Author(s): Casey Grant. Published on November 1, 2018.

For Big Al

Recalling a firefighter friend who died in the line of duty—and why the fire service needs to support a crucial grant program with a unified voice

Thirty years ago, I lost my firefighter friend Alan Sondej (pronounced “Sunday”) in the line of duty. Big Al, as we called him, died in 1988, two months after being severely burned in a flashover at a house fire. He was searching for a resident who, unbeknownst to Al and the other firefighters, had already escaped.

Al and I were resident volunteer firefighters in Maryland in the 1970s, and he was a truly amazing person. A former football lineman, he was one of the biggest and physically strongest human beings I’ve ever met. But he was a gentle giant and a deeply humble man, seriously devoted to the cause of global hunger after spending time in Bangladesh and other impoverished corners of the world. I’m honored to have known him as a friend, and his death pains me to this day.

Looking back, I can see the passage of time as a yardstick to help us measure our efforts to improve firefighter safety. In the decades since Al and I rode the apparatus together, the fire service has made marked improvements in training, education, equipment, tactics, strategy, and other key areas—many of them with the help of the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program, administered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) under the Department of Homeland Security.

I met Al before the creation and implementation of the firefighting professional qualification standards that now are widespread. Much of what we learned was through blunt experience. I recall my first day at Company 1, when I was issued a worn, semi-clean set of personal protective equipment (PPE). It was rubberized and had no realistic thermal protection, a far cry from today’s advanced bunker gear. When responding to a call, I typically rode the back step of the apparatus, holding on for dear life. We learned the location of every speed bump that could send us flying.

Today’s fire service, by contrast, is a much more professional undertaking, thanks in part to the AFG program. Since 2000, this funding has been available annually to fire departments across the country for equipment, staffing, stations, and other basic needs. It has been hugely helpful, but gaps exist. When new editions of the national fire service needs assessment are issued, for example, I am dismayed to see that many fire departments still do not have adequate gear, including self-contained breathing apparatus, for all firefighters responding to structural fires.

About 5 percent of the AFG funding is used for research and development, as well as fire prevention. The long-term value of this funding has been significant and includes advancements that can be measured through enhancements to nationally recognized standards. All aspects of the profession of firefighting have been positively impacted, from safer live fire training to improvements in fire apparatus to advancements in thermally protective firefighter PPE.

AFG funding should not be taken for granted. The program is reviewed and questioned every year, and it is under constant threat of cutbacks. To support it, the voice of the fire service needs to be crystal clear on the progress that has been made in reducing firefighter deaths and injuries. NFPA’s report on firefighter fatalities in the U.S. in 2017 found that a total of 60 firefighters died while on duty—the lowest annual total reported since the study was begun in 1977. There have been fewer than 70 deaths a year in six of the past seven years.

This trend is promising, but we have more work to do. For us to continue to reduce firefighter deaths and injuries is a bittersweet tribute to Big Al and the long list of others who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

CASEY GRANT is executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation. Top Illustration: Michael Hoeweler