The emergency scene is the arena where everything comes together for us–everything we’ve learned from our instructors, mentors and accumulated experiences. This month’s focus on training takes us to a scene where all of this amassed information is put to the ultimate test. The hours spent on the drill groun, the texts and magazines read, and the time away from family and friends–all to learn new and potentially life-saving skills–come down to one heart-sinking radio transmission: “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Two members from Engine 1 just went through the floor!”
“Fire companies arrived on the scene of a one-story, wood-frame, single-family dwelling. Initial-arriving companies reported heavy smoke showing. Shortly after entry, command was notified that two firefighters had fallen through a floor opening. The firefighters made attempts to contact command via radio and activated their PASS devices. A mayday was issued and the on-scene rapid intervention team (RIT) was deployed.
“The firefighters were located and extricated from the dwelling. The two firefighters received minor injuries, were examined at a local hospital and then released back to full duty.
“Subsequent investigation determined that the origin of the fire was in the basement and the ductwork contributed to the fire spread. The point of origin was below the area of the floor where the firefighters fell through.”
“Reinforce the need to maintain situational awareness at all times. Heavy smoke showing on initial arrival indicates a well-involved fire that has likely been burning for some time. Firefighters must anticipate weakened structural components (i.e. floors roofs). The successful outcome of this incident demonstrates the result of good training involving mayday exercises, teamwork and the proper utilization of RITs.”
This month’s report (No. 08-077) is matter-of-fact and somewhat tame in its description. I selected the report because of its straightforward, simple message: Trained firefighters perform well. Training is what we must rely on when faced with the most demanding situation any of us will experience–the potential loss(es) of our own. There is no more crucial time in the fire service for crews to be in top shape physically, mentally and emotionally.
I’ve talked to firefighters who experienced maydays themselves and others who participated in the rescue (or sadly recovery) of firefighters in trouble. Training and preparation (a fundamental extension of training) were cited more often by both the rescuers and rescuees than any other elements as keys to a successful outcome. And while our attention this month is focused on the requirements to be on our “A” game for the most challenging situation we would ever face, the message should ring true for every task we undertake.
- Don’t just think the words “It’s a dangerous job.” You’re a professional. Professionals manage risk; they don’t just accept it at face value. Buy into what you’re saying then take steps to reduce the danger. Training is one way to manage risk. You owe that to yourself your family and your crews.
- Control your destiny. Yes, the department has a list of required training drills that you must complete; however, most departments only provide minimum training programs to meet federal, state and local mandates and fulfill the other 100 tasks required of our all-hazards environment. Carve out some time each month to personally and professionally enhance yourself. Read a near-miss report on www.firefighternearmiss.com or attend a regional “Saving Our Own” drill weekend at the local training academy; both will enhance your survivability.
- Get to know your first-due district like you know your own house. You learn more riding the area than sitting in the station waiting for the bells to ring. Knowledge of hazards, traps and resources (e.g., heavy equipment and operators) will help you expedite your RIT operations.
- Turn every incident into a learning experience. Every emergency call is an invitation to improve one’s knowledge of a structure’s construction features. Make a mental note of travel distances to different rooms, the width of door openings, etc. Envision any type of floor collapses you might encounter (pancake, lean-to or V) and project how the objects in the room would fall in each case.
- Get to know the people you’re working with. It doesn’t matter if your department is career, volunteer or combination; the only consistency is change. If you look around the kitchen table and see that you haven’t worked with most of the people for at least 2 years, your crew hasn’t maximized its effectiveness. Be sure everyone knows the expectations, even if you have to outline them before getting on the rig. Schedule some sort of hands-on drill every shift (even if it’s just an hour so all the brains, hands and feet can get in sync, even briefly). A brief case-study discussion of your last fire will provide a window of insight into potential performance miscues.
- If you’re going to say “Everyone goes home,” don’t commit lives to losing situations. Heroic efforts should only be expended for savable outcomes.
- Learn what a losing situation is. There are no hard, fast rules–just plenty of examples.
- Develop a thirst for knowledge. Rookie school was just that–knowledge acquisition and skills development for your first year in the fire service. You have many more years to be a firefighter. That one year will only suit you as long as you don’t expect to spend more than 1 year in the fire department.
- On the fireground, learn how to read smoke. On the EMS scene, learn how to read people. Both give off signs when they’re going to try to hurt you. If you’re paying attention to the signs, you’ll walk away to serve another day.
- Stick close to others who share your zeal for surviving. History is full of those who did not fear death (Napoleon, Custer and Sir Alexander Haig). Cemeteries are full of the results of their “fearless” actions. Even a fearless card player eventually loses. In our business, fearlessness can result in a one-hand game.
Training provides us with the knowledge and skills we need to perform at the various levels within our departments. The fact is clear that well-trained firefighters make fewer mistakes, react quickly with proper actions to mitigate problems and perform their jobs more confidently. Training develops a risk-minimizing approach borne of the experience imparted from those who came before us. There is much talk about staying on the cutting edge of all things. Training ensures that we don’t cut ourselves while pushing that edge.