Death, Perspective, and the Garbageman.

“The garbage man doesn’t get excited when he turns the corner and sees trash, because he’s expecting it. Likewise, you should be expecting fire on every run.” – Lt. Andy Fredericks

The above quote by Andy Fredericks is one which permeates the fire service from coast to coast. It is spoken in many a firehouse, usually by an elder fireman to one with less experience, even if the speaker doesn’t know where the quote originated. If you aren’t familiar with the late Andy Fredericks, click the link above for a brief bio.

What Andy was getting at is obvious. The garbageman isn’t reduced to a hyper-ventilating, giddy, screaming maniac at the sight of trash because that’s his job, that’s what he trains for, that’s what he expects when he mounts his rig in the morning. In the same respect, firemen should expect fire. That’s often why people call us. They usually mention something about it in the dispatch. We shouldn’t be surprised, screaming the size-up and jumping around in the front yard, when we roll up and visually confirm the reported fire. Burning property is simply part of this job. Take a breath, make a plan, and execute it. Simple enough, so how else can the garbageman be related to the fireman?

I was recently reminded of this quote as I read an article in a magazine published for government workers. It discussed a 2010 NIOSH study on Solid Waste Collection workers, mainly the occurrence of fatal traumatic injuries in the industry. NIOSH investigates on-duty fatalities in almost every industry, just as they do for the fire service. This report was intriguing as it stated that, on average from 2003-2009, there were 85 on-duty traumatic fatalities per year in the solid waste collection industry. The fire service typically states an average of 100 LODD’s per year, which isn’t far off in itself, but the past three years have seen a decrease in those numbers. In 2010, the USFA counted 87 LODD’s. This number includes 15 post-duty deaths (which must be removed as those deaths are not counted in the solid waste report). Subtracting those incidents leaves us with 72 LODD’s, which was the number reported by the NFPA. This number is meaningful, but not accurately comparative. Taking the average number of NFPA recorded on-duty LODD’s from 2003-2009 gives us a useful result of 97. Just over 10 more LODD’s than trash collectors for the same time period. So, trash collectors experience almost the same number of on-duty deaths per year on average.

These numbers are still not in proper context, so let’s dissect them a bit further. In 2010, the NIOSH  listed 478,000 waste collection employees nationwide. The NFPA listed 1,103,300 firefighters in the nation for the same year. This means that there was a 0.018% fatality rate for the waste collection industry, and a 0.008% fatality rate for the fire service, on average.

Refuse collection is not the safest occupation by any account. They spend nearly their entire shift in traffic. They work around compactors, grinders, shredders, and all sorts of other nasty, destructive equipment. In addition, most areas still allow trash collectors to ride the tailboard. They are “in the hot zone” everyday, where many firefighters hardly see fire on a weekly or monthly basis. However, most in the fire service, and public, would still consider our profession to be more hazardous. The fact remains that the numbers show trash collection to be more dangerous than firefighting in the U.S.

So, what’s the point of all of this? I really don’t know. The numbers and similarities simply caught my eye and I thought that I would share. I’m not pushing an agenda or taking sides. I’m simply passing on some interesting information. It’s worth a thought. We can still cut those numbers down. Wear your seatbelt, maintain your equipment, stay in shape and eat right. Be prepared. Too many of these fatalities were potentially preventable. On the other hand, some of them just weren’t. Plain and simple. If we do the job that we are supposed to, somebody inevitably won’t come home. The garbageman faces the same odds as he collects the trash. We simply can’t eliminate the risk. All that we can do is minimize it, but not by taking shortcuts or making excuses. As of now, we may be better off than we thought…it just depends on your perspective.

I could have cut the post off there, but the topic of perspective stuck with me. Let’s continue with the summertime example of a swimming pool. You’re standing poolside, nice and warm in the sunshine, when someone in the pool encourages you to jump in. “The water’s fine!”, they shout. Of course, you know better. That water feels pleasant to them, but to your sun-warmed skin it will likely feel like diving into the North Atlantic in January. However, once the initial shock wears off, the water begins to lose its frozen bite. Your body begins to acclimate to the new environment and before long you find yourself wondering why you spent so much time allowing the UV rays to cook you on the deck.

The same issue arises when we discover new tactics for the fire service. We hear someone mention “transitional this” or “single-person that” and we wither up in fear. “No way, I’m not jumping in THAT pool. It’s freezing and cannot possibly be capable of sustaining life. It’s not what I’m used to.” At this point we must decide. We can remain outside the pool doing the same old thing as we burn up in the sun’s radiation, applying sunscreen to prolong the effects, but eventually succumbing to the scorching rays; or we can jump in and test the water. We may find that it is much more comfortable than our previous methods, leaving us questioning why we didn’t make the jump earlier.

There will likely be cases where this is not true. You will jump in to find that the few swimmers calling to you are absurd, and the water is truly unbearable (at least to your department). Don’t let this possibility stop you, though. In those cases, the solution is as simple as climbing back onto the deck of your old, tried-and-true methods and carrying on. A lesson learned and no harm done. That’s why we test new tactics during drill time first.

The message here, if there is one at all, is simple. Don’t let your perspective fool you. Take a look at the job from a different angle from time to time, you may be surprised at what you see.

– Pete (Lt. Lemon)


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2 responses to “Death, Perspective, and the Garbageman.”

  1. lieutenantnobody says :

    I love the pool illustration. So often, we stand on the side, afraid, and debate how it won’t work. Instead, we should be diving in during training drills and find out for ourselves.


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