Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Last Thoughts from 2009 and Hopes for 2010

It is traditional to spend the last week of the year reflecting upon the past year's events and in anticipating the new year. It has indeed been an eventful year. Major fires, mass casualty incidents, new EMS standards, and political changes that affect Fire-Rescue and EMS services have all been in the news. The tragic loss of fellow firefighters and medics has once again been in the headlines. The 800-pound gorilla in the news has been the continuing problems with the national economy, diminished local tax revenues, and the reduction in services that have been forced upon many cities, towns, and counties.

No fire chief or EMS director wants to close stations, disband companies, furlough firefighters or medics, cut staff and/or benefits, or conduct unit brownouts. All of these have been forced on unwilling leaders, generally under protest. In some cases, companies with over a century of tradition have been disbanded.

Cutbacks of this magnitude have only occurred two other times in the past century. The event that caused the first set of cutbacks was the transition from horsedrawn apparatus to motorized apparatus in the early 1900s. Prior to that time, the edges of a company's first-due area was set by the stamina of the horses that pulled the appratus. With equine stamina no longer being a factor, firehouses could be located farther apart, so many companies were disbanded.
The second time this occurred was in the "War Years" that coincided with economic downturn from the late 1960's through the 1970's. Despite urban fire companies running calls in record numbers, fire companies were disbanded, stations closed, and firefighters were laid off. This was the first time that many fire departments realized that they had to position themselves to withstand downturns in the economy. Some responded with innovation, master planning, and other proactive solutions, but many departments remained reactive.

Beginning in the 1970's, the fire service began going through paradigm changes with each paradigm change taking roughly a decade to become widely accepted. The 1970's were the decade of EMS. EMS was a new concept back then, but many fire departments welcomed and embraced it. The Los Angeles area was notable in this respect, as anyone who ever watched an episode of Emergency! will remember. A new job description - that of Paramedic - became part of our vocabulary.

The 1980's were the decade of Hazardous Materials response. Based on several high-profile hazmat incidents in the late 1970's, Hazmat became a key issue for both fire departments and the communities they served. Another new job description - that of Hazardous Materials Technician entered our vocabulary.

The 1990's were the decade of Technical Rescue. Standardized, innovative extrication practices were invented by firefighters who became famous by the way they taught others how to rapidly and safely cut patients free from the wreckage of their vehicles. The Urban Search and Rescue system was expanded and received its first major domestic test at the Oklahoma City bombing incident. Rescue training became a major focus. Other new job descriptions, those of Extrication Technican and Technical Rescue Technician became common.

The first decade of the new century, unfortunately, became the decade of Terrorism. Although the U.S was hit with several terrorist attacks in the 1990s, and foreign terrorism had been common for many years, the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks were a watershed event in our lives, much as the Pearl Harbor attack on 12/07/41 was the watershed event in our parents' lives. Other than the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the other terrorist incidents were conducted by only four domestic terrorists - the Unabomber, the Murrah Building bomber and one accomplice, and the mislabeled Army of God bomber. The 9/11 attacks led to widespread training for response to terrorist events. Firefighters and medics had to start considering terrorism as a potential cause for otherwise innocuous incidents, and learned terms like "nerve agent", "WMD", "WMD Technician", and "USAR Rescue Specialist" entered our vocabulary.

2009 was a momentous year for my department. After over a decade of planning, budgeting, and lobbying, we were able to build a training center. That may not sound like a big deal to some of you, but when your department covers a barrier island surrounded by water, having a place to train is indeed big news. The training center allows us to conduct training in ways that are impossible to replicate in a parking lot or at a fire station. I lived the dual blessing and curse of being the project manager for the training center construction while simultaneously maintaining all of the other Chief of Training responsibilities. That was stressful and challenging, but it also allowed me to add features that might not have otherwise made it into the design. It also allowed me to work closely with other division heads and to strenghten working relationships with my colleagues.

Local revenue downturns led to a year with no pay raises for any of our municipal employees. My department was regretfully and regretably forced to return a SAFER grant award of almost a million dollars to FEMA and to forgo the truck company start-up for which the grant was awarded. Our municipality simply could not raise the required matching funds without cutting other essential services, so we chose to maintain what we had as the least of a range of bad choices.

There was more good news, for us, though. We were able to purchase a standardized pumper fleet for the first time in department history. We also standardized hose loads, nozzles, and initial company operations for all of our engine companies for the first time in our history. We were also able to standardize our nozzle complements and pump operations, also for the first time. Our capital improvements budget was scheduled for two fire station replacements. One of these was delayed, but we have a badly-needed station replacement under construction. Our department became the first in our state to join the CARES registry that tracks cardiac arrest survival to hospital discharge. We also began a STEMI program with local hospitals and two neighboring EMS systems, with two of our officers coordinating these programs and implemented a department-wide electronic patient care reporting system. We also implemented an new SOG and policy system, obtained new turnout gear, and implemented new extrication tools.

2009 was a year of milestones for several of our members. Five of our officers serve on state and national fire service committees. Battalion Chief Mick Mayers became the latest of several of our past and current chief officers to complete the prestigious Executive Fire Officer program at the National fire academy. Four of our officers authored or co-authored fire service training books, field guides, and blogs. Despite some setbacks, 2009 was a successful year for us by any standard.

What will 2010 hold? For my department, we now have to operate the new training center, complete the new fire station project, and hopefully manage the construction of the station that was delayed from 2009. We will be receiving two new quints and training all of our personnel to operate them. The training center will be a busy place.
Nationally, the next decade will be the decade of Interoperability. We are used to "doing our own thing", but with the increasing needs for EMS involvement in fireground and hazmat rehab, the increasing involvement of police departments in force protection and Unified Command, and the continuing ways in which MCI and disaster management continue to involve, interoperability will become increasingly important. This involves the planning and technology necessary to complete the nationwide radio rebanding project, the ability to involve fire, EMS, and law enforcement in joint operations and training, and losing the attitude that we operate in a vacuum, because we don't.

We need to continue to preach - and practice the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives.

We need to continue to make training and operations safer.

We need to focus on getting safely to the scene - every time.

We need to focus on being healthy and fit to do the job.
We need to focus on planning and innovation to survive a continued sluggish economy.

