Don't Cheat on Mask-Fit Tests!

Allowing fire service personnel to cheat on a mask-fit test is downright criminal

By Nozzlehead
Published Tuesday, September 30, 2008 | From the October 2008 Issue of FireRescue

Dear Nozzlehead: Another firefighter and I recently stopped by one of the fire stations in our area to say hello. When we walked in we observed the annual SCBA mask-fit testing being done by a private service provider. My fire protection district uses the same private firm as do most of the agencies in our area.

A firefighter with a significant beard was having difficulty getting a good seal. A staff member of the service provider instructed him to get some Vaseline to rub into his beard. The firefighter did so and he soon had a seal and was going through the other phases of testing. He later signed a card stating that he had been successfully fit-tested with that specific type of SCBA mask.

I was shocked. It looks like all these testing firms want is the money. We do many other really good things in our fire protection district but this could cause a problem. And the chief—who’s generally excellent and enforces everything else (accountability two-in/two-out no alcohol safe driving etc.)—won’t speak up on this issue.

Some departments in our area have it all together with the exception of poor staffing and some are still way behind. For example a nearby fire protection district had a major fire loss a while ago—the result of poor staffing poor training poor water supply a delay in requesting adequate mutual aid etc. The problem is that the leadership at some departments in this country simply don’t understand that the problem is real—the fires the responses and the fit-testing issue. They have their heads stuck in the sand!

Their response: “We haven’t lost any firefighters in our area except from heart attacks in 30 years.”

What are your thoughts? What can we do to reinforce safety and honesty?

—Ill in the Midwest

Dear Ill,

Vaseline! That reminds me of one of my favorite jokes: A survey-taker comes to the front door of a house and knocks on the door. A middle-aged man answers “Mornin’ stranger what can I do for ya?”

“Well sir I represent Dewey Cheatem and Howe. Private companies pay us to canvas neighborhoods asking thousands of consumers like yourself for feedback on their products. Today we’re soliciting comments on Vaseline petroleum jelly. First do you use Vaseline?”

“Yessir for as long as I can remember.”

“Great now what exactly do you use it for?”

“We use it for dry skin chapped lips and sex.”

The survey-taker stops writing looks around leans forward and says in a low voice “We pride ourselves in being very thorough sir. Would you mind telling me how you use it for sex?”

“No problem ” the homeowner says in a whisper. “We put it on our bedroom doorknob.”

The survey-taker gets a strange look on his face and takes a step back before the homeowner continues “It keeps the kids out.”

Ha! That’s a good one.

I have the classic Vaseline all over my firehouse. Tubs of it. Everywhere! There are a zillion uses for it half of which are beauty related. Ever wonder how ol’ Nozzlehead keeps that “glow”? Now you know.

Here are eight popular fire service uses for Vaseline.

  1. Put Vaseline on your elbows every day—that’ll keep ’em soft! After all your elbows get a lot of wear and tear from leaning on the kitchen counter to hold up your tired lil’ head while watching other firefighters do your work for you.
  2. Put Vaseline on your cuticles several times a day so you can comfortably text your family and friends when you should be training. Your fingers won’t be as tired—and you’ll have softer and better-looking cuticles. (Use extra for longer-lasting thumbs!)
  3. To maintain soft and full lips use Vaseline before whining about how tough your job is.
  4. Apply Vaseline generously to critical areas prior to meetings related to the fire department budget. It’ll help you stand longer.
  5. Mix Vaseline and a little Kool-Aid powder to make a red flavored lip gloss for those special moments when you need to kiss a lot of ass.
  6. Finally offer Vaseline to those folks who know people are cheating on their fit testing so they can slip by the lawyers when they get caught.

How ’bout that? Now let’s get serious.

I gotta tell ya Ill if it were up to me I would drop a dime (old term meaning let someone know who can fix a nasty often criminal problem) on the jerks at the company who are “helping” firefighters cheat on their fit testing. Those money-hungry thieves are doing NO ONE a favor when they “help” a firefighter cheat on the fit test.

Some might say it isn’t a big deal. Well it is. It seems that as a society we’re OK with a little lying and cheating but the fire service shouldn’t be. This is a firefighter safety and survival issue. If a firefighter can’t pass their fit test because they have a beard then they need to shave the frickin’ beard! The beard causes problems with SCBAs and I don’t care how many court judges you show me an SCBA works best on a shaven face.

I know some judges have allowed beards for religious reasons and although I would never criticize anyone’s religious rights and beliefs the fact is a clean-shaven face is safest for SCBA use. But this isn’t a religious issue Ill; this is an issue of a firefighter who simply wants a beard. Well we can’t always have what we want can we?

In the case of volunteers firefighters they VOLUNTEERED to join the fire department meaning they also VOLUNTEERED to follow the policies procedures and regulations that make them safe. Being in a fire department is not always a democratic process; you don’t always get to decide career or volunteer. Shave your beard pass the fit test and then you can be a firefighter. What was that? You won’t shave your beard? We’ll miss you. You were fun here but unfortunately for you we have rules and they apply to everyone.

As far as anyone on the fire department side allowing this fake fit testing to continue well they’re a party to unacceptable and perhaps criminal behavior. Why criminal? They’re using public funds to cheat. Duh. And what happens if a firefighter is injured or killed after being allowed to falsely pass the fit test? How’s that gonna work out? Should be loads of fun.

And the profiteering mask-fit testing company wants your money so they’ll do whatever it takes to keep your business.

Fire departments and their leaders are often happy with the way things are going because nothing has gone wrong. And although that may be very comfortable for now it will eventually bite them hard. That’s what happened in Charleston S.C. The leadership was quite happy doing things the same way for decades. It could be said that folks who haven’t changed for 25 or 30 years really just have 1 year of experience repeated over and over. In other words they learned nothing and lost nine brothers. The loss of any firefighter is world-altering for anyone directly or indirectly involved with the loss—a real nightmare from which they never wake up.

Sounds like that’s the situation at the department you described—the tragedy just hasn’t happened yet. They don’t see anything wrong with how they’re doing business because everything has worked out OK thus far. That may be a pretty “human” approach but it’s not one we should take when lives are at stake.

So how do people with their heads in the sand actually change? Sometimes change is as easy as sitting down with those who need to change and showing them why. Quite frankly I think it’s best to sit down face to face and explain in a non-threatening way how things can be done better. Even make it “their idea” if that’s what it takes. This isn’t always easy because it isn’t human nature to face problems head on especially with folks we like or work with. But it needs to happen. What also needs to happen is to DUMP that BS mask-fit testing company ASAP. The difference between an honest mask-fit testing company and the clowns they’re using is the difference between using Ben Gay instead of Vaseline. Ouch!

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