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Phone: 503-823-3700

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55 SW Ash Street, Portland, OR 97204

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Fire Fighter Safety Blog: Employee Injuries, Exposures, and Driving Accidents


As the Chief Safety Officer for Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R), my main focus is fire fighter safety.  If I had to distill my job description into one sentence it would be; “Work to enhance fire fighter safety by looking at what PF&R does, how we do it and finding areas where we can improve.”  There are three areas we review on a monthly basis through the Safety Committee.  We look at last month’s employee injuries, reported employee exposures (to diseases or toxic chemicals), and we also take a look at the previous month’s driving accidents.

As Chair of the PF&R Safety Committee, I have seen many types of employee injuries.  The 20 other committee members and I review these injuries and try to find ways to prevent them in the future.  One of the most common injuries is the back injury, and one of the most common causes of these injuries is patient lifting on emergency medical calls. Our fire fighters are often called on to lift patients from the floor or bed and place them on a gurney for transport to the hospital.  We are seeing more bariatric patients than we used to, and the additional weight can cause enormous back strain.  I am currently working on a training program that will emphasize using proper lifting techniques and a team effort when it comes to lifting patients.

Can you imagine the toxic chemicals and airborne and blood borne diseases that fire fighters are exposed to?  Literally thousands of toxic chemicals are stored, transported, and used in processes in Portland on a daily basis.  Remember that at virtually any emergency, PF&R will respond and have an active role in helping mitigate the situation.  Whether it’s a traffic accident, fire in a warehouse, or a simple emergency medical call, we always respond and will be right in the middle of things helping out.  Consequently we see quite a variety of exposures.  Our occupational health nurse, Janet Woodside, works diligently to provide immunizations and document exposures for our fire fighters. The Safety Committee tries to spot trends and make recommendations to limit our exposure to harm.

Driving a car around downtown Portland can be a challenge.  Can you imagine driving a 55 foot long ladder truck through the maze of one-way streets and lightrail tracks?  It takes training, diligence, and team effort to safely get from point A to point B on an emergency response.  Occasionally, accidents happen, but considering our constant presence on the streets of Stumptown, they are amazingly rare.  Our Driver Instructor Paul Komanecky is a big reason we have a great safety record behind the wheel.  He trains newly hired drivers, and makes sure that seasoned veterans keep frosty on their driving skills. 

Nationally, fire fighters have an amazing safety record while responding in their vehicles to emergencies.  Consider the following from one of PF&R's Fire Investigators:

  • The nation’s 1.1 million fire fighters respond at the rate of 3 responses every 4 seconds.
  • That’s a total of nearly 24 million responses a year.
  • Nationally, there were nearly 16,000 collisions in 2005 involving fire department emergency vehicles responding to, or returning from emergencies.
  • I did the math and it equals a mere .07% of all responses result in an accident.

That figure is a testament to the power of training, preparation, and due diligence when on the road. Keep up the good work drivers!  And for those of you driving your personal vehicles on the streets of our City, yield right of way to fire vehicles that have their lights and siren on, pull to the right side of the road if possible and stop, and stay back at least a block from responding vehicles. 

December 29, 2009


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