Tim Sendelbach had a lot to say to the delegates and other attendees assembled at the 2014 Firefighter Life Safety Summit in Tampa. In fact, he noted, “What I want to say to you has been building up for 10 years”–a reference to the first summit, also in held in Tampa in 2004.
And from the start, he made clear he was not afraid to challenge the audience. “I’m not a cheerleader,” he said. “I’m going to say some things–they’re not going to scar you, but they will bruise. You’re not here for accolades, you’re here to change the American fire service.”
Sendelbach frequently travels around the country instructing at various departments and academies, and his presentation drew heavily on his travels, referring to the perspective he got at the “30,000-foot level” of the fire service. “I’ve observed some pretty unique things, stuff we don’t necessarily talk about. But we should be,” he said. Sendelbach also referred directly to his position as editor-in-chief of FireRescue magazine. He, nor any of the other editors of the leading fire magazines, he noted, “has an opportunity to put anything but failure on the front cover of our magazines,” he said. “We have to show a burning building, because our culture is that we like going to fires. But do you think Mrs. Smith wants you to go to fires? I would say not.”
This was the central focus of Sendelbach’s message–the contrast between the culture the fire service so deeply cherishes and its stated mission of preventing fires. “I see T-shirts with slogans like, ‘Dancing in the Devil’s Kitchen,’–that’s Mrs. Smith’s kitchen!” he said. “Can we put aside our pride and hear the people speaking to us?”
The Ripple Effect One concept that Sendelbach returned to frequently throughout his presentation was the ripple effect, the phenomenon that allows for poor decision-making to spread throughout an organization or a department. He used the example of Lt. Col. Bud Holland, a B-52 pilot who was known for recklessness, whose stated goal was to try to roll the plane–and who had been the subject of seven documented close calls, one with video and photographic evidence. Yet no one stood in his way, and one day Holland tried to roll the B-52, and when he went down, he took three other people with him.
Turning to a fire service example, Sendelbach shared the story of a Savannah fire engine that crashed into a truck company because the captain had failed to heed the warnings of the relief driver who protested that he wasn’t ready to drive–this occurred when Sendelbach was chief of training at the department. “We asked the firefighter to throw the red flag if he saw something unsafe–he did, and we made him drive anyway,” Sendelbach said. “The idea of being courageous enough to stop unsafe acts–that philosophy was thrown out with one action.”
But the ripple effect can work the other way, too. “What stops the ripple effect?” Sendelbach asked. “It stops when the ripple runs into something.” As an example, he cited NFPA 1500. When it was written, Sendelbach noted, it was the most controversial document in NFPA history. It was, quite frankly, hated by much of the fire service, and debated by nearly everyone. Today, it is the most widely referenced NFPA document in history. Fire chiefs routinely use it to justify their resources and staffing requests. “This is a ripple effect, THIS is TAMPA2,” Sendelbach said. “BE that obstruction! Create a ripple effect in the opposite direction, in a positive direction.”
Table Talk Closely tied to the ripple effect is a tradition unique to the fire service: kitchen table talk. Take the firefighter who sustained burns to his face and neck, a firefighter who Sendelbach had trained. His training had emphasized the need to be able to don his PPE in 60 seconds. He’d drilled on that until it became “unconscious competence,” Sendelbach said. And yet one night the fire he responded to was right behind the station. The firefighter had no more than 30 seconds to don his PPE, and as a result, he hurried through the process and failed to get a good seal on his facepiece.
“At the door, feeling the wind against his cheek, he hesitates,” Sendelbach said. “But he knows that if he puts the hose down, someone else will take it. Why does Mario go in that building? Because what would they say at the kitchen table about Mario if he put down that hoseline? They would destroy him.”
Sendelbach also shared his own experience with the kitchen table influence. At a training burn in Texas, he was assigned to monitor the recruits using a thermal imager. The heat was soon unbearable; he felt his PPE burning up, his head and hands on fire. But seeing a Houston firefighter apparently unaffected by the heat, he felt the pressure to stay inside, and he did so until it was almost too late–realizing only later that the firefighter was wearing two liners. Why? “There were 85 reasons I didn’t exit the building early–because there were 85 kitchen tables in the Houston Fire Department,” Sendelbach said. “And every one of them would have had a drawing of me running out of the burn building.”
But like the ripple effect, Sendelbach stressed the importance of kitchen table talk in creating change even as it perpetuates negative traditions. “Table talk is the most powerful tool in the fire service,” he said. “The conversations you create have to make the kitchen table. If we don’t make the kitchen table, we aren’t changing anything.”
Risk and Aggressiveness A known advocate of the UL and NIST fire behavior studies and the subsequent changes in tactics they’ve produced, Sendelbach called out the work of Dan Madrykowski and Steve Kerber, pointing out that in some ways their studies on the effects of ventilation on structure fires are simply telling us what we already knew: “When you break out all the windows, there’s a high probability you’re going to a big fire.” He scoffed at those who mock such research as not applicable in the real world because it’s conducted in a laboratory.
And Sendelbach took special offense to the idea that such changes are threatening the identity of the fire service. “Some interpret this research to mean that we want you to stay outside and watch s!$t burn,” he said. “Show me one fire service magazine where there’s a classified ad that says, ‘hiring passive firefighters to stand outside and watch s!$t burn.’ We’re all aggressive firefighters. The key is to be aggressively smart. Mrs. Smith doesn’t care about your aggressiveness if you don’t put the fire out.”
The American fire service is at a fork in the road, Sendelbach said–“one path is the tactics that we know, that are supposedly proven successful, and the other is empirical data, a new way of thinking. TAMPA2, you’re at that fork–do you have the courage, the tenacity, the influence to take the right side?”
A Tough Message Sendelbach’s message will be a difficult pill for many firefighters to swallow: that while the fire service has many proud traditions, it also clings to a lot of tactics and traditions that “are all about ME. Our business is not about image. It’s said that our greatest pride is our tradition, our greatest symbol is our apparatus, and our greatest trait is our courage. But what truly makes us different is our humility.”
That was a lesson Sendelbach himself came face-to-face with at the World Burn Congress in 2010, when he heard the stories of 800 burn survivors. “I went in with a selfish mind, boasting about being a firefighter,” he said. “But I realized [after hearing their stories] that with 26 years in the fire service, I hadn’t made a difference. A hoseline wouldn’t have saved a single one of those burn survivors, because the burns occurred before the fire department even got there.”
But what may have saved them: public education, and support for residential fire sprinklers. “The American fire service has to put prevention and education at the forefront of our business,” Sendelbach said. The delegates at TAMPA2 gave him a standing ovation. What remains to be seen, however, is whether this small group of progressive thinkers can carry their message to the kitchen table, and create a ripple effect that cascades outward to the more than 30,000 departments and nearly one million firefighters.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Sendelbach said. “But I’m willing to run it with you.”