I go to a few fires-not one every day-but about a dozen or two a year. This is probably pretty typical for most. I know, some go to more, and some sit behind a desk and don’t go to any. I fall somewhere in the middle. But generally, if it’s on fire in our district, I’m there. And if it’s a fire in someone else’s district, I may show up there as well.
Years (and years) ago when I couldn’t wait to be a chief, I envisioned all the fires I would go to, running from one fire to the next with five engines, four trucks and even a special unit-all with eight firefighters and a boss on each. Dream on. Yeah, I saw a few fires every now and then, but the job actually turned out to be doing battle with such life hazards as clueless budget cutters, castrated elected and appointed officials and pressed-suit wearing bureaucrats, as well as a few firehouse personnel who had the bunker gear and wore the uniform, but had no business being in the business.
Personally, I would rather go to calls with gung-ho firefighters. Much rather. Funny how things work out.
Don’t Get Too Comfortable
Over the years, the calls we go to add up and up, and we get a little comfortable. Maybe too comfortable. The calls become routine-human nature. We generally have a pretty good idea of what to expect and how to plan for each call. So we go on calls, over and over. But just like being married for a while, if you don’t stay focused on what you are there for, keep up the skills and stay well trained, things can get ugly.
Over and over, we respond down the street-quickly-through red lights and stop signs, without wearing a seatbelt, and it works out just fine. We don’t wear all of our gear-hood, helmet, SCBA-a few times, and again, it usually works out just fine.
Over and over, we go in without a charged hoseline, search rope or the thermal imager, and it works out without any problem, or with problems so minor we just blow them off.
Over and over, we enter buildings that should have fallen down an hour ago, and it works out just fine … and we get some inside time.
Over and over, we eat as if it may be our last meal, therefore carrying around a lot more weight than we should, and if it becomes a problem, we just buy larger clothes … or better yet, the “expando” kind!
Over and over, we back up our apparatus without a backer, or we allow the backer to stand on the tailboard, and it works out just fine.
Over and over, we operate on roadways without shutting them down or properly blocking and diverting traffic, and it works out just fine.
Over and over, we respond to domestic situations without waiting for the cops because those folks need our help-right now.
Over and over, we allow non-trained and/or inexperienced personnel to command an incident, and that almost always works out just fine. After all, how else will they gain experience?
Over and over, we allow personnel to drive emergency apparatus without adequate training, and it works out without a problem. They got us here, didn’t they?
Over and over, we avoid intensive hands-on training because of other priorities, including the weather, holidays, our iguana’s birthday, TV specials, meal plans and related excuses, and it works out just fine.
We can get away with doing things the way they shouldn’t be done over and over, but then one day, when we least expect it, we get caught. Life is predictable. How many times have you warned your kid about stuff: “Don’t do that or you’ll take out an eye,” and they do it anyway? How many times have you warned your spouse or “significant other” about that? About what? You know-all those times when the angel on one shoulder warned you about “something,” and the devil on your other shoulder told you to kill the angel. Quickly. After all, you don’t get the chance to do “that” very often, and odds are, you won’t get caught.
Basically, the more we do something that could easily get us in trouble but doesn’t, the more we accept it, become comfortable with it and allow it. And while getting comfortable is not always bad-after all, it is a part of being skillful-when we do so, we also let our guard down.
And then we have the 101st fire.
The 101st Fire
The 101st fire is the one we’ve all read about. It’s the one where someone decided the building didn’t need to be vented-and then firefighters became trapped. It’s the one where getting a line and water on the fire quickly wasn’t amongst the top priorities. It’s the one where that firefighter got ejected and tossed across the highway because seatbelts are uncomfortable. It’s the one where an SCBA wasn’t used because it got in the way. It’s the one where we ran over the backer of the apparatus because that backer was allowed to stand on the tailboard and slipped off. It’s the one where the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing, and a firefighter burned up in a wildland fire. It’s the one where two apparatus were responding and crashed in the intersection with explosive and deadly results. It’s the one where water supply wasn’t a priority. And it’s the one where some drunken lunatic slammed his car into a firefighter directing traffic. It’s the low frequency/high risk event that Gordon Graham has been talking about-a lot-for years.
The 101st fire is nothing new. The 101st fire is the same kind of fire we have gone to over and over, and it always worked out well-100 times before. And because of that, we feel our unacceptable behavior is acceptable, and we will continue to get away with it.
The 101st fire is that fire where we become part of the problem because we have done the same thing over and over at previous fires without understanding that it’s wrong. The more we do it and get away with it, the more it can become the norm and even our standard way of operating.
“Why did we do that?”
“We have always done that.”
“Well then it must be the way we do that.”
“Damn straight … pass the TV remote, probie.”
Name a LODD in 2005-any LODD-and you will find that same LODD happening to another fire department this year. Go back a few years-same thing. We know that statistically, stuff catches up with us. Sometimes sooner, sometimes later, but eventually, when we take chances-in cases where we simply don’t have to-we get caught. It may be the 10th or 15th or even the third. That doesn’t really matter. What matters is knowing the solution.
What’s the Solution?
