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 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.