Can Firefighting Reform Be Randy Parker’s Legacy to Firefighting? How a Macon Firefighter’s Death Might Serve as a Siren Call for Change
By Dave Oedel
A 46-year-old firefighter from Macon-Bibb County, Georgia, Lieutenant Randy Parker, died on Wednesday evening, February 11, 2015, after he plunged through the floor of a small, burning brick ranch home at 2320 Fairview Drive in south Macon. Parker left a wife and two children. Those eulogizing Parker at Macon’s City Auditorium on February 16 described him as a loving father, husband and church member, and an enthusiastic, well-liked, hardworking firefighter.
Parker’s death is a profound tragedy for his family and the community too.
If there is any solace in Parker’s loss, it may be that it gives us the opportunity to rethink firefighting policies, practices, decision-making, economics and culture – characteristics that are typical of firefighting not only in Macon, but in other communities as well. Yet, thanks to local control over firefighting, they are things that can also be changed locally — if there is local will to acknowledge the complex web of factors that can lead to tragedies like this, and if local leaders and firefighters cooperate to respond with meaningful reform.
Those are big ifs, to be sure, but they’re not inconceivable. Out of respect for Randy Parker, his firefighting comrades, and the public interest, the time is ripe to consider reforms.
The First Red Flag in the Parker Tragedy: No People Were At Risk
What makes Parker’s loss especially tragic, and the serious injuries suffered by several other firefighters so disturbing, is that the firefighters’ risks were not taken in an attempt to save people’s lives. The homeowners, Ronald and Cathy Coffey, were already out of the house long before the catastrophe, no other people were in the house, and firefighters on the scene were aware of those facts before going back into the house and suffering injury because of a possible basement blaze. Specifically, the firefighters arrived on the scene at 5:51 that evening, and the floor did not give way until 52 minutes later, at 6:43, after all people were out and accounted for.
This uncomfortable fact was implicitly underlined at Parker’s funeral at the City Auditorium, when speaker after speaker raised up and lauded the general firefighting credo of saving lives, to which Parker nobly subscribed. I heard not a single speaker, though, laud firefighters for saving property.
Even to the extent property protection is a fair secondary concern of firefighting, the property at 2320 Fairview Drive was already effectively worthless long before 6:43 p.m on February 11. The smoke and water damage, after more than an hour of fire and almost an hour of firefighting in this small structure, were already by then clearly well past the point of a total effective loss.
Even if, as one knowledgeable firefighter explained to me confidentially later, the firefighters went back into the house because they thought that there might be nominal property value to salvage, whatever modest amount of property that was potentially salvageable was obviously not worth any meaningful price.
Nor was any other property at risk. The firefighters suspended firefighting and moved to rescue mode at 6:43 p.m. Nonetheless, the house next door was wholly untouched. In other words, even though a basement fire continued, the fire remained contained at all relevant times.
Although the Coffeys did have many pet dogs, eight dogs had already escaped, and any left inside by then would doubtless already have succumbed. No firefighter knowledgeable about the situation indicated that reentry into the structure had anything to do with trying to find more pets or people.
Why Parker’s Case Is Both Atypical and Typical: Surprising Statistics
One might be inclined to think of the Parker case as an aberration.
In some ways, that’s true. For instance, so far in 2015 nationwide, of the ten firefighters who have died while on duty or within hours of being on duty, seven died of apparent heart attacks or stroke not while fighting fires, and two were struck by vehicles. Parker is the only firefighter in the United States so far this year to have lost his life to burns or smoke inhalation. In that sense, his death is unusual.
Firefighters die in fires at surprisingly low rates. Although firefighter mortality danger as monitored by Bureau of Labor Statistics is higher than the average job, it is also less dangerous than refuse collection, construction work, driving a truck or taxi, farming, or operating equipment. And that’s before you get to the most dangerous jobs, like fishing, which is about nine times more dangerous than being a firefighter. Moreover, firefighters’ primary risks of fatality come not from burns or smoke inhalation, but from general health-related issues of heart attack or stroke in a physically strenuous job, and, secondarily, vehicle accidents.
On the other hand, when considering only those firefighters who have died from smoke inhalation, burns or the like in the course of fighting fires, Parker’s death is surprisingly typical. While recalling Boston’s largest loss of firefighter life, the 1972 Hotel Vendome fire in which nine firefighters died while fighting fire in an unoccupied construction site, the Boston Globe in 2005 did a retrospective study of firefighter deaths nationwide, excluding 9/11, using longitudinal data from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, from 1997 to 2004.
The Globe’s reviews of the NIOSH data showed that, over that time period, only 27 percent of firefighter deaths in the specific course of fighting ordinary fires were in structures where people other than firefighters were even suspected to be present, and that in only 12 percent of cases were civilians in fact present. In none of the 80 cases of firefighter deaths surveyed was a single civilian killed. In other words, 73 percent of firefighter deaths in burning buildings occurred when no civilians were even suspected to be present, and 88 percent occurred in buildings where no civilians were actually present.
