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peter-sellsOct. 23, 2013, Toronto – Some of you may have noticed the new poll question on this page (above and to the right). The question is: What is the most dangerous step when driving a fire truck to an emergency?

October 23, 2013
By Peter Sells

Oct. 23, 2013, Toronto – Some of you may have noticed the new poll question on the home page at firefightingincanada.com but just in case, here’s a link to it. . . The question is: What is the most dangerous step when driving a fire truck to an emergency?

Before you read any further, please go to that poll and give your answer, then come back here. I would rather that you answer objectively without this blog colouring your perspective. I’ll wait right here . . .

. . . OK, thanks for taking part. Let me explain why I asked FFIC to place that question on the site. When it comes to fire apparatus accidents, there are data that are captured and data that are not. It pains me to quote former U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, but I have to concede begrudgingly that he is a smart guy. At a press conference in 2002, Rumsfeld said, with respect to weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that, “There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don't know.”

You may have to read that a couple of times, but it makes sense. With respect to fire apparatus accidents, here are our known knowns:
• In the United States, there are about 30,000 apparatus accidents each year.
• Between 20 and 25 per cent of the approximately 100 firefighter line-of-duty deaths that occur each year are apparatus or response related, with significant factors being:

o Lack of seatbelt use
o Volunteers responding in personal vehicles
o Excessive speed with respect to road conditions (especially in rural areas)
o Apparatus rollovers

Here are our known unknowns:
• Most of the 30,000 apparatus accidents (all but perhaps two dozen) do not result in firefighter fatalities, so we have no access to meaningful statistics on what the drivers were doing or attempting to do at the time of each accident.
• We have no comprehensive statistics for Canada. We have no equivalent to the U.S. Fire Administration, the CAFC does not have the resources to gather such data, and the majority of firefighters are volunteer or paid on-call, and therefore are not captured within any of the excellent health and safety research conducted by the IAFF.
• We can estimate Canadian statistics as 10 per cent of occurrences across the board in the United Sates, but that is a gross assumption. Let’s call that an assumed known.

Unknown unknowns? They can only emerge once they become known unknowns, just like in a detective mystery when a question leads not to an answer but to more questions. Before reading this, you may not have been aware that we don’t have data on what apparatus drivers were doing or attempting to do at the time of each accident. So we have turned an unknown unknown into a known unknown.

I’m going to suggest one more category that Rumsfeld neglected to mention, and that would, of course, be the unknown known – things we know but of which we are unaware. Unknown knowns fall into the realm of intuition, common sense and experiential learning. Guess who knows the unknown knowns? You do! There are things you do, behaviours and attitudes that you have developed, based on your personal body of life experience – which brings us back to the poll.

You are the only one who knows which driving manoeuvres give you that little quiver down your backbone. Please answer the poll question if you have not done so already. I will be following up on the results, once there are enough data to be shaken all over. Feel free to comment on this blog in the meantime.

Be safe!

Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. He sits on the advisory council of the Institution of Fire Engineers, Canada branch. Peter is president of NivoNuvo Consulting, Inc, specializing in fire-service management. Contact him at peter.nivonuvo@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @NivoNuvo.