Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Training, Luck, and being a PUPIL

I just read this excellent post on the nuances of terminology by Willie Wines of Iron

Willie was taken to task for his comments on some of the recent firefighter near-misses that have been reported nationally, specifically for stating that luck was one of the reasons that these incidents were not LODDs.

One of his readers replied that luck was not involved and that it was Training, Experience, and Heart, or alternatively Training, Experience, and Discipline that led to these firefighters survival, although with severe burn injuries.

Willie did some public soul-searching and then used the word "Fortunate" as a replacement for his previous use of "Lucky". I have to admit I don't really see the difference - those two terms are essentially the same thing, at least as I understand them.

More importantly though, Capt. Wines' post brings up the topic of just how much luck plays in things that happen on scene, particularly when it comes to surviving a close call. Obviously, Training, Experience, Heart, and Discipline are all involved. So are SOGs, staffing, protective equipment, teamwork, and being smart.

And yes, sometimes having the best Training, lots of Experience, good PPE, and all of those other things can let us down if something unexpected occurs. There's a chance that Training, Experience, and all the rest can get you out of the situation...and there's a chance that it won't. In fact, the unexpected occurrance might just be a factor of luck.

An old friend, Dr. Jerry DeVane and I spent a lot of time at large fires, complex rescues, and the occasional hazmat incident earlier in my career. Dr. DeVane wasn't one to stand around the command post - he usually could be found wearing turnout gear, treating patients, or even working the Jaws if that was what was needed. He taught me a very useful mneumonic for how to not only survive, but to thrive in stressful, dangerous situations. Jerry said "It's easy. You just have to be a PUPIL. He described PUPIL as follows:

P - Preparedess. This involves Training, Planning, Teamwork, SOGs, and everything else that makes individuals and teams ready to tackle the job and survive the unexpected.

U - Understanding. You must have the gut-level ability to know the job inside and out. You must know how your equipment works, its' capabilities, and its' limitations. You must also know your individual and team capabilities and limitations.

P - Practice, Practice, Practice. 'Nuff said on this one.

I - Intelligence. We must not only have the mental ability to learn the job and to find ways to improve it, we must be smart about how we operate. That means following the rule that sometimes the brave thing to do is to NOT go inside. It also means that we must call the MAYDAY as soon as it is indicated while avoiding a misplaced sense of courage, individual effort, or embarassment get in the way of personal survival.

L - LUCK. Yes, Willie, luck. Jerry's point is that we will have either good luck or bad luck both when we arrive on scene and during our operations. We cannot choose where incidents occur or how bad they may be. Sometimes we cannot intervene in time to prevent either a good luck or bad luck situation from occurring. Dr. DeVane didn't discuss whether or not luck is involved - he KNEW it was involved. His point was that we need to be able to recognize when a bad luck situation occurs and overcome it, and we need to also recognize when a good luck situation occurs and take advantage of it.

This made such an impression on me that I use it in training, especially driver/operator training. I sometimes ask driver/operators to describe the locations of certain tools on their rigs, usually like this; "So, in what compartment do you carry the pickhead axe?" I ask them the same question when it comes to luck: "In what compartment do you carry the good luck." So far, none of the drivers have been able to find good luck on their rig checklist.

The bottom line is that luck does play a part in what we do. The smart thing to do is to plan for bad luck and when we find good luck, make sure that we don't count on it lasting through the end of the incident. After all, Mr. Murphy likes to show up on our calls, and Mr. Murphy is a real SOB.

I'm very glad that we are talking about near-misses and not more LODDs in the cases Capt. Wines describes, whatever variables may have ultimately led to those firefighters' survival.

There is no better way to celebrate this joyous time of year than by knowing that the skeletal guy with the scythe lost his shot at a few of us...this time.

Oh, and Willie, thanks for making us think just how much luck may play a part in "Everyone Goes Home".

Friday, September 9, 2011

10 Years of Remembrance

Sunday is the 10th anniversary of the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks - the worst terrorist attack in the history of our world. It is appropriate that we honor and remember the nearly 3,000 people who died.

We should remember those who died on the four hijacked aircraft. Some were traveling to take care of business or to visit family. Some were aircrew just doing their job. Some were members of the military working in the Pentagon or their support staff or business people simply going about their workday in Lower Manhattan. The loss of every one of those people is a tragedy.

We also should remember those who were injured in the attacks. In particular, several survivors from the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were terribly burned - a horror with which firefighters are all too familiar.

We should remember the NYPD and PAPD police officers and the civilian EMS personnel who died responding to the World Trade Center attack. Their heroism should never be forgotten.