We need to take care of our own and work to maintain what we have.

We need to be honest with our elected officials and citizens - cutbacks can and do hurt our ability to provide services.

We need to realize that operating "the way we've always done it" will result in Russian Roulette at best, and suicide at worst.

We need to be smart enough to stay out of Born Losers.

We need to conduct realistic Master Planning.

We need to educate the public - CPR classes, First Aid classes, car seat installations, Risk Watch programs, and Fire Prevention classes can and do save lives.

Last, but not least, we need to get make our departments missionaries for residential sprinkler programs and the new building code that requires their installation on new construction. It's past time that we use our influence at the state and national level to overcome the contruction industry's misperception that saving a few cents per square foot on new home construction is worth someone's life.

The departments that plan, adapt, innovate, and market themselves will flourish. The ones that do not will become anachronisms, consigned to a never-ending vicious cycle of manpower cuts, station closures, brownouts, and budget cuts.

After all, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Have a Happy and Safe 2010, everyone.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

7-Sided Searches and UCAN

Some recent calls, drills, and follow-up conversations in which I was a participant have brought out how well a couple of basic tactics can be adapted for multiple purposes.

The first is the 7-Sided Search.

7-Sided Searches should be conducted on every incident in which we have a potential victim.
The seven sides to be searched are:


1. Side A/Division A
2. Side B/Division B
3. Side C/Division C
4. Side D/Division D
5. Roof
6. Basement/Crawl Space
7. the Inside (including the Inside of each interior compartment)


1. Front
2. Driver's Side
3. Passenger Side
4. Rear
5. Top
6. Underneath the Vehicle
7. the Inside, including the passenger compartment, trunk, and hatchback areas

The rule for searching these is:

7-Sided Search

  • Every Vehicle

  • Every Structure

  • Every Time

The other helpful tactic is the UCAN mneumonic. Originally developed for MAYDAY applications, UCAN has applications to basic search tactics. UCAN was designed for a firefighter giving a MAYDAY report to COMMAND the following information;

  • Unit

  • Conditions

  • Actions

  • Needs

The MAYDAY firefighter should tell COMMAND the unit to which he/she is assigned, the conditions that required calling a MAYDAY, what actions the lost/trapped/disoriented firefighter is taking, and what the lost/trapped/disoriented firefighter needs.

These same four considerations work well when a search team moves through a building, particuarly when moving vertically.

For example, Truck 3 is assigned to conduct a primary search of Divisions 3 and 4 of an apartment building with a fire on Division 2. Truck 3 should give COMMAND a UCAN update each time they move one vertical floor upwards. An example:

"COMMAND, Truck 3"

"Truck 3"

"COMMAND, Truck 3 is on Division 3, we have a heavy smoke condition with moderate heat, no fire visible, we are starting our primary search, and we need ventilation support and secondary egress."

"Truck 3, COMMAND recieves that you are on Division 3, you have a heavy smoke condition with moderate heat and no visible fire, and that you need ventilation support and secondary egress. Repeat your Actions report."

"COMMAND, Truck 3, we are starting our primary search of Division 3."

"Truck 3, recieved, you are starting your primary search of Division 3."

There are five distinct advantages to using UCAN reports for reporting tactical movement through a fire building in the absence of a MAYDAY.

  • Firefighters become familiar with the UCAN methodology in routine situations and will not struggle to remember the mneumonic in the event they need to call a MAYDAY in the future

  • Firefighters become practiced at using the UCAN terminology and reporting location changes to COMMAND

  • COMMAND knows where the units are and what they are doing

  • Status changes are reported in a standard forma

  • Status reports are transmitted in a standard format. If one part is missed, COMMAND can just ask for the missing piece of information without wasting the air time for a complete UCAN rehash from the unit giving the report

The "A" step can be modified to include "AIR" levels. If a company has a member that is low on air, the company can give a UCAN report that includes the air reading for the member with the lowest air level, particularly in big-box structures where the company needs to exit with 2/3 of their air available.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Candlemoth Syndrome

How many firefighters have ever experienced Candlemoth Syndrome? I know I have, particularly when I was younger and less experienced. Candlemoth Syndrome is a firefighting cousin of Target Fixation, where firefighters are drawn closely to the fire in disregard for proper firefighting tactics and for firefighter safety.

The definition of "Moth to a Flame" is to be "Irresistibly and dangerously attracted to something or someone." The term relates to moth behavior around open candle flames at night. Moths are drawn to the light given off by the flame, but they often get too close, resulting in badly burned or dead moths. Firefighters can indeed be irresistably and dangerously attracted to be in close proximity to a fire. Candlemoth Syndrome is dangerous, it can easily result in firefighter injury or death, and it is all-too-common. Candlemoth Syndrome is generally avoidable if you recognize the symptoms.

Candlemoth Syndrome includes the following:

1) Waiting to attack interior fires until the hose team is very close to the fire in situations where the water stream could be used to safely and effectively attack the fire from farther away.

An example is using a direct attack with a solid stream or straight stream from very close to the fire instead of extinguishing the base of the fire from farther away where the firefighters are less exposed to the heat. This also gives the firefighters more direct access to their escape route if something goes wrong during the attack.

2) Conducting Defensive attacks in structures where Offensive attacks are indicated.

There are two examples of this. The most common is Horizontal Candlemoth Syndrome; the nozzleman who runs directly to a window venting fire and attacks the fire head-on from close range from the exterior. This will usually drive the fire into uninvolved parts of the building, cut off escape routes for the occupants, and increase the amount of unnecessary fire damage to the structure. The other example is Vertical Candlemoth Syndrome, where ladder pipe streams are directed into vertical ventilation openings. This results in the fire being driven downward into uninvolved parts of the structure, with the same potential bad outcomes as the horizontal example.

3) Defensive Candlemoth Syndrome is a variation of Horizontal Candlemoth Syndrome. This occurs when a fire has been declared Defensive and firefighters push too close to a building that is either in danger of collapsing or that is a No Value building, or both.

Focusing strategy and tactics on the RECEO-VS system, maintaining personnel accountability, and having Division C and Incident Safety Officers on scene to maintain a 360 view of the fireground help prevent Candlemoth Syndrome.

