the situation.”
Poor communication can occur in any stage of the incident, including when dispatch is gathering caller information and relaying it to the field units quickly and logically, as shown in the example of a flashover at a residential fire that resulted in the death of one firefighter and injured two others (March 21, 2003, Cincinnati, Ohio).
While several factors contributed to the accident, a subsequent investigation cited a lack of information needed to formulate a different suppression strategy and recommended: “Emergency dispatchers should always try to obtain all information available from the caller. This would include any information regarding the type of structure, occupancy, injuries, the fire or emergency condition, the possible location of the fire, address of the incident, and callback numbers.”2
“If we have it and they don’t know about it, the information is useless to both of us,” Lisa Kalmbach said.
In a second incident the Kalmbachs cited, on Dec. 3, 1999, six firefighters died after getting disoriented in a maze-like six-floor warehouse while searching for two people believed to be trapped in the building. Again, while there were several factors to blame for the fatalities, communication was found ineffective at times “because of congested radio traffic and inadequate radio equipment on the ground.”
Subsequent recommendations included implementing standard operating procedures (SOPs) and providing communication equipment in a quantity and quality sufficient to support the volume of communications encountered at the fire scene.3
Preparation takes learning to communicate properly, with the proper SOPs and equipment in place, Lisa Kalmbach said.
“Dispatch can help reduce human error,” she said. “We can learn from past mistakes as long as it leads to correcting the problem before it happens again.”
1Moore-Merrell L, McDonald S, et al. “Contributing Factors to Firefighter Line-of-Duty Death in the United States.” 2006; Sept. 30. www.iaff.org/tech/PDF/Contributing%20Factors%20to%20FF%20Line-of-Duty%20… (accessed Jan. 15, 2016).
2“Career Fire Fighter Dies and Two Career Fire Fighters Injured in a Flashover During a House Fire–Ohio.” National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. 2005; Jan. 7. www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/pdfs/face200312.pdf (accessed Jan. 15, 2016).
3“Six Career Fire Fighters Killed in Cold Storage and Warehouse Building Fire–Massachusetts.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2000; Sept. 27. www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/reports/face9947.html (accessed Jan. 15, 2016).