As a firefighter, I especially cannot forget the 343 members of the FDNY who died on that terrible day. They truly exemplify one of the most honorable things about our profession - running into buildings from which everyone else runs out. FDNY's losses do not stop there. Along with NYPD officers, steelworkers, and others, many of them have been dying by inches from respiratory disease, cancer, or other health problems acquired.

Our losses do not stop there. Members of our military have died by the thousands in the subsequent military actions whose intent is to root out sources of terrorist activity whose motive is nothing more than to kill Americans and others who are targeted for no reason other than having different values. I have a very personal reminder of how important this is; my son is one of those military members fighting the group that sheltered and assisted Al Queda as they planned the dastardly 9/11 attack.

I wear a 9/11 memorial bracelet honoring Captain Terry Hatton of FDNY Rescue 1. It is an everyday reminder to Never Forget. Remembering our fallen every day is important, but with the Pentagon rebuilt, the Shanksville memorial in place, the Ground Zero memorial pools flowing water, and the new World Trade Center rising from the ashes of its former site, it can be tempting to simply get on with life. Life indeed goes on for the rest of us, but it is important to take the time to set aside our daily routine and to celebrate the lives of our fallen.

Never, never, NEVER Forget.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

No Blood is Thicker

I was devastated to learn of the death of Fire Captain Jeff Bowen of Asheville, NC's Rescue Company 3. He leaves a wife and three children without a husband and father.
Any LODD is a terrible tragedy, but this one hits - literally - close to home for me.

You see, Asheville is my home town. I was born in Memorial Mission Hospital, located less than a block down Biltmore Avenue from the fire that killed Captain Bowen. The funeral home that handled Captain Bowen's arrangements is virtually next door to the office that housed my father's physician practice before he retired. One of my earliest memories is a 3rd-grade field trip to the Asheville Fire Department's Pack Square headquarters station. I have many family and friends in Asheville, including members of the fire department.

My department and the AFD share information, promotional examination assessors, professional respect, and friendship.

I attended Captain Bowen's funeral last Tuesday. I was impressed by the strength shown by the Asheville firefighters and the regional solidarity shown by fire departments throughout North and South Carolina who were there to honor Jeff's memory. I was also impressed by the thousands of citizens who lined the processional route waving flags, hands placed over hearts, and many crying their eyes out. The citizens of Asheville "get it". They understand at a very basic level that the Asheville firefighters literally put their lives on the line for people that they don't even know. They understand how important the fire department is to protecting the public's lives, property, commerce, and the environment. They understand that even in a down economy that fire and rescue services are essential to us all. Most importantly, they understand that an Asheville firefighter gave his life so that others could live.

I did not know Captain Bowen personally, but Chief Burnette, Chaplain Baird, and especially Jeff's daughters made all of us at the funeral wish that we had known him. In addition to being the captain of Asheville's rescue company, he was an expert in technical rescue, a member of the department's hazardous materials team, and a member of the swiftwater rescue team. As I do, Jeff loved the water. He obviously had a great love for his family, too.

At the funeral service, one of Jeff's daughters described being adopted and how Jeff helped her handle some of the cruel things other kids said to her about not being his biological child. While comforting her, Jeff told her something that was not only a loving comfort, but that was truly profound; "Blood is no thicker than water, but no blood is thicker than blood you would shed for another."

Jeff not only shed his blood for another, he died while making sure that 200 patients and medical staff made it safely away from the fire. Many of those patients were very sick and mobility-impaired. Every one of them made it out of the building. Captain Bowen and sixty other Asheville firefighters made sure of it.

Two days after the funeral, I was stunned to learn that the fire cause was arson. The contrast could not be more stark; someone with callous disregard for human life set fire to a five-story office building packed with people during the middle of the day. Another gave his life to ensure that the arsonist only murdered one person instead of hundreds. Not only did that arsonist kill a firefighter, he injured several other fireighters, some seriously. If not for Capt. Bowen and the other Asheville firefighters, hundreds of doses of chemotherapy drugs in short supply would have been destroyed. Medical treatment for thousands of people has been disrupted, and over 20 million dollars of damage was done. There is truly evil in this world, personified by the arsonist. There is also much good in the world, personified by Captain Jeff Bowen.

Rescue 3's Oregon Avenue firehouse is a sadder place these days, but the rescue firefighters still show up every day. The heavy rescue rig that Jeff loved so much still rolls out the doors, staffed with firefighters who share his dedication to helping other people who are in need.

My department and I are proud to stand in the thin red line with the Asheville firefighters who gave so much to save the lives of so many.