Good company officers who practice organizational discipline, who monitor their personnel closely during firefights, and who are not afraid to use firefighting best practices can prevent Candlemoth Syndrome, keep their firefighters safer, and reduce the amount of antacids ingested by chief officers.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Brotherhood versus Enemies

If there are concepts that are polar opposites, Brothers and Enemies are great examples.Brotherhood means treating the people whom you call "brother" as if they were indeed blood relatives.Practicing the concept can sometimes be a little tricker, as brothers sometimes engage in family fights.

I have three brothers, and when growing up, I often lost fights to both the two older ones, who were bigger and more powerful, and a younger one, who was sneakier and not afraid to fight dirty. Let someone else pick on me though, and my brothers would turn on them in a split second.

Firefighting brotherhood is supposed to be like that, even when we disagree. Usually it is, but some firefighters bandy the word "brotherhood" about without having the slightest idea of how to practice the concept. When firefighters have a disagreement and one proclaims the others are his "enemies" over a disagreement, that firefighter intentionally sets himself outside of the brotherhood.

When I made mistakes, my two older brothers tried to straighten me out by discussing the situation and suggesting ways that I could improve upon my actions. A lot of the time, I listened to reason and found that my older, more experienced brothers were indeed right. Sometimes I didn't listen, and found that my brothers became more pointed in their advice; sometimes to the point of directly intervening if my actions would result in harm to myself or to others. Sometimes even that wasn't enough, and I ended up in the hospital getting sutures or other medical care.

The cuts and bruises were sometimes the only way I learned my lesson, but my brothers never let me do anything that would cause really serious injury to me or to anyone else.On the other hand, I wasn't stupid enough to declare myself as an "enemy" to my brothers, because my brothers simply meant too much to me.

My firefighting brothers and sisters are like that. Sometimes we disagree, and sometimes the more senior members give counsel to the younger, less experienced members as well as having discussions among ourselves as to which ways are the best to do things. We don't run around calling each other "enemies" if we expect our brothers to treat us like family, or if we plan to be accepted as a brother or sister, or if we engage in behavior characteristic more like a declared enemy than like a brother.

And...if we declare war against our brothers and sisters, we no longer can claim to be a part of the "brotherhood". If we declare that other firefighters are "the enemy" or "the problem" in a public place, then retract it and run away, we don't have the right to claim "brotherhood" with other firefighters. Part of being a brother is to share common danger with each other's help. That action is not chacteristic of enemies.

Running away in the face of danger or disagreement isn't brotherhood. It's symptomatic of feeling guilty about something."And they shall fall one upon another, as it were before a sword, when none pursueth..." Leviticus 26:37

One of the best things about the firefighting brotherhood is the strong bonds of friendship that results from sticking together in the face of danger; we unite against a common enemy. Friends are important in this business. "Friends come and go, but enemies accumulate." Al Brunacini

Brotherhood means being careful of what you say about each other. Enemies are under no such compunction. "An enemy generally says what he wishes." Thomas Jefferson

It's good to have a lot of friends, and few - or no - enemies.

"He who has a thousand friends has not a friend to spare, and he who has one enemy will meet him everywhere." Ralph Waldo Emerson

Friends are most important, particularly in the face of someone who declares himself to be an enemy, then conducts attack after attack. Friends help defeat those attacks, and eventually the one who has declared himself to be an enemy will turn tail and run...often becoming anonymous and hiding in an attempt to deflect further attention. I'm proud to be called an enemy by someone who doesn't understand brotherhood and I'm proud of my brothers and sisters who stood by me in an attempt to show someone who labeled me an enemy the error of his ways.

As Winston Churchill once said "You have enemies; Good, that means that you have stood up for something..." I try to stand up for firefighter safety, being smart about firefighting and fire training, and for speaking out when I see things that I don't think are right. I'm extremely appreciative of those firefighters who understand brotherhood and who practice it rather than a vain attempt to grasp it by talking about it without understanding it.

I'm also very appreciative of a senior member of my department who is a member of the NFPA 1403 Committee, and who is not bashful about practicing brotherhood by dispensing good advice when I need it, whether or not I ask for it.

As for declared enemies, they fall into a special category; a category defined by Saul Alinsky when he said "Last guys don't finish nice."

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Ramp Strikes, Mom's Name, and Survival

Although I love to read, I haven't had much reading time lately. Work and completing the edits of my chapter in Jones & Bartlett's new Fundamentals of Technical Rescue has taken up most of my spare time. I have been able to complete a book I have wanted to read for a long time recently, Deep Survival by Laurance Gonzales.

Gonzales' work is an excellent study in what it takes to survive extreme situations. He discusses several high-profile and not-so-high-profile incidents in which some people lived, some died, and the reasons for each. His research also includes an astonishing view into brain chemistry, how our brains are wired, and why people make some of the decisions we do under stress.

Some of his research led him to the pilot's ready room on a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier where pilots were preparing for night landings. In case you're not familiar, night carrier landings are so dangerous and stressful that physiological studies show that the pilots are actually more stressed during the carrier landings than in combat. In the pre-flight briefing, the squadron commander tells the pilots "If you're a quarter of a mile out and I ask you your mother's name, YOU DON'T KNOW!" He went on to say that the pilots are so focused that they effectively lose 1/2 of their IQ...the half that's not necessary to land the plane.

The commander later told Gonazlez that one of the primary loss-of-focus accidents in carrier landings is the "Ramp Strike". These are devastating accidents where the pilot focuses so strongly on getting to a safe place - the flight deck - that he loses focus on the steps it takes to get to safety - actually flying the plane in the correct pattern. Ramp strikes generally kill the pilot and other carrier crew members, destroy planes worth several million dollars per copy, and cause major damage to one of our most expensive strategic weapons systems. That's a bad outcome from an event that - although dangerous - our Navy pilots perform safely dozens of times per day.

Gonzales also relates the Mt. Hood climbing accident where one team fell into another and both teams ended up with dead team members and others seriously injured. The second team was involved because they looked up at the team climbing a ridge above them and didn't realize that they were directly in that team's fall line. Gonzales illustrated this by making the same climb himself. When the guide asked him "Which way is down", Gonzales pointed down the ridge to the starting point at the lodge, even though a dropped ice axe - or falling climber - would fall off the side of the ridge, not down the edge of the ridge toward the lodge. He then realized that he'd made a basic orientation mistake - pointing toward percieved safety instead of really assessing his surroundings.

