Key conclusions about The Kansas City Star’s searing firefighting series

kcmofireThe Kansas City Star is promoting its strong series called “Fatal echoes” this way: “When fire departments fail to learn from each other’s mistakes, firefighters pay the price.” I urge you to read all three parts here.

I  have written opinion articles about the Kansas City Fire Department and the often-bullying style of too many of its firefighters for almost 30 years. The intense criticisms from people quoted in The Star about the U.S. fire industry were not surprising.

The problem as I see it in a nutshell:

Firefighters  in Kansas City and across the nation too often ignore good training habits and put themselves in danger as their macho culture promotes risky behavior.

Here are six selected excerpts from The Star’s series and my conclusions:

— “Neither the Kansas City nor the Kansas City, Kan., fire departments responded to a Star request for training information.”

This is inexcusable. Kansas City Fire Chief Paul Berardi and his staff should have responded. City Manager Troy Schulte, Berardi’s boss, ought to insist on that immediately so The Star can inform the public about what kind of training their firefighters receive.

— “Scores of firefighter fatality reports reviewed by The Star, however, suggest some answers: no national training requirements; complacency within some departments; little regulatory oversight; budget constraints that leave fire departments shorthanded; and poor judgment on the fireground.”

Yes, national training requirements would be good, but hardly are a panacea. Even federal and state oversight aren’t that essential to making sure a fire department is properly run.

It really starts at the local level, where a city needs a leader with good judgment and the ability to change the firefighting culture of an agency. I think Berardi, judgment-wise, is one of the better chiefs Kansas City has had in three decades. He has not had enough success in changing the department’s risky culture.

As for money, the Kansas City Fire Department asked for and received a large, new source of tax funds 15 years ago to expand its force, unnecessarily so. Since then, the agency has added personnel, bought a lot of new equipment, and won round after round of pay raises.

Money is not a major problem when it comes to improving safety of Kansas City’s firefighters.

— “The Star reviewed all 128 reports the agency has published about structure fires where firefighters died from traumatic injuries — 201 fatalities in all — over the past 20 years. In almost every case, investigators determined that the firefighters might have lived had wiser decisions been made at the fire scene…. In multiple reports, firefighters died inside structures, during offensive operations, when the safety agency said it would have been wiser to fight the fire defensively, from outside.”

Top fire brass need to take this lesson to heart. Don’t put their (overwhelmingly male) members in danger. That’s a top priority — while measured against the importance of saving a structure, preventing  the blaze from spreading and saving any human life. Yes, it’s complicated.

But that’s where excellent and ongoing training comes in. Notably, commanders are the ones who have to govern the macho mentality held by too many firefighters that they are going to rush into buildings trying to put the fire out.  In reality, spraying water on the fire from outside is often now the preferred way to start battling a blaze.

— “Indeed, out of the 201 fatalities reviewed, fewer than a dozen firefighters died while attempting to rescue civilians trapped inside a structure. In each of those cases, the civilians were either already dead or perished with the firefighters during the rescue attempt.”

Again, the gung-ho nature of firefighters is one of their worst enemies. That’s especially true when it comes to evaluating whether it’s worth risking their lives or the lives of their comrades to enter a building searching for someone to save.

— “(A top national union official) said he needed permission from the union-affiliated local in Kansas City before commenting, and the local had not allowed it. Reached later, Local 42 President William Galvin said the union was displeased with The Star’s coverage of the deaths of two Kansas City firefighters in 2015 and refused to comment further.”

Again, this is inexcusable. The Kansas City fire union has much more often  than not successfully advocated for higher wages and more employees over the years. Those are fine goals for them — but more expensive ones every year for taxpayers to finance. The least that Local 42 can do is to allow the public to get access, through the media, to information about what’s going on regarding local and national firefighting issues.

— “But the U.S. Fire Administration report also blames society for imposing a set of expectations that encourages firefighters to put themselves in peril when it might be wiser to exercise caution.”

This is a key part of the series. Much like the police (Full disclosure: My son is a Kansas City Police Department officer), firefighters hew to the expectation that they can do it all.

Save lives with the medical skills. Rescue people from burning buildings. For this and more, they can be rewarded with medals of valor, sometimes for doing things that went against their training habits, as The Star noted.

A final thought: The credo that so many firefighters point to is a huge part of the problem in the testosterone-fueled industry: “Firefighters — they rush into a burning building while everyone else is rushing out.”

Guess what? Sometimes they shouldn’t be  rushing into that building.