The Memorial Mission Hospital Foundation has started a memorial fund to assist Captain Bowen's family. The hospital foundation will match contributions dollar-for-dollar up to $10,000. You can donate online by contacting the Fallen Firefighter Fund. I urge you to donate to help Jeff's family with the struggles that come with losing a husband, father, and provider.

Jeff Bowen is - simply put - an American hero. So is every other one of the Asheville firefighters who responded to 445 Biltmore Avenue on July 28, 2011.

Blood doesn't come any thicker.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

You Probably Won't Die - No Matter What You Do

Does it sound crazy for a firefighter to say that? Maybe it does, but statistics show that approximately 100 U.S. firefighters die in the line of duty each year, with a smaller number of annual non-firefighter EMS LODDs.

There are approximately 1.15 million firefighters in the USA. That results in a LODD rate of 8.69 to the power of -5...a fraction so tiny that I don't think I can count that far without help from a math professor, a computer, and a calculator with advanced math functions. Or, to put it the same way my basic calculator put it, that number is 8.6956521739130434782608695652174e-5

Adding the 20 or 30 annual non-fire EMS provider LODDs to that number doesn't change the fraction in any way that is meanigful either mathematically or statistically.

So, eat at McDonald's all you wish, smoke and dip tobacco, don't work out or do any cardio, pack in the sugar and the caffiene, drive way faster than the speed limit, don't stop at controlled intersections, don't wear your seat belt or SCBA, don't perform size-ups, run blindly into every building no matter how little - or how much fire or smoke issue from it, freelance, ignore orders, and you'll probably live to tell the rest of us how tough and cool you are...

...this year.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Rule of 3's

Actually, there are three different "Rule of 3's" and all three of them are important to anyone who works in Fire/Rescue or EMS.

The first one is espoused by survivalists. It goes something like this:

You can survive 3 minutes without air, 3 days without water, and 3 weeks without food.

While not exact, that Rule is pretty close to reality for the average human. I know that I can hold my breath for a little more than 3 minutes, but it's pretty uncomfortable after about a minute, it's VERY uncomfortable after two minutes, and at three minutes, it's agony. I've never gone even one day without hydrating, nor more than about 30 hours without food. I hope I never have to do either one.

The second Rule of 3's is the Cave Diver's Rule, now adapted for firefighting as the Rule of Air Management. This Rule states that you use 1/3 of your air to enter the hazard area and do whatever task you planned to do, use 1/3 of your air to exit to a safe atmosphere, and 1/3 of your air for emergencies. It's a good rule and following it has saved the lives of divers, firefighters, and confined space rescuers.

The third Rule of 3's is my rule - "Waller's Rule of Leadership Change". When an organization has a leadership change at the top, there are generally three possible results for the organization including changes in organizational effectiveness, the training cycle, and morale. The three possibilities are that there will be no real change. In that case, the organizational effectiveness, training cycle, and morale tend to continue at the same levels, in the same manner, and with similar results as what took place prior to the leadership change.

The second option is that the new leader may demand big changes and that the changes are improvements. That typically means that the organization will become more effective - at some point. That may take time, and that is dependent upon the nature and complexity of the changes, the amount of training required to adapt to the changes, and how the changes and the training cycle affect morale.

The third - and worst - option is that the new leader may demand big changes and that the changes are bad ones, or even disasters. This change type can destroy organizational effectiveness, drive good people out of the organization, trash the training cycle by requiring constant basic training for new people rather than more advanced training for the more experienced employees, and concurrently ruining morale.

How leadership change is handled is primarily the responsibility of the new leader. The new leader will likely have some constraints. After all, everyone has a boss. If the leader has the power to throw off contraints, that can be either very good or very bad for the organization and for morale.

Hopefully, the next leadership change your organization has will be the kind that improves organizational effectiveness, takes the training cycle's requirement into account, and solidifies and improves morale.

After all, happy employees will work harder for the new leader. If the new leader has a vision, can sell it to his/her boss and the troops, gets everyone's buy-in, and uses it to improve both the organization and morale, he/she is likely to be successful. One caution for new leaders here; sometimes the organization is doing fine, and the best you can do is to be a caretaker for that success until an opportunity for improvement comes along. Don't force change on the organization simply for change's sake. If you do, you've eliminated 1/3 of the possible outcomes, and now you're down to a 50/50 chance for success. Those aren't good odds, and the troops may feel as if they've been without air for a lot longer than three minutes.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Never Forget

Tomorrow is the 9th anniversary of the largest and worst terrorist attack in U.S. history. Almost 3,000 people died, including many fire, law enforcement, and EMS personnel.

Take a moment on 9/11/10 to remember the victims aboard all four of the aircraft, the victims at the World Trade Center, the victims at the Pentegon, and especially the firefighters, police officers, EMTs, paramedics, and other responders who gave their lives.