The message - staying oriented is important. When starting search rope training, I've had firefighters tell me "That's so old school. Groping around in smoke is silly - just use a Thermal Imager."

My response is that "The Thermal Imager gets you in to the seat of the fire or to the victim, but it doesn't get you out." The search rope system helps prevent disorientation and it helps you re-orient if you become disoriented. If you don't have a hoseline, anchor a search rope and stay hooked up to it. If you get disoriented, you have two choices - either spend air, effort, and time in a self-rescue or staying put, calling a Mayday, and hoping that RIT gets you before the fire and smoke do. Staying oriented and maintaining a positive connection to the exterior gives you a much better chance of self-rescuing.

A large component of personal survival is mental - both pre-event and during it. The pre-event decision is about doing a thorough, focused size-up and risk-benefit analysis, and taking only calculated risks. The during-event mental focus is to trust the survival system you put in place during the event. Being able to synthesize survival techniques from other professions can help us analyze our mistakes and avoid making them again. As my friend Mick Mayers says, "There are a lot of lessons we can learn from the military". I'd add that there are also lessons to be learned from mountain and river guides, airline pilots, wilderness survival experts, and others who are in the daily business -as we are - of surviving in dangerous places.

The lesson here is to assess your surroundings, have pre-event survival systems in place, control your emotions, and avoid erroneous perceptions of exactly how to get to a safe place.

And...if you call a Mayday, and I ask you your mother's name, YOU DON'T KNOW!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Getting Familiar with Unfamiliar Dirt

I recently spent a week on vacation that included a lot of reading on the beach. I was able to complete a six-book series, the Corean Chronicles by L.E. Modsitt, Jr... an excellent read if you're into the genre. In one of the books, a group of soldiers is deployed to an area with which none of them are familiar. They're tired from traveling and just want to set up camp and relax, but their officer immediately sends out patrols. They complain, but the officer tells the soldiers that they need to "Get familiar with the unfamiliar dirt" where they're operating in order to prevent any nasty surprises from the enemy. Frank Brannigan always told firefighters that buildings were our enemy, and "Know Your Enemy". Driving around a beachfront town that I hadn't visited in several years reminded me that there was a lot of unfamiliar dirt there, and that the unfamiliar dirt had a lot of unfamiliar buildings on it.

How will getting familiar with unfamiliar dirt help firefighters? It helps us learn how to gain access to places we may never have been, it helps us learn occupancy-specific hazards, and it helps us plan firefights in places that aren't directly conntected to the dirt.

Some firefighters don't like to spend time on the dirt at the Training Center.
The places you train are built on some very important dirt.
I spent four hours on this dirt yesterday (Sunday) with several companies of very dedicated firefighters. So did two other chief officers, one of whom was off duty at the time.

Some of your dirt has structures containing bad things like hazardous materials containers...

...or hazardous materials processing.

The dirt may be open and inviting on Side A.
No matter how familiar you are with Side A, if you have to bail out the Side C door of this occupancy, you're in trouble.

How about this dirt? Which Side C door connects to which strip mall occupancy?
How well will the cantilivered awning hold up if fire attacks the interior anchors?
If you need to force entry on Side C, will basic engine tools get you through the fortified doors, or will you need the additional power carried by a ladder or rescue company?

Is some of the structure built a long way above the dirt?
How will you access the upper floors of this structure...especially if the 1st due is a single-station volunteer fire department? Are there fire protection systems to help you keep this building from becoming part of the dirt?

Does the structure extend horizontally away from the dirt?
Do you have a way to handle emergencies in places that are not readily accessible from the dirt?

Are some of the structures on the dirt crammed tightly together?
Can you safely walk between the fire building and an adjacent exposure, or is there a chance that you'll be trapped or burned if part of the fire structure collapses or autovents while you're walking the 4-foot wide dirt between the buildings?

Does the dirt include an antique building modified into apartments over an industrial occupancy with no fire protection systems?

The officer in the Corean Chronicles had an important teaching point for the fire service...learn the unfamiliar dirt to which you're first due...

..so that you don't get familiar with this kind of unfamiliar dirt.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Mutual Dependence on Independence Day

Independence Day - July 4 - is a uniquely American holiday. Many of us treat it like just another summer holiday - a barbecue, swimming or boating, relaxing with friends, and concluding with an evening of fireworks. This year, I ask you to take a few minutes to do something a little different. The American Revolution was the brain child of a few people who resolved to risk their businesses, their fortunes, and their very lives to gain independence from Great Britain. After a war that destroyed lives and property, they achieved their aim. How did they achieve independence? They achieved it by working and fighting - together - to overcome a common enemy. They were not willing to give up, to back down, or to compromise on the essentials of what they believed to be right. When he said "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately", Benjamin Franklin understood the dichotomy that in order for America to become independent, the people fighting for that independence had to be mutually dependent by "hanging together". Benjamin Franklin was a firefighter, and he understood the community's mutual dependence upon the fire department as the protector of lives, property, and commerce, too.

Patrick Henry, another early American patriot, advised constant vigilance when being faced with the loss of freedom and mutual happiness and prosperity. He also understood the value of being able to jointly determine our common fate. His comment..."The battle, Sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, Sir, we have no election."

In 2009, the American Fire-Rescue and EMS services are under attack, in a different way from how our country was in 1776, but under attack no less. We are under attack from the global economy that steals revenue from our cities and counties. We are under attack from increasing call volumes while under pressure to reduce staffinug and to make that old apparatus last "just one more year". We are under attack from citizens that want us to be there in their hour of need, but who don't understand the realities of making the services available in a rapid and safe manner. Our funding is under attack from politicians and administrators that see the economic meltdown as a way to permenently reduce the costs of providing fire, rescue, and EMS services.

So, how do we "hang together" to overcome these problems?

