On April 9, 1967, rookie firefighter Jimmy Walker died when the brakes on an Anniston Fire Department truck locked. Walker attempted to fix the problem from underneath the vehicle and he was crushed when the truck rolled over him.
But since then, there have been no deaths in Anniston among the men and women actually fighting fires. And such deaths have become less common nationwide in recent years.
A report released last week from the National Fire Protection Association showed 64 on-duty firefighter deaths occurred across the United States in 2012. The NFPA noted this was the second year in which fewer than 65 firefighters died on duty.
Local firefighters credit quality safety equipment and smart training techniques for the declining deaths.
“The biggest thing is just being more aware of the dangers and being more aware of people’s conditions,” Oxford fire Chief Gary Sparks said.
Anniston fire Lt. Johnnie Phelps said he believes insisting that firefighters wear seat belts in fire trucks has also decreased injuries and fatality rates.
“Seat belts in fire trucks are red and that’s so I can turn around and see they’ve got seatbelts on,” Phelps said.
In previous years, seatbelts weren’t a high priority when firefighters were rushing to a house fire or an accident, Phelps said. It wasn’t uncommon to see a firefighter putting on gear inside the fire truck en route to a scene without wearing a proper safety harness. But, Phelps noted it’s better for firefighters to spend a minute and a half getting dressed at the scene than die on the way to the fire.
Sparks said the last on-duty death in his city occurred in October 1978 when a firefighter got into a car accident on his way to a call. Sparks said his unit has been “fortunate over the years.”
Using equipment like the thermal imager, a handheld device that allows firefighters to see walls, floors and people inside a pitch black burning home, also aids firefighters when speed matters.
“It helps with victim rescue because unless the body has reached the temperature of the fire it’s really clear. With these cameras it reduces the time searching at least tenfold,” Phelps said.
Ken Willette, division manager for the NFPA’s Public Fire Protection Division, said he didn’t know if the continued decline was a trend yet.
Willette cited equipment improvement and focused health care as reasons for the decline.
Willette described firefighting as a “full-contact sport” and said heat exhaustion is a common side effect of wearing firefighter safety equipment. To combat heat exhaustion, Willette said, the NFPA recommends “rehabilitation” during firefighter operations.
Rehabilitation means firefighters would go into a fire for a period of time and when they come out they’re monitored by medical personnel to see if they are able to go back in to fight the flames, he said.
The NFPA also stresses overall health and recommends firefighters, get annual physicals, monitor cholesterol and blood pressure and maintain a healthy body weight. Willette said it’s also important for firefighters to “work smarter.”
“The job can get done when you work smarter. If it’s only property involved and not a life at risk wait for help,” Willette said.
Using preventative measures has kept Oxford firefighters safe, the chief said.
Sparks said his department purchased exercise equipment to keep their firefighters physically fit. The chief places an importance on checking firefighters’ vital signs on scene and keeping them hydrated.
When he began his career in 1983, Sparks said it was normal for firefighters to stay inside a burning home for as long as they could manage. The chief said firefighters also weren’t required to wear self-contained breathing apparatus and that most didn’t unless it was a “real, real bad fire.”
“The mentality has changed a little bit,” he said. “We’re trying to protect each other.”
Staff Writer Rachael Brown: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @RBrown_Star.