"Never forget" also means that we need to remember and support the responders, steel workers, and others who ruined their health working at Ground Zero.

"Never forget" means that we will not forget those who survived and who carry the physical and mental scars of that awful day.

"Never forget" means that we need to remember the enemy that conducted that attack, know who that enemy is, and vow to eradicate that enemy while not blaming innocent people who happen to share appearance, nationality, or religion with the terrorists who conducted this attack.

Never, Never, Never forget.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Charleston 9 – A Different Perspective, Part 2

On our way from the staging area to the Coliseum, one person in particular stood out from the crowd of people lining the streets. Once we exited I-526 and turned onto the city streets, I noticed a woman kneeling on the sidewalk. Her right hand was held over her heart and her left hand was held aloft giving the AMESLANI Love You” sign.

This woman was weeping – the tears were literally soaking her face. As each vehicle with the family members of the 9 passed, she bowed so low that her forehead pressed into the sidewalk. As far as I know, she was not a relative of any of the firefighters – she seemed to just be an average Charlestonian overcome by grief who had found a very personal way to show her support for the families of the 9 and for the firefighters of the CFD.

Once we reached the Coliseum, the family vehicles pulled up in the circle and stopped. The sidewalk into the Coliseum was lined with Honor Guard members from all over the U.S. and Canada. It was a hot day and quite humid. Most of the Honor Guard members were standing in the hot sun. It took quite a while for the long procession to pass. During this entire time, the Honor Guard members held a rigid salute. They were taking a serous beating from the heat and humidity, and I saw one of them get so shaky that he almost passed out. Members of the EMS standby crews quickly pulled him out of line, got him into the shade, and began rehydrating him. The other Honor Guard members closed ranks quickly and smoothly. I don’t think any of the families noticed that moment. The rest of the Honor Guard members didn’t twitch, despite the streams of sweat running down their faces and dripping onto the sidewalk.

The EMS standby crews were awesome on that day. I particularly noticed several of the Dorchester County, (SC) EMS crews in action giving out cold bottled water and assisting several people who were overcome by heat.

An arena-style Jumbotron was set up near the entrance to the Honor Guard walk. It showed the interior of the Coliseum and broadcast the sounds of the orchestral music from the interior for those who were unable to go inside.

As each family assembled for the walk into the Coliseum, they were led by a Charleston firefighter. These firefighters carried shiny new replacement helmets for the ones worn by the 9 at the Sofa Super Store fire. It was difficult to avoid thinking about the contrast between the likely condition of those helmets and the new red and black ones carried in the procession.

As we entered the blissful cool and dim Coliseum, it was obvious that the seats were filled nearly to the rafters with firefighters from almost anywhere you can imagine.

The lead escort for each family conducted the family members up front, and the rest of us stood beside the tunnel entrance to the Coliseum floor.
I remember the FDNY Emerald Society Pipes and Drums band playing. I’m of Scottish descent, so the pipes are doubly meaningful for me at any time, but never more so than during this service. The pipes and drums were shockingly loud after the earlier orchestral music, and I remember thinking “Just like every other firefighter – even our funerals are noisy.”

The service itself was a blur. I vaguely remember music, speeches, music, speeches, and more music.

A video of the June 22 memorial service can be found here.

Chief Thomas elicited some laughter when he told a personal story about each of the 9. It was obvious that their loss had shocked him very deeply. At that moment, I had very ambivalent feelings. On one hand, Chief Thomas was obviously crushed by what had happened. On the other hand, he bore the ultimate responsibility for what happened and it didn’t seem as if he was past the denial stage of what had occurred, despite the presence of the nine flag-draped coffins and the large portrait-type photos of the 9 at the foot of the podium.

I remember seeing several obviously-retired firefighters in their dress uniforms, sitting in wheelchairs on the first level of the stands. Many were from hundreds or thousands of miles away. I remember thinking “WOW. Despite their obvious physical handicaps, these disabled firefighters made a long trip to honor the 9.”

I remember seeing one of the Baltimore City firefighters dissolving into tears and being assisted out of the Coliseum by another Baltimore firefighter. I remember thinking about the two recent LODDs that Baltimore had experienced and wondering if this firefighter was a friend of one of their LODDs. I was also impressed that on this day, no firefighter was alone.

Most of all, I remember the overwhelming silence between the speakers and the musical presentation. I’m used to noise like the Tower of Babel if three or more firefighters are present. To see thousands upon thousands of firefighters in one building and being able to hear a pin drop was impressive. I remember thinking that I had never seen such respect earned or given.