An example is the Boston firefighters who - on their own time - staffed firehouses that would have otherwise been browned out. Columbia and Irmo, SC firefighters recently worked together to fight a house fire near both city's boundaries. Sylvania Township, OH firefighters set up a live burn for some of their elected officials - officials that had previously opposed a 1.5 mil fire tax increase. My department jointly operates three special teams (Hazmat, COBRA/WMD, and USAR) with our good friends from Bluffton Township Fire & Rescue. These are just a few examples of creative ways to work together to maintain and improve Fire/Rescue and EMS services when we can no longer just throw money at every problem.

Like it or not, we're mutually dependent on our neighboring Fire/Rescue and EMS departments, our elected officials, and our public administrators. We need to foster creative ways to use that mutual dependence to our mutual benefit. If you don't like running mutual aid or automatic aid with a neighboring department, get together, work out the problems, and start helping each other. If your services are being cut due to the economy, do your homework, get the facts, and enlist community support to help minimize the cuts. If you are at odds with your public administrators and/or elected officials, invite them to participate in a live burn, extrication demonstration, or a CPR class to find out just how physically demanding our jobs really are...and why it takes that expensive manpower to do the job safely.

Once you determine the best way to foster the mutual dependence with the other stakeholders, follow Benjamin Franklin's advice and "Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve."

Tomorrow is Independence Day in the United States. Remember the people who fought to make it so, and in the words of our most famous early firefighter "Where liberty dwells, there is my country." Let's foster our mutual dependence to provide the people whom we serve Liberty - Liberty from fire, entrapment, and the loss of loved ones and livelihood. Pointing out our mutual dependence can go a long way toward improving bad relationships. Remember Great Britain, our enemy in 1776 and again in 1812? They're now our closest ally, sharing mutual dependence.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Don't save Safety for the Critique

At the end of the 2009 Safety, Health, and Survival week, I'm sitting here sadly shaking my head. June has been a bad month for the U.S. Fire and EMS services. This month there have already been 10 reported LODDs involving 9 firefighters and a rescue squad member. One of the LODDs was from my state, South Carolina. Since Safety Week started, a random sampling of fire and EMS news includes an Ohio firefighter that was originally reported as a LODD that is on life support following a line-of-duty event, three San Antonio firefighters burned when a fire unexpectedly breached a wall during an interior attack, and four Baltimore firefighter injured in an engine vs. structure crash. This morning, I woke up to see this bad news about a St. Paul FD ambulance being involved in an accident that resulted in a civilian fatality. I've had a very busy week, with focusing on the punch list for our nearly-completed training center, but I've still tried to find time to promote Safety Week and to ensure that our firefighters had easy access to Safety Week activities and information.

A couple of evenings ago, I had the chance to stop by one of our busier stations. The crew was taking advantage of a little lull in the action to engage in a little team-building discussion. The discussion was pretty interesting. It centered on chief officers - one of the four areas of concentration for this year's Safety Week. The comments were, in typical firehouse fashion, blunt and to the point. One of the firefighters commented that chief officers need to understand the difference between thinking tactically and thinking like a safety officer when they act as the Incident Safety Officer. I asked what he meant. He went on to say that some chiefs focus on how to extinguish the fire regardless of what vest they're wearing, while others understand the Safety Officer's role and how to carry it out without interfering with a properly-run operation. The other firefighters commented on the other extreme, when the Safety Officer attempts to start the post-incident critique while the battle against the fire is still being waged.

So where does the Safety Officer draw the line?

The Safety Officer is charged with recognizing unsafe acts and conditions, informing Command, and can take direct action to stop unsafe acts or remediate unsafe conditions. How do you do that without inappropriate interference with the tactical situation? My rule is that if the issue is minor, if I'm the Safety Officer, I correct it and move on. For example, if the pump operator forgot to don his safety vest, I tell him to don it and keep moving. If a firefighter wants to start a mid-fire conversation about the unsafe acts of a different company, I tell him "Save the critique for the critique." On the other hand, if I see a company starting to make entry into a building with collapse potential, not only do I stop the entry, I immediately notify Command that we need to evacuate the building and I start establishing and marking a collapse zone. The trick is to know when to make a big deal out of the problem, when to simply communicate conditions to Command, and when to directly correct a minor problem.

As my good friend and colleague Mick Mayers says..."Don’t try to take shortcuts because you think it is easier. Shortcuts are cheating and cheating ultimately results in a catastrophic failure when someone gets caught." If you're in the Safety Officer role and you see someone taking a dangerous shortcut, stop it!

There are some common sense things that we can all do to make life safer and easier for all of us. If the drivers don't routinely don full gear, then they should have their traffic vest on their seat and don it prior to responding. It won't delay the comany's turnout time, trust me. If you use the Passport accountability system or a similar system that uses helmet identifiers, then the officer should ensure that every company member has their name tags in the system and has helmet identifiers properly attached as soon as they enter quarters to start the shift. In other words, Don't let the little things become big things.

When you get to the critique, if some of us are a little peeved because the Safety Officer made us wear eye protection to operate extrication tools, made us stop to put on a traffic vest, or stopped us from entering that marginal structure fire that we just "knew" we could hit offensively and "get away with it", then remember that you're alive and well to be peeved. After all, we can work out critique points at the critique. We can't, however, go back and unbury a LODD brother or sister at the critique.

In closing, even though this year's Safety Week is over, don't act as if it is. Drive safely, condition, wear incident-appropriate PPE, stay hydrated, get help when you need it, and look out for each other. Rehab as if your life depends on it, especially in the tropical heat wave we're having in the south right now. Make every week Safety Week.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Monkey Parable, Safety, and Resistance to Change

The 2009 Fire and EMS Safety, Health, and Survival Week begins tomorrow. My department is using these resources to help our firefighters develop healthy lifestyles, and maintain a safer work environment. In honor of Safety Week, I offer the following - The Monkey Parable.

Once upon a time, some researchers conducted an experiment. They obtained five monkeys and placed them into a single cage. In the center of the cage was a stairway that terminated in thin air. After a hungry night in the cage, the monkeys saw a researcher lowering a bunch of bananas through the bars above the stairs. The monkeys immediately charged up the stairs toward the food. Other researchers immediately blasted the monkeys with ice cold water from fire hoses, played tapes of loud, discordant music, and turned on strobe lights. They repeated these actions every time they lowered the bananas into the cage. It didn't take the monkeys long to refuse to set foot on the stairs, no matter how hungry they were.

