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.


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