The Need for Third-Party Investigations
of Fire Fighter Line of Duty Deaths
Everyone has seen the heart-wrenching images of fire fighters, in dress uniform, lined solemnly along a city street as a flag-draped casket passes by on the back of a fire engine. Fire fighting is an inherently dangerous occupation and it is a sad reality that sometimes, fire fighters make the ultimate sacrifice in the course of their duties.
Every fire fighter line of duty death is a tragedy, one that is felt by surviving family members, by fellow fire fighters, by the citizens of that fire fighter’s community and by all Canadians. But no line of duty death is more tragic than one that could have been prevented; one caused by the same factors as a previous death and which could have been avoided if specific and detailed information about the cause of the first death had been collected, analyzed and publicly reported as the result of an objective investigation.
There are hard lessons to be learned from each fire fighter fatality, but they are lessons that have to be learned, if fire service and public safety stakeholders are serious about preventing a similar tragedy in the future.
Sadly, this does not always happen with fire fighter deaths in Canada. At the provincial level, all workplace deaths including fire fighter deaths, are investigated by the province’s labour ministry, but only for the purpose of ensuring enforcement of applicable workplace health and safety laws. The results of such investigations do not contain recommendations and the reports are not necessarily made public.
Additionally, with all due respect, an arm of the provincial government cannot be considered third-party and independent when other arms of the same provincial government, such as its public safety ministry and fire marshal or fire commissioner, strongly influence local policy decisions about fire protection levels and other critical elements of fire fighter and public safety. Some provincial fire marshals, such as in Ontario, even have the power to enforce standards related to fire protection in a community.
The situation is different in the U.S., where fire fighter fatalities are investigated by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) under its Fire Fighter Fatality and Investigation Program. Using a standard process, NIOSH’s fire fighter line of duty death investigators are federal government employees trained in investigation techniques. They do not talk with state or local investigators, and importantly, they are not employed by the same level of government that influences fire protection issues through such office as a fire marshal or fire commissioner.
NIOSH investigations are conducted carefully over numerous months. The reports that result from NIOSH investigations are detailed and they contain recommendations aimed at preventing similar tragedies. For example, on Feb. 11, 2009, NIOSH released a detailed 72-page report on the tragic deaths of nine full-time fire fighters at the scene of a fire at a furniture store in Charleston, SC in 2007. The report, which includes a summary and timeline of the incident as well as photographs, charts and related documents, ends with 43 detailed recommendations aimed at preventing a similar tragedy. NIOSH reports such as this one are circulated among fire service stakeholders and posted online for all to see. The report of the investigation in to the Charleston tragedy, for example, can be viewed online at http://www.cdc.gov/NIOSH/FIRE/reports/face200718.html
NIOSH's recommendations are often used by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which promulgates specific regulations for workplace safety. OSHA has the authority to enforce compliance with its regulations through fines and other measures.
In Canada, no national agency has investigative or regulatory authority comparable to NIOSH and OSHA. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) serves as an authoritative source for information on national workplace health and safety issues. CCOHS is well respected for the quality and scientific validity of its work, but it lacks the investigative and enforcement powers necessary to protect Canadian workers in general and fire fighters in particular.
Without the mechanism of third-party investigations in Canada, information that could save the life of another fire fighter in the future remains uncovered, unreported and simply unknown.
While the IAFF views the sacrifice made by a fire fighter who dies as the result of a recognized occupational cancer cancer or from heart disease to be the same as a fire fighter death that has occurred on the fireground, the IAFF is not asking that occupational cancer and heart disease deaths be included in the realm of third-party investigations. Instead the IAFF supports other avenues to reduce fire fighter deaths from occupational illnesses, such as the strict use of protective gear, the implementation of approved and comprehensive wellness-fitness programs in fire departments and early medical screening for cancers and heart disease among fire fighters.
The IAFF calls on the federal government to establish a mechanism for independent third-party investigations of fire fighter line of duty deaths, not to lay blame but to determine the specific causes of a fire fighter fatality, make recommendations that would prevent similar tragedies in the future and make the results of the investigation widely available to all fire service and public safety stakeholders. Having this function overseen by a federal government department or agency would result in a national collection of critical information that would be available to fire fighters and local and provincial authorities equally in all areas of the nation.
Currently, there is no mechanism or standard process for the independent investigation fire fighter line of duty deaths in Canada and as a result, information that could prevent similar tragedies in the future could go undiscovered or unreported to fire service and public safety stakeholders. Developing a mechanism for third-party investigations of fire fighter fatality would allow potentially lifesaving information to be shared with stakeholders at a national level in Canada.
For more information about this issue or any other issue affecting Canada’s professional fire fighters, visit www.iaff.org/canada or contact the IAFF Canadian Office at (613) 567-8988. The International Association of Fire Fighters represents 293,000 professional fire fighters in North America, including over 20,500 in Canada. The IAFF is affiliated with the AFL-CIO and the Canadian Labour Congress.