Once this conditioning had taken effect, the researchers removed one of the monkeys from the cage and replaced him with a 2nd-generation monkey. Down came the bananas. The new monkey raced for the stairs. Before he could set foot on the bottom step, the other four monkeys grabbed him and beat him down, not wanting to experience a repeat of the previous few days' unpleasantness. No icy bath, strobe lights, or discordant music resulted. This was repeated until all of the 1st generation monkeys had been replaced by 2nd generation monkeys, none of which had experied the unpleasantness through which the 1st generation had lived.

Once the 2nd generation monkeys were completely conditioned, one of them was removed from the cage and replaced with a 3rd generation monkey. Down came the bananas. The newest monkey dashed for the food, was caught at the bottom of the stairs, and beaten down, just as the 2nd generation monkeys were beaten down by the 1st generation monkeys. During the beat-down, the new monkey cried out"Why are you guys beating me?" The beat down stopped and the four 2nd-generation monkeys looked around at each other. Finally, one of them replied..."I don't know, it's just that we've always done it that way." Hopefully, fire-rescue and EMS personnel aren't so conditioned to "We've always done it that way" that we act like the monkeys in the story. We're supposed to be smarter than monkeys.

Chief Officers share in the responsibility to help keep our firefighters safe. Safety Week activities include resources to help the chiefs take care of the firefighters and paramedics for whom they are responsible.

How many firefighters will continue to die unnecessarily because we run into Born Losers...because we've always done it that way? How many of us will refuse to use new tactics and tools because we like the old ones...because we've always done it that way? How many fire and EMS personnel will die because we are too busy donning SCBA or performing patient care to ensure our own safety...because we've always done it that way?

Let's commit to safer, healthier firefighters and emergency operations. If we don't, then we're really not any smarter than the monkeys.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Good Luck, Bad Luck, and SOGs

It never ceases to amaze me how many times I hear or see really bad ideas espoused as the way to do things. Examples abound;

1) Refusing to wear seat belts in the rig "So we can go right to work at the scene".

2) Putting a vent crew on the roof of a structure that is an obvious defensive fire that has already autovented.

3) Putting engine crews in the collapse zone on a defensive fire.

4) Forcing crews to wear structural firefighitng PPE for situations where it actually creates hazards from heat stress, lack of mobility, or negative buoyancy such as remote wildland fires, USAR calls, and water rescues.

5) Advocating rescue procedures based on how easy they are to perform even if they create excessive risk to the patient.

My responses to the above are;

1) If your rig only makes it halfway to the scene and you are ejected from the rig, how did the few seconds you "saved" on this call make it worth the end of your career and maybe your life?

Those few seconds pale in comparison.

2) If the fire is through the roof, the fire has already been vertically ventilated. It's the fire's way of telling you to put the truckies to work somewhere else.

3) If your hose stream can't reach the interior of a defensive fire from a safe location, either get a bigger stream in play or just protect exposures with the one you have. You don't need to see how close you can get to the fire when it can drop a wall or an overhang on your head.

4) If you fight wildland fires, do USAR work, or do water rescue, dress for the sport you're playing. Wearing structural PPE to wildland fires can kill you from heat stress and will greatly reduce your mobility. Mobility is a big deal when you're hiking 100 yards - or 5 miles - in a wildland firefight. Mobility is a big deal in confined spaces, trenches, or structural collapse. Structural PPE doesn't help you float, so don't wear it to water rescues.

5) We need to follow best practices because they're the best thing to do, not because they're the easiest thing to do. Rescue procedures need to be evaluated on what we might do TO the patient as well as what we can do FOR the patient.
The photo above shows a best practice - placing a barrier board between rescue tools and the patients. That provides fragment and impact protection for the patients just in case something goes wrong. The rescuers in the photo are demonstrating a best practice instead of just hoping that they get lucky.

If you do something dangerous or stupid and get away with it once, you're lucky.
If you get away with it twice, you're VERY lucky. If you get away with it three times, it's now your SOG.
If you count on good luck as an SOG, sooner or later you'll be attending a LODD funeral for someone that was killed by "We've always done it that way."

Be smart, and don't count on good luck as a SOG. Eventually, your good luck will run out.

I don't want "Unlucky" on my tombstone. How about you?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

1st Due Arithmetic

How do you know when you have enough firefighters to complete all of the jobs required for a 1st-due assignment? It's not always easy to tell, because the equation of firefighters vs. fire is weighted differently at almost every fire. NFPA 1710 provides a baseline number, but some of us don't have even that small number of firefighters available. That number isn't sufficient to deal with a high-rise fire, a big box fire, a pier fire, or just about anything bigger than a duplex or small, single commercial occupancy if you want to accomplish all of the necessary tasks simultaneously.
With the budget crunches, brownouts, station closures, and disbanding of fire companies that we hear about every day, it makes you wonder when the "fuzzy math" is going to stop.
1st-Due Arithmetic is simply about numbers...numbers of firefighters, apparatus, and command personnel. If you don't have enough firefighters to stretch a line, then the fire is going to exceed the capability of that line by the time the water arrives at the combustion. If you don't have enough firefighters to search a building of whatever size confronts you, then the search isn't going to be completed very quickly. If you don't have enough firefighters to ventilate, then the engine crews take an unnecessary and dangerous beating. Most importantly, if you don't have enough firefighters to staff all of the 1st Due functions plus an Incident Commander, a Safety Officer, and a RIT Team...yes, a REAL RIT team, then an even fuzzier math sometimes takes place.
If we're shorthanded, Command may choose to staff a RIT team made up of firefighters that would otherwise be doing basic engine or truck work...forcing Side C, providing ladders for secondary egress, stretching a backup hoseline, or completing the primary search. That means we'll be putting off essential firefighting basics so we can staff a team that we'll hopefully never have to use.
On the other hand, we can't put everyone except Command and one pump operator inside and think that we'll always get away with it.
How do we ensure that we get enough numbers for the 1st Due Arithmetic? In theory, it's simple. We send more firefighters on the first alarm. Repeat after me..."Overkill is good, Overkill is good, Overkill is good." Use Automatic Aid/Mutual Aid if you have to, but get the additional firefighters there in numbers that shift the equation advantage from the fire to the firefighters. Send the extra engine or truck on the first alarm and cancel them if it's food on the stove. No matter what it takes, have an adequate number of firefighters respond on the first alarm!
After all, the fire doesn't understand budget cuts...it just understands 1st Due Arithmetic.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Safety Culture vs. Extinguishment Culture – Smart Fire Departments Can Have BOTH!

