A Firefighting Father Buries His Firefighting Son

Dear Nozzlehead: I’m writing to you about my son, Andy, who, like me, was a firefighter.

About 10 years ago, in the early evening, Andy’s team got called to a flash flood with a report of a car overturned in 4 feet of water rushing down a hill. Andy’s team consisted of one young assistant chief, a captain and a rescue diver.

One group of witnesses claimed there was a couple in the overturned car. Another group claimed the couple had gotten out. Police on scene could not verify either story. And according to the official report, there were no witnesses.

Andy’s assistant chief got pulled into the current and came out from under a truck positioned behind the car. This is where it gets very gray. Andy either went in when he saw his chief get pulled under, or he was holding a rescue rope to the chief and was pulled in. No one saw anything.

It was estimated that Andy had been in the water for 30 minutes when the personnel accountability report was called. Up until then they did not even know he was missing.

After the water receded, Andy was pulled out from under the wheel well of the truck. He was in cardiac arrest. They started CPR and got him to a hospital. The ER got his heart running and stabilized him, and he was moved to the ICU. He was later moved to a Level 1 Trauma Center, where he died. The decision was made to pull him off life support as his brain swelled.

Now the questions: Was the rescue rope anchored? With all the bystanders and the police, why didn’t any witnesses see Andy go in? Why did the assistant chief risk lives when it was not verified that there were passengers in the vehicle? Where was the IC? Where was the safety officer?

The local news got there just after Andy was found, and started recording. When the video was reviewed by other experienced firefighters and officers, they could not understand why the decision was made to try the rescue. Why? Why? Why?

Andy is honored at National Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Emmitsburg (Md.), at Roanoke (Va.) and the National EMS Memorial. I’ve been in this business for more than 15 years and watched the mother of my son sob at his funeral. I watched his brothers cry. And me? I cried uncontrollably for months, wondering why it wasn’t me. Fathers aren’t supposed to bury their children.

I’ve shared your information with my people ever since I started reading it. There’s always something to learn and share. Your objective of keeping “this stuff” in firefighters’ faces is working. But personally, I can no longer read about the incompetence or lack of leadership related to serious injuries and, of course, LODDs, without wanting to either throw something or just sit down and stare at a wall. It just hurts too much. So now, I’ve generally stopped reading your column and other articles about preventable LODDs.

Thank you for your many years of sharing and teaching. Thank you for writing from your heart. God bless you and your staff. You can share this story with your readers–maybe something good can come of it.

–A Heartbroken Father

Dear Heartbroken Father,
First of all, from all of us at FireRescue magazine, you have our sincere condolences.

We could spend lots of time on this specific issue; however, as we discussed separately, we won’t due to the complexity of the issue and space constraints. I will take this opportunity, though, to provide some general comments related to fire and EMS personnel responding to almost any type of run.

And to our readers: This letter is different than most. It’s not written by a firefighter whining that the new sofas aren’t comfortable or that there isn’t enough overtime. This is as real as it gets. Unfortunately, I know many firefighters who have lost their firefighting children. From 9/11 (different circumstances, considering that we were attacked and, therefore, they were murdered) to several fires and crashes, there’s a group of parents in our business who have buried their children–children who were also in our business.

Sometimes firefighters die in the line of duty. Thinking that we will eliminate all LODDs is ridiculous and impossible. Each year, there are a small number of firefighters who were doing everything right; however, while rescuing a rescuable victim, things turned bad. Sometimes we MUST take risks, but so often, we don’t need to do so. And that is what this heartbroken father wrote to me about–the LODDs where there was NO NEED to take extreme risk. Clearly, Andy may have had to take the risk, but there were no systems in place to support that decision; therefore, the risk should not have been taken.

Now, just in case you think ol’ Nozzlehead is unfamiliar with this kind of scenario, calm down. Several years ago, I was on the first-arriving heavy-rescue company when a young girl was swept into fast-moving flood waters. When we arrived, a veteran fire officer ran up to us and asked what we should do. The answer I gave, following the size-up, was that we could not immediately do anything due to the dangerous conditions. As horrific and tragic as it was, this was a recovery incident. Who was the fire officer who ran up to us? He was one of our own who had previously lost his own children to drowning. That evening could not have been more dramatic and heart-wrenching.

So what can be done in the big picture to reduce the number of needless LODDs? This is the simple–and complex–part. There’s plenty that can be done (the simple part), but only when we’re ready for it to be done (the complex part). Let me provide a REALLY simple example: If a chief no longer wants their apparatus to blow through red lights and stop signs, he’ll put a stop to it. The solution is fourfold:

  • Policy: Develop a clear written policy explaining what the rules are, how we should operate and the consequences of not doing so.
  • Training: Train on the policy so the expectations are CLEAR to everyone.
  • Verification and supervision: Verify that everyone understands what they must do and who is responsible for making sure it gets done.
  • Enforcement: Take objective corrective action when a policy is violated.

Essentially, if you fail to follow the policy you were educated about, agreed upon and trained on, you will lose your job–as will your supervisor. WHOA! Unfair? Not at all. The fire department told you what the policy is, they trained you on it, they verified that you understood what was expected and you were supervised.

Fire departments aren’t always democracies. Policy must be followed and enforced, and you may not always like it.

On the other side of this issue is the “foundation” of all of this. It’s management’s responsibility to provide the policy, training, verification, supervision and enforcement long before an incident occurs, so we know when to take risks and when to NOT take risks. Think of it as “Andy’s Rule.”

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