Ladder Company 175 had used their aerial ladder to ventilate this window at an all-hands fire, with reports of people trapped, at 3218 Fulton Street in Highland Park, Brooklyn. (Lloyd Mitchell photo)
“He who whets his steel, whets his courage” ― Steven Pressfield, Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae
The fire service needs to stop allowing the statement “we don’t go to fires anymore” to be used as an excuse to not know your job or to allow members to be afraid of doing their job. The “War Years” are over and while many departments experienced them, many never had them. The results of this increased fire duty are that many departments’ firefighters became very proficient at fire attack. The repetition bred confidence and there was a real connection between their training and their performance. They were able to apply their craft multiple times, experiment with what worked and discard what didn’t. They created the basis for much of what the fire service uses today on the fire ground.
The fire department exists to save lives. Today it is more often through EMS related responses, but that doesn’t lesson the importance of our being prepared to provide a service that focuses on saving ALL LIVES POSSIBLE. Maintaining a level of vigilance for something we are called to do less frequently is one of the challenges we all face. The fire department also exists to save property by preventing the spread of fire and then extinguishing it. While the risks we take for property should be less than for lives, that doesn’t mean that if there are no lives in danger we should automatically switch to a defensive mindset and focus on saving the block of origin.
If your department isn’t going to fires and you aren’t getting experience, then you need to be training to make up for it. You should be getting dirty, dragging lines, throwing ladders, searching and rescuing each other. Test your skills. Push yourself and your crew. The training should be repetitive, relevant and realistic. The life you save may not be yours, but then again it might be. Citizens shouldn’t have to watch their family die, or house burn to the ground because you aren’t prepared. They expect us to solve their problems, to put the fire out and to save their lives. The citizens won’t understand if you think fire is too scary, dangerous or too much work. The military's job is inherently dangerous also. But they don't train to avoid the risk, they train to confront it. When they train it's at a level that is at or above what they expect to find in the real world situations. Real world experiences are rolled directly into the training to augment the base skill sets, to make the training match the real world hazards and keep the troops focused on the goals.
There has always been a lot of talk, about some firefighters being ‘Cowboys’ or risking their lives needlessly. It’s as if every firefighter that wants to be efficient and effective at their job has some sort of death wish. Nobody is advocating suicide missions where there is no hope of survival. No one is saying that lives can be saved in fully involved buildings. What we are advocating is doing your job. People can and have survived fires under the most extreme conditions, as there are often survivable spaces and it is our job to search those. Just think about the “close the door” campaign. What is that doing? It is creating more survivable spaces that we as firefighters should be checking. People who say unfounded drivel like “majority of life and property in a burning structure is lost long before our arrival” lead us to believe that they would never risk even a little to save a lot. It’s almost as if being a proficient and effective firefighter threatens their job security. There seems to be a long list of Instructors and self appointed subject matter experts waiting to talk down to anyone who has a desire to actually serve their community.
When you became a firefighter, you stepped forward and said, “I am willing to serve, I am willing to risk my life to protect yours. "I am willing to do the dangerous work that needs to be done.” Nobody is saying you have to risk death on every call, but at the very least you should have the mindset to take a risk to save a life! You should be prepared to take a calculated risk if the opportunity arises, or to create the opportunities to save a life. But the mindset of many is the polar opposite, because of the constant focus on firefighter deaths, and injuries. This focus develops fears while training firefighters, and teaches them to avoid rather than confront and mitigate danger. Firefighters are not being emboldened by their training, but rather becoming tentative because of it. Too many point to ‘a 100 firefighters a year’ as the reason we need to change our tactics and fire ground philosophy, when the vast majority of line of duty deaths have little or nothing to do with fire ground operations. This ‘100/year’ mantra focuses on the hazards and not the successes and creates an environment of fear, not safety. It’s a shame and a disservice so may use the deaths of their brothers and sisters as a stepping point for their agendas. The top two ways we lose 100 firefighters a year are heart attacks and car accidents. Guess what? We have those on and off the job regardless of fire duty.
Instead of focusing on fear, why aren’t we focusing on the success? Why aren’t we teaching our firefighters the good outcomes that come from being prepared, being well training and conducting themselves in a matter where they can make a difference and save lives? Your training and experience should prepare you to operate in a manner that YOU would want the fire department to operate for YOUR family. Make sure the areas you can check get checked. Honestly it is the very least the public expects from you.
Whatever you choose to do, remember that you weren’t drafted into this business, you took a test, or filled out an application. In some cases you were chosen over other candidates. You knew what the risks were when you signed up, but you also wanted to make a difference. Now isn’t the time to change the job because you aren’t comfortable with those risks. Now is the time to embrace the challenge and become the firefighter the public expects to show up at 2am.
"A man who is not afraid is not aggressive, a man who has no sense of fear of any kind is really a free, a peaceful man." Jiddu Krishnamurti
Life is fatal.
Shawn Donovan has been a member of the Boston Fire Department for 14 years, where he is a lieutenant on an ladder company. Previously, he was assigned to an engine company, a truck company and a rescue company. He has assisted with four recruit programs for the Boston Fire Department
Dave LeBlanc is a Deputy Chief with the Harwich, Massachusetts Fire Department. Dave entered the Fire Service in 1986 as a Call Firefighter with the Dennis Fire Department. He worked full time during the summers in Dennis, while attending the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. While at the University of New Haven, Dave studied Arson Investigation. He also was a volunteer with the Allingtown and West Haven Fire Districts in West Haven. He spent his sophomore year as a Live In student with the Allingtown Fire District. His education included internships with the Aetna Insurance Company and the Boston Fire Department Arson Squad.