If you have a personal or departmental "Extinguishment Culture", would you grab a line and enter this flashed over abandoned house that is showing signs of impending collapse? If you have a personal or departmental "Safety Culture", would you wear your SCBA , a traffic safety vest, and crank a PPV fan while sitting in the rig a half-mile down the street? Chances are, if you are a U.S. firefighter, you'll choose an option somewhere in between the two extremes.
In a recent FDIC speech, Lt. Ray McCormack, made some statements that have generated a great deal of controversy in the U.S. fire service. His comments in favor of an “Extinguishment Culture” and against a “Safety Culture” in particular have stimulated a lot of thought, comment, disagreement, and counter-disagreement. Art “ChiefReason” Goodrich, in particular, blogged a sharp and well-articulated counterpoint to Lt. McCormack’s thoughts.

I watched the video of Ray's speech several times, and read some of the thoughtful, not-so-thoughtful, and some downright nasty comments that other firefighters posted in replies to Art’s counterpoint. I gave the issue a lot of consideration for several days, watched the video again to make sure that I didn’t miss something, and decided that I finally couldn’t go any longer without saying something myself.

First, for those of you who called Art a “coward”, a “yard-stander”, or who made rude, vulgar, or even threatening responses to his blog, shame on you!!! Those comments were an embarrassment to the profession and to the people that made them. Just because another firefighter has a differing opinion doesn’t make him a coward. In particular, I noticed that many of the alleged firefighters that called Art a coward and worse posted anonymously. Does anyone else see the irony in that??? In case you don’t, I’ll spell it out for you. You call someone who posts his opinion under his real name a coward, while being too chicken to post your own name??? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who the real cowards are when that occurs.

Brotherhood includes respecting other firefighters opinions and differences, even when you disagree. Calling a brother firefighter a coward out of one side of your mouth for a simple difference of opinion while preaching the brotherhood out of the other side is practicing the former while demonstrating that you really don’t understand the latter.

On the other hand, for those of you who castigated Lt. McCormack for his fist-pumping, gum-chewing performance at FDIC, you’re focusing on style points at the expense of consideration of the substance. I don’t care about the style points – what is important is what he said. I don’t think Ray was advocating that we commit suicide for anyone or anything. It is apparent that he truly believes that extinguishing the fire before it grows larger tends to make the fireground safer, and he’s got a point. Al Brunacini’s 1985 comment that “Things on the fireground tend to get better when the fire is extinguished” tends to agree with Ray, too.

There are three important issues that neither Lt. McCormack or Chief Goodrich addressed.
1) New York firefighting rules don’t work for everyone else. Not every fire department has the building types, manpower, apparatus, or response times to which Lt. McCormack is accustomed. When you have a short response time for several companies and 35 or 40 firefighters to a multistory, ordinary construction apartment building, there is a reasonable expectation that the structure won’t collapse on the firefighters in the first 15 minutes of the firefight, and that you’ll have enough manpower to accomplish all of the necessary fireground tasks in fairly short order. On the other hand, when you get 3 or 4 firefighters, an engine and a tanker, no hydrants, and a 15-minute response time to a lightweight construction, two-story house with truss floors and roof, putting firefighters inside with a working fire is flipping a coin with their survival chances, no matter the reason for or method of entry. Years of fire fatality statistics show us that in almost every lightweight construction house fire, the occupants either self-rescue or they are dead when we get there.

2) We generally rescue civilians from smoke, not from fire. If the room – or structure – has flashed over, anyone in it is dead. If the truss void has flashed over, pretty much anyone we put in it or on it is probably going to be dead, too. On the other hand, if you have a solid apartment building with smoke-filled apartments above the fire, your team should take the can, tools, search rope, and thermal imager and go get ‘em. New York and other big cities have a lot of situations where they can rescue people from smoke. The vast majority of U.S. firefighters don’t see a lot of those situations, because they don’t fight fires in those structure types very often. The rules for non-dimensional lumber frame houses or garden apartments are simply different than a lot of the building construction seen in the big northeast and Midwestern cities.

3) We can have a culture that achieves both safety and extinguishment. That culture is one that believes strongly in fire sprinklers in EVERY occupancy, along with smoke detectors, kitchen hood systems, and monitored fire alarm systems. Fire protection systems – especially automatic sprinkler systems - make the building safer for the civilians and for the firefighters. Their response time is better than what any engine company on the planet can match. Of course, that will take away a lot of the “fun factor” in going to fires, but the public doesn’t fund the fire department based upon us having fun while they experience tragedy.

Firefighting is challenging, it’s ever-evolving, and the rules for doing it are not the same for every occupancy or for every fire department. A culture that places extinguishment over safety in all situations is a culture that will run into Born Losers and unnecessarily kill a lot of firefighters. A culture that places safety over extinguishment in all situations is going to have fewer funerals…and more parking lots. We need a culture that stresses both. Safety and extinguishment are not mutually exclusive. We need to be smart about choosing the right mix, depending upon the situation.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Putting generic Strategic Priorities to work

One of the things I do with my all-too-rare spare time is that I read. My favorite genre is science fiction and sci-fi fantasy, because it often fuels my imagination. A lot of yesterday's science fiction ends up being tomorrow's science fact, too.

I recently finished a book regarding an unusual twist on a fairly standard plot - an uneasy intergalactic peace brokered by an advanced non-human society after two different human societies attempted mutual genocide.

The author could have been writing Strategic Priorities for fire and rescue. Her take on how to keep oriented to the proper Strategic Priorities, no matter what the situation involved four simple concepts and keeping them in sequence. The priorities...Life, Mission, Security, Operations. Fire and rescue services would be well-served to remember those same four priorities during both emergency situations and during our everyday routine.