The Globe’s remarkable finding, that firefighters who died while fighting fires from 1997-2004 did so mostly in pure property-protection situations, led the International Association of Fire Chiefs, after a number of drafts, and however belatedly, to adopt in 2011 new recommended “Rules for Engagement.” Those recommended rules in essence would warn firefighters as a matter of official policy against engaging in active firefighting inside burning structures thought to be empty of life.
Specifically, the new Rules state that firefighters should only “Extend LIMITED Risk to Protect SAVABLE Property.” (Emphases in original.) The IAFC’s stated objective of that Rule is to “cause firefighters to limit risk exposure to a reasonable, cautious and conservative level when trying to save a building.”
Macon-Bibb’s fire department, though, like most departments nationwide, has not adopted such recommended Rules for Engagement despite the notoriety of the Hotel Vendome fire in 1972, the NIOSH data from 1997-2004, the Globe study in 2005, or the IAFC recommendations in 2011.
Representatives from several fire departments in Georgia with whom I spoke this past week indicated that they continue to leave decisions about property protection to those on the scene, or even condone what they termed an “aggressive” standard policy with respect to property protection. That seems to mean that firefighters in their departments are expected to protect property at a notably higher risk to their own lives than the IAFC recommends.
Firefighter Culture and Local Control
Even if the formal Rules of Engagement were officially modified to de-emphasize property protection, the basic culture of firefighting in the United States would remain, with its tendency to emphasize local control, local decision-making and a personal code of bravery. It would be unrealistic to think that any single policy delivered from above is going to “cause” firefighters to change the basic culture that the profession has inculcated and nurtured over generations.
Lieutenant Parker was an exemplar of that internalized philosophy. Shortly before he fell through the floor, after a chief at the scene asked firefighters to punch a hole in the floor to release trapped heat in the hopes of avoiding a flashpoint of spontaneous combustion, Parker was reported to have said, “Let’s go do this.” Those were among his last words.
Parker’s enthusiastic, brave attitude was noted at his funeral, which was packed with more than one thousand firefighters from all over.
With such extraordinary cultural reinforcement of Parker’s unquestioning, risk-taking approach, cultural change will not be easy to achieve.
Economic Factors Hindering Reform
The culture of mutual support for bravery and daring within the firefighting community also has another cultural dimension, with economic features. The problem begins with the job title itself – firefighter. Although Randy Parker’s case demonstrates that firefighting remains a very real and potentially dangerous portion of the job, the vast majority of calls fielded by firefighters – more than 80 percent nationally and trending higher, a statistic that is mirrored in Macon, according to one senior Macon-Bibb official — are for other matters, mostly involving medical emergencies for which big-rig equipment is cumbersome, expensive, slow and inappropriate.
Macon-Bibb, like other communities, is concerned about governmental bloat, which in Macon-Bibb is no idle concern because of the legal requirement that the recently consolidated government find savings of approximately four percent annually for five years. It is not lost on the firefighters that the governmental bean counters and the public in general are looking at areas like the fire department for savings.
The pot is a big one. In fiscal year 2013, Bibb’s fire department employed 426 people spread over 20 stations. That cost taxpayers $23,600,000 in salaries, equipment and expenses.
It’s only natural that firefighters tend to emphasize the dangerous and heroic features of their occupation in the context of a game of musical chairs in local government employment.
It doesn’t have to be that way, though. By actively engaging our present firefighters and their leaders in envisioning and implementing new ways of serving the public with emergency help in medical, rescue and fire-related situations, savings could be found in the long run even without reductions in aggregate employment.
Unthinkable? Not really. In the private sector, innovation in community-wide service delivery has been substantial over the past generation. Firefighting, with its archaic scheduling, languid pace interrupted by frantic pace, and awkward mismatches of equipment to task, seems like a permanent museum piece, a throwback to another era.
By contrast, the private sector has ushered in radical change in the ability of fleets of private trucks to deliver packages all over our community in short order without the need for 20 different post offices. Ambulance services have become ever more effective at saving lives while wiring in to our wired world. We have seen just-in-time business techniques greatly economize on costs and improve on quality throughout virtually all sectors of the economy, greatly advancing productivity. We have seen sensors and computers revolutionize the effectiveness of home surveillance and protection.
Along the way, the people who have led and implemented these changes are enjoying safer working conditions and better pay.
At Randy Parker’s funeral, Macon-Bibb Fire Chief Marvin Riggins said that Randy “was always looking for ways to make us better.” In deference to that spirit, the time is upon us to rethink how to reform the way we fight fire, and better deliver other services through our fire and rescue operations, in Macon-Bibb and beyond. Though he undoubtedly wouldn’t have been happy to be the singular cause for such reflection, Randy Parker would also apparently not have wanted the opportunity to slip by.