Fire and emergency departments throughout the country will be very active this fall with public-relations events. The tenth anniversary of 9/11, fire-prevention activities and open house for recruitment programs are some of the functions that will stir up people’s interest in their local fire and emergency department.
As part of the educational process for the public, firefighters/EMTs will be displaying their equipment and demonstrating its use. This non-emergency environment can have the effect of “letting our guard down” when it comes to safety. If safety is compromised during these promotional opportunities, the professional image of the fire service will be tarnished.
The following reports from the National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System address public-relations events where safe practices and procedures may have been overlooked because of the stress-free setting.
Report #06-531 focuses on the importance of taking into consideration the public’s welfare when setting up a hands-on activity:
We were holding our annual fire prevention night activities, which included the smoke house trailer. The kids and adults were having a good time. We were teaching the children about safety in the home and bedroom. The trailer then filled with smoke and everything seemed to be fine.
After our first few tours, a woman screamed for help and stated her child was having trouble breathing. We didn't realize at first that it was an allergic reaction until en route to the hospital. We asked the mother if the child had any allergies. She stated yes, he was severely allergic to peanuts. We did not put two and two together until after we were returning from the hospital. We kept thinking of how his allergic reaction could have occurred at the station. We tried to think where the child could have gotten peanuts.
Then one of us thought about the smoke trailer. The smoke is made from peanut oil, which started his reaction. This is one of those things you just don't think of until something goes wrong.
Report #09-313 highlights that firefighter safety must be constantly applied in all of our activities:
An engine and a rescue from our department went to an elementary school to do a program for fire prevention month. My partner and I were assigned to the rescue and we set up a high-angle rescue demonstration for the kids. We placed a 14' roof ladder on the roof of the gym and built a raise/lower system with a stokes basket. We put a 175-pound Rescue Randy in the basket as our victim. One of us would go up on the roof to sit on and "heel" the roof ladder while the other demonstrated the operation of the raise/lower rescue system.
At lunch time, we went into the cafeteria to eat. When I was walking back to our display area, I saw one of the rookie firefighters about to hoist our rope to raise the basket. I yelled at him to stop, but I was too far away for him to hear. When he pulled the rope, the 14' roof ladder came off the top of the gym, fell approximately 25’ and struck the ground next to him. He was not injured and the ladder was not damaged. He was not wearing a helmet, and if the ladder had struck him on the head, it would have killed or seriously injured him.
Report #09-387 embraces the importance of a span of control:
We were giving a tour to elementary school students during Fire Prevention Week. There were 15 students and only two supervisory personnel available to watch them. While looking at the fire vehicles, several students started to act out and began to horseplay on the apparatus.
When one of the supervisory personnel noticed, he tried to take action to stop the children and slipped while climbing up on the apparatus, falling on his knees. While falling, he reached for something to stop his fall and instead grabbed the leg of child, pulling the child from the apparatus to the floor. The child only received minor scrapes and bruises, and the firefighter was out of service for the rest of the shift due to injuries to his knee.
These reports have led to lessons learned that apply to fire and emergency departments conducting public-relations events:
- Ensure that activities directly involving public participation are vetted for their safety.
- Personnel operating equipment must be thoroughly trained and competent in its use.
- When it comes to safety procedures, the public-demonstration area should be treated as an emergency scene.
- Situational awareness is just as important during training/public events as at emergency scenes.
The National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System website is an excellent tool for finding examples of incidents or lessons learned from public-relations events and how they affect the safety of both our fire fighters/EMTs and the public. The powerful search feature is easy to use and provides a wealth of knowledge that you can apply in your department and community.
And if you have experienced a near-miss event during a public-relations event, be sure to submit your report today.
John C. Woulfe III is the assistant director of the IAFC’s National Programs and Consulting Services.