I remember the recessional, with some of the Charleston firefighters so overcome with emotion that they were literally being carried by their brother firefighters.

Our family escort duties were complete, so we exited with the other firefighters. Rank upon rank of firefighters lined the sidewalk where the nine hearses were lined up.

Nine times a flag-draped coffin was loaded into a hearse. Nine times, the FDNY pipes skirled. Nine times we held a silent salute.

We remained until the hearses pulled away, destined for the individual funerals to be held later in the week. We then returned to our vehicles. Traffic wasn’t moving, so we took the time to remove the Kleenex from our vehicles. It took a few minutes.

As we were cleaning out our vehicles, I noticed an adult woman who was very pale and sweaty, and who had a very unsteady gait. She complained of dizziness. One of the other Hilton Head firefighters assisted me in moving her back inside and sitting her in a chair in the cool Coliseum interior. One of the other firefighters found one of the Dorchester County EMS crews. They rapidly responded and took over patient care. I remember thinking “Even at a memorial service, we’re still here taking care of people.” It was a small consolation that we had been able to do a small service to help someone in need even after our family escort duties were complete.

As we were finally able to mount up and leave. Traffic was still heavy and it was difficult to exit onto the street. A New Orleans ladder company saw what was happening. They dismounted their rig, blocked traffic, pulled their rig across the street and made sure that all of the family escorts could leave without a further wait. It was much appreciated.

It was midafternoon, and we were all getting hungry. We agreed to meet at a restaurant we all liked in the St. John’s area south of downtown. When we pulled into the restaurant, we noticed fire apparatus from Georgia and Florida in the parking lot. We greeted the firefighters from those rigs, and had a tasty but unmemorable meal.

After eating, we finished the two-hour drive back to Hilton Head in silence.
I had a lot of competing thoughts running through my head the entire time. In the emotions of the moment was difficult to avoid bitterness at the CFD chiefs who were at the fire, even though I didn't know any of them. I had to tell myself to overcome that emotion and to think rationally about it. I realized that they sincerely thought that the way they did things at the time was what they thought was the best way to do business. I also realized that none of them responded to the Sofa Super Store fire with any idea that they’d lose a single firefighter, let alone the 9. I had to remind myself that their department culture had as much to do with what happened as did any individual decision made at the scene.

In the intervening three years, I’ve had several of our firefighters ask me “Chief, could it happen here?” At first, my instinct was to say “Of course not.”, but then I realized that even though we did things much differently than Charleston did at the time, that there was no way that I could honestly make that kind of promise. I finally was able to answer that we are looking at everything we do to ensure that our firefighters stay safe.

We are not a large department, and we generally have at least two or three staff chiefs respond to every working incident.

Typically, the staff chiefs take the Safety, Division C, and any other assignment that Command needs, but in the past I’d heard a lot of “Too many chiefs and not enough Indians” comments from the troops after a fire.

The first time I actually felt that my department had benefitted from the painful lessons from the Sofa Super Store fire was at the first working commercial fire to which I responded a few months after the memorial service. This fire resulted in a quick knock, but a prolonged salvage and overhaul operation – the kind that we all hate. We had a few moments of confusion due to some unusual building features and a few communications problems, and I don’t think any of us was feeling particularly great, despite the nice stop. That changed for me as we were picking up and one of our firefighters approached me. This firefighter had been one of those who had attended the Charleston 9 memorial service. He had not exactly been the biggest fan of the staff chief responses to previous fires. When he approached me, I remember thinking “Great, here it comes.”

To my surprise, he quietly said “I owe you an apology.” I told him that I didn’t know of anything he should apologize for. He replied “I used to complain all the time about too many Chiefs and not enough Indians at our fires. Now, I know why you do it. Thank you for looking out for me at our fires.” I told him that he really didn’t need to apologize, but that I appreciated the apology.

I left the fire scene thinking that finally some good had come from the horrible tragedy that put the term "The Charleston 9" in our vernacular. It’s a shame that this incident ever occured, but I can't change that, so I have accepted it. It would be an even greater shame if that tragedy passed without the rest of us learning everything we can and doing everything within our power to ensure that it NEVER happens again.

In the past three years, I've also been fortunate to meet several Charleston firefighters that I did not previously know. I've met them in some of the South Carolina Fire Academy classes I've taught in my role as an adjunct faculty member, in Charleston firehouses, and socially. They are universally professional, friendly, and when in class, eager to learn. I am honored to be able to call them "brother". I'm also honored that a few of them spent an afternoon in my home, and that we were able to talk about the future and not the past.

Rest in Peace my nine brave brothers. Your sacrifice has indeed not been in vain.