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Heroes in Harm’s Way

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Battalion Chief Michael FahyThis week we received sad news about the death of Battalion Chief Michael Fahy, a 17-year FDNY veteran and a father of three. While responding to a residential gas leak at a Bronx neighborhood residence, Chief Fahy was hit by debris from an explosion that left 20 others injured, including nine firefighters and six police officers. As firefighters nationwide prepare to lay one of their own to rest, we are reminded once again of the ever-present risks facing them all, and of the supreme sacrifice made by so many.

The grim reality is that each year more than 60 career and volunteer firefighters lose their lives on the job –and tens of thousands more are injured while performing their duties or as a result of underlying medical conditions exacerbated by responding to an emergency. Sadly, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, Fahy is the 67th firefighter we’ve lost so far in 2016.

Lessons Learned

Statistics on the causes of firefighter deaths

Fortunately, some comfort can be found from knowing that the average number of both fatalities and injuries has declined steadily over the past four decades, due in large part to improvements in safety gear, training, and to operational procedures. And, while evolving technologies continue to provide us with the tools to better protect those who run in to burning buildings, emerging technologies hold the promise that someday they won’t need to.

Firefighter safety statistics, 1977-2015

Emerging Technologies

For most people, the term “life-saving equipment” brings to mind images of helmets, masks, and fireproof gear. But often the tools that save lives are the ones that help firefighters to anticipate, prevent, and prepare for devastating scenarios. And in on-calls where every second counts, new technologies have helped firefighters to respond more quickly and effectively, before emergencies can escalate.

  • Global positioning systems (GPS) and related real-time tracking systems can now find the fastest route, the nearest water source, or the crew closest to the scene. They can help navigate rugged terrain, or alert dispatch centers when crews, engines and aircraft are in harm’s way.
  • Large scale systems, like the Resource Ordering and Status System (ROSS) can track all tactical, logistical, service, and support resources dispatched nationwide in near real-time to quickly get firefighters mobilized with the support they need.  When responding to an emergency, “life-saving equipment” includes that which provides vital information to those who need it.

Moreover, technology has helped officials with strategic planning.

  • The online Wildland Fire Decision Support System, which allows managers to track key decisions and the rationale that influenced them, helps them work with state, regional, and national partners to collaborate on complex tactics, share risks more broadly, and work through processes more quickly.  The system includes modeling capabilities in two areas:  predicting fire behavior and rapidly assessing values at risk. The fire behavior element predicts the rate, direction, and severity of fire spread based on a broad spectrum of inputs, including weather, fuels conditions, terrain and aspect, and fire history.  The risk assessment element works in conjunction with the fire behavior analysis to consider lives, property, and critical infrastructure such as power lines and roads and cultural, scenic, recreational, and other values that may be affected by a fire’s spread.  Fire managers can use all of the data and models to make decisions on how best to deploy crews, aircraft, and equipment in the safest, most effective, and cost-efficient manner.

Emerging technologies for firefighters

Firefighters using a Remote Automatic Weather Station. (Photo courtesy of Kari Greer/National Interagency Fire Center and BLM)

  • Improved remote sensing capabilities led to the development of the Incident Remote Automatic Weather Station (IRAWS), which plays a critical role in managing large fires.  This small, portable unit comes with sensors that monitor wind speed and direction, temperature, relative humidity, fuel moisture, soil moisture, and smoke.  The information is sent to a satellite, making it readily available to help fire managers get a broad, real-time picture of how the weather is changing over an area.  Most IRAWS units are deployed by ATV, but are also delivered by helicopter or a helicopter long-line cargo delivery if a landing site is not available, and are then set up and activated on the ground.

Smokejumper

Photo courtesy of the BLM and NIFC

  • New computer-based, online training courses enable fire personnel to acquire training from their homes or home units. At the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, virtual reality is helping to safely simulate jump scenarios for smokejumpers.  With the aid of a harness, visual goggles, and a computer, they practice in a variety of settings and conditions. The smokejumpers still get plenty of live practice jumps, but the simulator can help keep their skills sharp.
  • Years of research and testing have resulted in new technology for fire shelters that offer improved protection from radiant and convective heat. The new generation of shelters protects firefighters by reflecting radiant heat and trapping breathable air. Every year, we see dozens of improvements being made available to firefighting gear and apparatus. “C-Thru Smoke Diving Helmets” currently under development will offer helmets with thermal cameras and heads-up displays, along with artificial intelligence additions that track and report on every firefighter at a scene. Given the increasing speed with which technology is advancing, we cannot begin to imagine the changes in store.

As those charged with supporting our emergency responders, we will have to deal with the continuing fiscal challenge of how to take advantage of these life-saving breakthroughs while still providing critical support for ongoing training and replacing worn out gear.

We’ll never be able to eliminate all risk from a firefighter’s job, and none of this will help heal the wounds over those we have lost. We can’t know whether any new tool might have prevented the loss Chief Fahy or the injuries to his fellow firefighters.

The only thing we can know for certain is that no matter how things change, firefighters can always be counted on to run into burning buildings. Shouldn’t our job be to make sure they’re all able to run back out?

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