By Author(s): Brian Schaeffer 
Published Saturday, July 31, 2010
| From the August 2010  Issue of FireRescue 
In September 1946, while speaking about the surrender of Japan at the end of World War II, President Harry Truman said, “It is our responsibility—ours, the living—to see to it that this victory shall be a monument worthy of the dead who died to win it.” President Truman’s words live on today in many aspects of the military, and they are equally applicable to several issues in the fire service.
One such issue is the implementation of the Rules of Air Management (ROAM) Program. Unless you know another way we can hold our breath for more than 20 minutes, the ROAM Program seems to be one logical solution to lowering the number of line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) associated with air management. Although the rules seem like common sense, we all know that common sense isn’t very common, and change is easier said than done in the fire service.
Implementing the Rules
I’ve been very fortunate in my career to have had the opportunity to implement the Rules of Air Management in both a medium, all-career fire department (Yakima, Wash.) and in a larger, metropolitan organization (Spokane, Wash.). In both organizations, the personnel are professional, aggressive, competent and dedicated firefighters. They are truly some of the best around. But as anyone who has more than a few weeks in the fire service realizes, change is tough. In fact, in most fire or emergency services departments, change happens as fast as a turtle swimming in a sea of peanut butter—that’s slow.
I’ve been the “change agent” in many organizational situations and learned too quickly that only about half of administration-forced programs become successful due to the difficulties posed by cultural change. In fact, cultural change is the largest impediment to organizational acceptance of the ROAM Program.
Throughout this article, you’ll see how three factors—integrity, involvement and information—will increase our chances for successful implementation of the program. To be successful, the leadership must establish and reinforce an environment of open and honest communication. It’s so easy for the important ROAM message to get lost if a member is unsure about specifics and can’t talk freely. Rumors like, “We’re getting larger bottles so they can work us longer” will kill the program. Information, participation and honest leadership are all keys to moving forward with the program.
After the establishment of an organizational environment rich with involvement and information, I recommend the five-phase process described below.
Phase 1: Break with the past and focus on the future—Provide legitimate, externally validated reasons for change throughout the organization, including elected officials who may need to support the funding allocation. Provide documentation, such as NIOSH reports, trade journals and hands-on courses where you can demonstrate the importance of the ROAM program, noting the weaknesses of the fire service’s traditional mode of operating. Expect ambiguity and resistance; they’re normal. Nobody knows all the answers all the time. Establish a non-punitive learning environment where people can ask questions and find answers.
Phase 2: Mobilize for change—Begin by clearly signaling that change is coming. This begins at the top. For career organizations, this may be a written commitment from labor and management. In the volunteer environment, it may simply be a vision statement by the leadership or vote from the membership. Other signs of change can take many forms, including bringing in experts in the ROAM Program or sending members from a training or safety committee to attend a hands-on training (HOT) session about the program. There are many ways to set the vision and prepare the organization for change, but make sure that people are informed, involved and ready before proceeding.
Phase 3: Select the leaders (aka, “salespeople”)—In this phase, you’re looking for a few good “trees” to develop a forest. Look to your stars, and avoid the cowboys. In the past, the fire service has generally celebrated the rule-breakers and cowboys and made them into icons. But instead of celebrating an icon, develop a team. Teams get work done safely, quickly and with purpose. Identify those frontline supervisors (lieutenants and captains) and middle managers (battalion/division chiefs) to become the experts in the ROAM philosophy. Send them to school, develop the passion and support them to the fullest extent possible. The role of crafting departmental policies/SOPs/SOGs should fall chiefly to the people doing the job on the street, with strict consideration to your Risk Management Plan. The true leaders normally rise to the occasion and become your best salespeople.
Phase 4: Dedicate resources to training—Expect that time, sweat, toil and a significant amount of financial resources will be required to get it done right. I cannot emphasize this phase enough. The bean-counters can be your worst enemy—or your best advocate. For the bean-counters and “all-knowing” elected officials, I find it extremely helpful to compare the cost of the program to the unthinkable cost of losing a firefighter.
For the 5–10 percent of internal dissenters (usually cowboys), we usually tie in subtle (or sometimes not-so-subtle) reminders that their children and family need them, and this program will play a significant role in making sure that they go home at the end of their shift—every time.
Discipline becomes key in Phase 4. Please notice that I did not say “punishment.” Discipline and punishment are completely different, and we as chiefs are great at confusing the terms. Discipline is training that develops self-control, character or orderliness and efficiency. Punishment is a penalty imposed on an offender for a crime or wrongdoing. Do you see the difference?
During training and implementation of the ROAM Program, you’re creating supporters during each and every evolution. The evolutions should be structured to reinforce ROAM principles and build upon each other as the time progresses. The evolutions should be based on situations that we routinely confront (i.e., zero visibility; wall searches; basic assignments, such as fire attack; search; back-up; and RIT activations). Avoid the Pandora’s Box of making the evolutions about worst-case scenarios where members are unsuccessful, as this is the quickest way to kill the learning process.
Phase 5: Live it—After the initial training and policy implementation, live the program daily. Make sure everyone from the front line up to the fire chief sends consistent messages about the new way of doing business, and that they reinforce their words with performance and training activities. In our business, inconsistency breeds uncertainty, and uncertainty will destroy any policy or training. During periods of uncertainty, we know that recognition-primed decision-making, or RPDM, takes over and people revert to their comfort level. Thus, it’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure that the ROAM Program becomes the members’ baseline. Discipline, training and commitment are the keys to institutionalizing the ROAM philosophy.
Make a Change
Often, change and transition consume a great deal of personal energy and time. In fact, overcoming resistance to change in the fire service may actually be the toughest lesson to learn for chiefs or union leaders of any age or experience level.
When asked about the introduction of automotive transportation into society, Henry Ford said, “If I’d have asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!’” For years, we have been hearing firefighters say, “We need more air!” The time is now to move past the faster-horse argument (more air), and start managing the air that we have—period.
For those of you intending to implement the ROAM Program in your organizations, I encourage you to embrace the power of “we.” The sooner you substitute a “we” philosophy for an “us vs. them” philosophy, the sooner you’ll achieve success. This process should not be a “bargaining item,” resulting in lawyers making a higher salary. This is about preventing the loss of firefighters’ lives and realizing a safer environment for everyone. It really is that simple.
I’ve had friends and colleagues die because they ran out of air, so it’s easy to see why I’m passionate about this topic. It’s a critical function of fire service leadership to do everything we can to guarantee the safety of our people. And in the case of operating in a potential immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) environment, the ROAM Program is an industry best practice and standard—hands down.
The Rules of Air Management
- Know how much air you have in your SCBA, and manage that air so you leave the hazardous environment before you low-air alarm activates.
- If you ignore the above, you pass the point of no return: the point at which you stop becoming part of the solution and start becoming part of the problem.
Per NFPA 1404 …
5.1.4: The authority having jurisdiction shall establish and enforce written Standard Operating Procedures for training in the use of respiratory protection equipment, and that training shall include the following:
A5.1.4(2) Individual Air Management Program: This program will develop the ability of an individual to manage his or her air consumption as part of a team during a work period. The individual air management program should include the following directives:
- Exit from an IDLH atmosphere should be before consumption of reserve air supply begins.
- Low air alarm is notification that the individual is consuming their reserve air.
- Activation of the reserve air alarm is an immediate action item for the individual and the team.
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