Life - If we lose our lives, we can't accomplish the mission or any of our other priorities. At the scene, we need to focus on the most important things - discovering the things that can kill us and avoiding them. Those things can be buildings, forces of nature, evil people, or or our own egos. Or...it can be more insidious...smoking, lack of fitness, heat stress, cumulative stress, or a driver that's just a little sloppy with the accelerator.

Mission - If we don't accomplish the mission, we're wasting our time being there in the first place, plus our training time, plus our pre-planning time, plus our vehicle maintainence, plus the public's trust...

Security - If we don't secure our apparatus, our stations, and the rest of the public property with which we've been entrusted, then we may not be able to take care of our first two priorities. If we're missing tools, or if our station is wide open for anyone to steal from it or trash it while we're gone, then we might be missing the one tool that will save our lives or just the public's trust that we're going to be responsible with the expensive stations and equipment with which we're entrusted.

Operations - We have to keep on operating, no matter what challenges occur. Budget cuts, brownouts, station closures...the department keeps on operating. High call volume and unusual calls, check. Major terrorist attack, check. Long, boring shifts with few or no calls, check. A firefighter-arsonist that shames us all...the rest of us still keep on pulling on the gear and rolling out the doors.

If in doubt about what the priorties are, make sure that you and your crew can stay alive...the other priorities are important, but you can live without them. After all, imaginary intergalactic heros do it all the time, and they have it made compared to us. After all, their problems are imaginary.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

To evaluate progress, take a SEET

During simple call like a room and contents fire, it's usually fairly easy to evaluate progress.

The black smoke turns to white steam, the fire goes out, the building cools down, we go home, and the invetigators take over. The next morning, the local newspaper reports the wins and losses...hopefully with a box score that reads "Fire Department wins, 1 to 0". The local paper usually isn't shy about reporting the score when we're on the losing end, either.

Have you ever seen the morning paper report a tie score?

I've never seen a "Fire 1, Fire Department 1" front page box score. That means that eventually we figured out who won, but during the fight, it wasn't easy to tell. We can have a smoky fire that's difficult to find, even with thermal imagers. We can have a prolonged entrapment at a motor vehicle accident with so much wreckage that it's difficult to tell if we're making real progress or not. We can have a major incident where it takes days to find all of the problems and weeks to sort them out.

I've found a simple way to evaluate progress that works on almost any incident type...you just have a SEET. SEET is a simple set of four strategy considerations that you ask yourself Jeopardy style...in the form of a question.

Safety - Are we being safe? If we don't create additional patients, properly care for the people who were injured before we arrived, and operate using safety equipment, PPE, and while practicing safe behaviors, then we're being safe. If we're injuring responders, operating carelessly, or not wearing appropriate PPE, then we're not being safe.

Effectiveness - Are we being effective? Are we getting the job done? Can we tell? Task completion is the easiest way to measure effectiveness, but on a prolonged incident, task completion might have to be broken down into a subset of smaller tasks. "Cut through Beam A by 4 PM" or "Defensively confine the fire to the structure of origin if we can't extinguish the fire offensively in the next ten minutes" are pretty obvious measures of effectiveness.

Efficiency - Are we being efficient? Did we do an accurate size-up and take the right tools to the building or wrecked vehicle the first time, or did we have to send firefighters back to the rig for something that was forgotten or not anticipated? Did we split a four-firefighter crew so that they could accomplish two simultaneous tactical objectives? Are we operating in a manner that looks calm, smooth, and professional?

Timeliness - Are we doing things in a timely manner? Are we doing things at the right time and in the right sequence. Timeliness includes getting water on the room and contents before it extends, stabilizing the wrecked vehicle prior to applying tons of force to the it...and to the patient's cervical spine injury, and in performing tactical priorities in the correct sequence for the situation. RECEO-VS is a mneumonic invented by a Timeliness fan.

I don't know about you, but I'm having a SEET the next time I want the paper to report a win for the firefighters.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Staging Prevents DIOs

"DIO" is a "Disfunctional Incident Outcome". A DIO can be something as mundane as two engines trying to lay in from opposite directions in the same street, or it can be something as severe as a LODD at hazmats, shootings, and other violent or escalating incidents.
Staging Prevents Funerals when you're responding to incidents with an expanding Hot Zone.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Rolling the Window Down on Safety

Skip Kirkwood's Jems Connect blog had an excellent post about the recent multiple shootings at the nursing home in Carthage, NC, Binghamton, NY, and todays triple police officer murder in Pittsburgh, PA. Skip made some excellent points about how to approach dangerous scenes.

Skip's post triggered reminders of some old street safety habits that were daily occurrances in two high-volume cities where I previously worked. I have gotten a little slack on using these basic survival behaviors, due to the relatively peaceful nature of the town where I work now.
Skip's reminder that two of the three above multiple shootings occurred in similar "peaceful" towns to mine reminded me that there's no such thing as a really safe place to work fire-rescue or EMS.

My old habits - ones I dusted off today - are the following:

1) Roll the Window Down on Safety. If you roll the window down at least a block out from the scene, you can hear screams or gunfire that would otherwise not be heard over the death metal your new EMS partner or engine driver plays while responding. Rolling down the window also lets you smell the natural gas leak started by the car that creamed the meter when it hit the house or the unusual smoke smells from the landscaping company fire that was reported next door to the actual fire location. With the window up, you have disengaged four of your five senses - vision is the only one working. With the window down, you add the senses of hearing and smell, and triple the number of senses working to keep you alive and unhurt.

2) Stage on every call where a known violent event has occurred. Domestic violence, reported shootings/stabbings/assaults, robberies, hostage situations, or even unknown suspicious scenes or high-crime locations are good places to stay away from until law enforcement secures the scene. Stage a block away, out of line of sight, and it could save the lives of everyone riding your rig.

3) Don't run the lights and siren right up to the front door. Unless you work on crowded city streets where you can't get to the scene any other way, it won't make a real difference if you cut the lights and siren a block out. Being the center of attention is great...unless you're a shooter's bullseye. Reducing your "Bullseye Profile" might also save your life.
Roll the window down, stage, lower your Bullseye Profile, and remember that bad things happen in otherwise peaceful towns as well as in the big city.