The solution here is the same as for most other issues we face: training-training led by competent fire officers who absolutely love training. What should we train on? That’s easy. Go look at all the apparatus and the tools in your firehouse. Then look at the people in the firehouse. Then look at your community. Your crew must be skilled at every possible task they may need to perform using those tools in that community. Not a difficult concept to grasp, right?
For example, does the rig have Jaws on it? Extrication training. Engine company? Water-supply, line-stretching and fire-attack training. Truck company? Forced entry, venting, search, rescue, removal and tool training.
It doesn’t take a $150,000 Fire Act Grant to solve a fire department’s basic training problems. If your members aren’t training now-on the basics-the Fed’s funds (or anyone else’s) are a waste of money. Everything any fire department needs for basic firefighter training is free-online, in the magazines and on the bay floor of the firehouse. Just add a motivated fire officer who loves to train.
The 101st fire is avoidable because it is predictable. If you work in a community of single-family dwellings, you can predict that one of them will soon be on fire. So having your personnel training to become experts at fighting single-family-dwelling fires might be a good way to spend some time. Maybe a lot of time. The same goes for shopping centers, high rises, multi-family dwellings or whatever you’re responsible to protect.
Think about it: This is kind of like your favorite band or a pro-football team. They have a leader, they have a playbook (or music), and they practice and practice and practice until they are experts. And then, when ready, they perform either on stage or at the game on Sunday. However, when the football team or band doesn’t perform well, people boo them to get off the field or throw rotten apples. When we don’t practice our jobs, it often becomes a reason for the 101st fire.
The 101st fire is part of why we lose about the same number of firefighters every year-mostly from doing (or allowing) the same predictable things to happen again and again. Just read the fire reports and talk to those affected. In so many cases, the fact is that certain behaviors just continued on and on, even with the knowledge that it could cause a problem in the future. But because we were “OK with it” or had “other priorities” or just lacked interest in fixing it, nothing changed. And then, out of nowhere, we experience the 101st fire. Call the family. Go to the hospital. Pick up the spouse. Lower the flags.
Instead, you can choose to avoid the 101st by engaging your personnel in regular hands-on training, combined with classroom training, led by gung-ho fire officers. Don’t make it a choice-make it required, policy-driven, officer-led training. No wimpy excuses. We are simply going to do hands-on training. How often? Start with two hours per shift for the career firefighters and two hours per week for the volunteer firefighters. Is that asking too much? Do you want to go to fires or not?
Odds are, you have not experienced a line-of-duty death first hand. Keep it that way by acknowledging the real possibility of that 101st fire and by taking leadership-type action at the personal, company and departmental level. Or just sit back and start counting.
Avoid the 101st Fire
Some common personnel problems & solutions
- Won’t wear their seatbelts?à¿ First, make sure the belts are accessible. Some may have been “tucked away” for years. It is critical to secure tools in the riding areas, but it’s also critical to secure firefighters. Also, make sure the seatbelts are big enough to fit at least somewhat comfortably around firefighters wearing their gear. While firefighters may think “packing up” is a hassle when belted in, getting ejected is more of a hassle. Accept no excuses.
- Driving apparatus through red lights and stop signs? Make it a potentially career-ending issue. You own the public’s apparatus-you simply loan it to the firefighters who are qualified to drive it. Perhaps if they run a light or stop sign and cause an injury or death, your fire department may not be able to defend them. And remind fire officers that supervision includes supervising those driving the apparatus at all times. If the driver intentionally breaks a “life-safety” policy, the officer may be responsible as well. Could that cause a little uncomfortable conflict in the firehouse? Yes, but so will a civilian or firefighter death. Which is easier to handle?
- Won’t wear PPE? The policy must be “no exposed skin” at fires and related conditions. If you wear all of your gear, we will protect you no matter what. If you get burned, for example, because you didn’t wear your gloves and conditions clearly warranted it, who is really responsible? If the fire department bought crap and called it bunker gear, the firefighters would rightfully be upset and kick and scream about it. So when you buy them the best bunker gear, make sure they wear it-all of it-and the officers enforce that, no matter what.
- Back up apparatus without a backer? Make it impossible for this to happen at your fire department by making it clear that no one can back up a vehicle without the fire officer supervising and/or the driver (when alone) doing a full walk around. For a crew of at least three: The driver doesn’t budge until they can see the firefighter in the mirror and the officer is out of the apparatus supervising from a safe vantage point. A big hassle? Then forget it and go ahead and run someone over. Stand by for a real hassle.
- Worried about firefighters being struck by traffic? The solution is simple. With the cops, develop a plan that everyone agrees to. (For every one firefighter or EMT struck, four cops are struck). This plan should outline a way to protect firefighters and police through traffic management and blocking. Go to www.ResponderSafety.com for loads of great info and sample SOPs.
- Tactical fire training needed? You don’t need loads of money. Firefighters can gear up, pack up, grab tools, stretch lines and do search and rescue almost anywhere. It’s just a matter of how badly they, you and the company officer want to do it. For some suggested drills, go to www.FirefighterCloseCalls.com, and go to the Weekly Fire Drills Section.