By Shannon Pieper
Published Thursday, August 2, 2012
There’s no end to the mistakes that can be made on the fireground. But the interesting thing is, when we look more closely at the mistakes that are commonly made, it doesn’t take long to begin to see patterns. And within these patterns lie the clues to making the fire service safer, and ultimately reducing firefighter injuries and deaths.
Retired Fire Chief Richard Gasaway, PhD, who teaches about situational awareness across the country, has spent a long time studying those patterns. At Fire-Rescue International today in Denver, he presented a “speed session” of his findings: five common mistakes on the fireground, and five best practices that can help prevent those mistakes.
The 5 Mistakes
- Performing high-risk activities without proper equipment or staffing. Essentially, trying to do too much, with too little, too fast.
- The person in charge is performing hands-on activities. As much as incident commanders may want to “help out,” their role is to stay back and take in the big picture. As soon as you go hands on, your situational awareness suffers.
- Failing to conduct a 360-degree size-up. “Size-up is your opportunity to capture the clues, to gather the puzzle pieces,” Gasaway notes.
- Failing to know when to be defensive/initiate an exterior fire attack. “The window of opportunity to perform the offensive attack has closed, but the firefighters don’t know it because no one ever taught them what the closed window looks like,” Gasaway says.
- Taking shortcuts in training that then lead to mistakes at real incidents. “I’ve trained firefighters to fail,” Gasaway says. “The problem is I didn’t know it at the time.”
This last point highlights a key theme that Gasaway has noticed in his studies: Often, fire service training builds the wrong muscle memory and decision-making processes. He gives the example of the common practice of blacking out trainees’ SCBA, taking them to the burn building door or trailer door, and then sending them inside and having them conduct a search. Of course we need to train firefighters to orient themselves and function in zero-visibility conditions. But by teaching them that they start the search under those conditions, it undermines the fact that when they encounter these conditions in real life, they should be focused on getting out of the building. Instead, we should black out the SCBA after the trainees are already in the building and conducting a search, simulating how visibility can decline once you’re inside and emphasizing that you need to know how to get yourself out of it. “This changes the mission from forward movement (attack/search) to survival (get out),” Gasaway says.
The 5 Best Practices
- Ensure you have the proper amount of staffing responding immediately to the call. There should be 15-20 firefighters responding to a structure fire. If your department can’t meet that level, automatic or mutual aid should be in place to do so. Again, look at how training reinforces false conditions—live-fire training often begins with all firefighters in place, but in real life their arrival on scene will be staggered. How does that change tactics?
- The person in charge should be in a vehicle or in a remote location. “Put distance between the action and the incident commander,” Gasaway notes. This allows the IC to have a big picture view, and to predict what will happen next.
- Conduct a complete 360-degree size-up and communicate what you see. “We need to know ahead of time how to separate the clues from the noise,” Gasaway notes. “What’s the loudest and the brightest isn’t always the most important clue.” Again, he brings this back around to training—if you use a burn building, firefighters should conduct a 360-degree assessment every time before entering the burn building.
- Conduct a risk/benefit assessment. Discuss ahead of time what constitutes a go/no-go scenario for your department. And remember that firefighters whose training is mostly in burn buildings made of steel are unconsciously learning that buildings on fire don’t fail—except they do. Training needs to accommodate this.
- Re-evaluate your training program. “Training must be duplicated under stress,” Gasaway says. That’s why training must be realistic, repetitive and emotional, and use memorization and memory prompts to help it stick with firefighters so they can recall it even under the most stressful circumstances.
Gasaway’s final note in this information-packed speed session: “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent.” And unfortunately, that goes for tactics that will endanger firefighters on scene as much as it does for those that will help them survive. Only good training can ensure that firefighters are learning the tactics that will help them survive.
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