New Kensington firefighter plays key role in safety initiative
Tom Straub's efforts to increase safety have served his fellow firefighters well -- and may have saved his own life.
Since 2007, the New Kensington Fire Company No. 2 member has been one of about a dozen state advocates for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation's "Everyone Goes Home: Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives."
The volunteers work to improve firefighter safety not only by promoting responsible practices while in the line of duty, but also by encouraging firefighters to monitor their health and avoid risky behaviors, such as not wearing seat belts when they rush off to a call.
The advocate classes and programs are offered to career and volunteer firefighters.
"We're taking care of our firefighters, keeping them safer and allowing them to go home at the end of the day -- the same way they came in," Straub said.
Participation as an advocate isn't the only way Straub and New Kensington No. 2 have worked to improve safety, especially after the line-of-duty death of New Kensington No. 4 firefighter Eric Mangieri.
On Aug. 7, 1995, Mangieri died and three others were injured in a fire on Freeport Road.
"Following that," he said, "we worked hard to establish new safety standards and guidelines within our department and shared them with other departments in the Valley."
Straub is a safety officer for New Kensington No. 2.
"In my training, I tell them my main goal is to teach young firefighters how to become old firefighters," he said. "Some of this involves working to increase their understanding that they must evaluate the risks in each situation. They need to know that they may have to risk their lives to save the lives of others, but they also need to understand that in other situations they should risk little when there is little or nothing to save."
A number of firefighter deaths result directly from their dangerous work, but many, according to Straub, occur before or after responding to a fire: heart ailments brought on by job-related stress and traffic accidents, the number one and number two fatality risks for firefighters, respectively.
"By eliminating just those two, we could probably save 60 to 70 percent of the firefighters right now, off the bat, if everybody watched their hearts and took care of themselves," he said.
As part of those efforts, Straub and his fellow firefighters participate in regular health screenings. For several years, his test results were fine. Then in 2009 his doctor detected something.
"And lo and behold, they found an artery that was almost 100 percent blocked," he said.
Straub had life-saving triple bypass surgery that fall. According to his doctor, had such annual exams not become part of the fire company's routine, things could have turned out differently.
"He said, 'Tom, you were healthy and everything was fine, but all it would have took was the next big fire,' " Straub said.
The "Everyone Goes Home" initiatives have contributed to a downward trend in fatalities over the past two years. That is just what Straub likes to see.
Discussing the ceremony honoring fallen firefighters at the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation's Memorial in Emmitsburg, Md., Straub's concern for others is clear.
"As much as they do a nice job, I don't want anyone from my fire company or their families to go there," he said. "That is why I'm so passionate."