Who Should Investigate Firefighter Fatalities?

Updated: 02-16-2007 03:50:23 PM

Firehouse.Com News

More than 100 firefighters die in the line of duty annually, but no agency is responsible for investigating every single incident.

Fire service officials say not only should that be changed as soon as possible, but it's imperative that the probes be conducted by experienced investigators familiar with firefighting.

A veteran fire service official is calling for the investigative function be moved from the CDC and turned over to the USFA. "The people at NIOSH aren't experienced, and they don't have a sense of urgency," said Hal Bruno, a 40-year member of Chevy Chase Fire Department in Maryland.

Bruno said it's vital that fire departments across the country know as soon as possible if a device failure led to an injury or death. "It's about saving our own. We owe our firefighters the information that can save their lives."

The former ABC news analyst said he shared those feelings earlier this week with an investigative reporter from MSNBC who recently uncovered alleged short-comings in NIOSH investigations. However, the story indicated Bruno was speaking as chairman of the board of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

"I was speaking from my experience, not for the foundation itself. I just think there should not be a delay of information getting back to firefighters. Not letting them know, puts them in jeopardy. And, I think it's important that every death be investigated."

Bruno also suggested it would be a good idea for people with knowledge in the fire service to be involved in the probes. "The fire service also has to realize that the reason behind the investigation is not to blame, but to see what went wrong."

The CDC has said it doesn't have the funds or staff to send personnel to the scene of every fatal incident.

The importance of conducting a thorough probe and collecting data on firefighter fatalities is one of the 16 Life Safety Initiatives of the Everyone Goes Home program.

Ron Siarnicki, NFFF executive director, said money and resources need to be dedicated to see that deaths and near misses are investigated. "It's all about lessons learned, and how to keep firefighters safe."

The USFA does not have the authority to conduct probes or regulate. The scope of their responsibility comes from Congress.

Years ago, however, the USFA published a special technical report about several case studies involving multiple firefighter fatalities.

The NFPA conducts an analysis of firefighter deaths, but does not have on-scene investigators, said Lorraine Carli, vice president of media affairs.

"It's very important to document every firefighter fatality," she said, adding that the NFPA looks at the information to inform crews about what they need to do to prevent similar incidents from happening again. "It's about best practices."

Following the MSNBC series, the IAFC said it also supported more fire service involvement in probes. In addition, the Safety, Health and Survivor Section has been charged to examine the current NIOSH program, and come up with recommendations to make it stronger.

IAFC officials also said its imperative that the investigative agency be more thorough, and that the fire service be notified immediately of any potential safety or equipment issues. They also see the need for expertise.

In addition, there should be a single data collection center for information about firefighter injuries and deaths, IAFC officials said in a prepared statement.

Meanwhile, IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger said: "It's a crime that the Bush administration continues to proposed budges that cut funding for NIOSH year after year. We need NIOSH to be able to do more to safeguard firefighters, not less."

Schaitberger is said to have been instrumental in getting the CDC involved in firefighter fatality investigations.