Michigan Firefighter Injuries Plummet With New Strategy

Posted: 02-14-2008
Updated: 02-15-2008 02:54:02 PM

Flint Journal (Michigan)

Fewer firefighters have been injured since the city changed the way it deals with fires in vacant and abandoned structures.

Instead of rushing in to save buildings headed for demolition, since August, firefighters have been taking a more cautious approach.

"Why should we risk life and limb to protect a structure that's only future is the wrecking ball?" asked Flint Fire Capt. Andy Graves.

The strategy has paid off with a dramatic decrease in the injury rate for firefighters.

Although fires at vacant and abandoned buildings more than doubled in the second half of 2007, the number of firefighters hurt at those fires dropped from 14 in the first six months to six for the rest of the year.

The strategy change is no small issue for Flint, where more than 800 homes were slated for demolition as recently as November.

In one recent two-month span, Graves said firefighters were called to the same Rankin Street house four times for fires.

By the fourth time, Graves said firefighters just worked to keep the fire from spreading to neighboring houses.

Mistakenly characterized in the past as a "let it burn" policy, the new approach does not mean firefighters stand by and watch empty buildings burn.

Instead, the policy urges firefighters to take a measured approach of pouring water on a building from the outside until it becomes clear that the structure will be a complete loss.

Flint Fire Chief Richard Dicks could not be reached for comment.

The change came after 21 firefighters were hurt during 20 fires at abandoned buildings during a one-year span from April 2006 to April 2007.

All but four of those 20 structures eventually were demolished, with two others scheduled to be razed.

So far, Graves said he is unaware of any public outcry against the new approach.

The bigger challenge, he said, has been convincing firefighters to resist their natural urge to aggressively fight every fire.

"It's a cultural change," he said.

The Burton Fire Department likely will adopt a similar policy for fires at abandoned buildings that have stood empty for years.

Burton Fire Chief Doug Halstead said that city is seeing more abandoned homes and must adapt to keep firefighters safe.

But, as with Flint, Halstead said the toughest challenge may lie with his own firefighters.

"They see flames and the first thing they want to do is charge in," Halstead said.