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.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Charleston 9 – A Different Perspective, Part 1

The evening of June 18, 2007 will be forever burned into my memory, but the day of June 22, 2007 was the date that really made this tragedy personal for me. To set the stage, on the evening of June 18, I was at home after a pretty good day at work. Training had gone well, the weather was pleasant, and I had just finished a nice dinner with my family. I decided to watch some TV, and started the typical flipping through the channels. I usually don’t watch regular broadcast TV, but happened to flip through Charleston’s Channel 5, WCSC.

I vaguely caught images of a large building on fire, but had my finger firmly on the channel advance button. I quickly flipped back, just in time to see the first images of the huge amount of hot, black, turbulent smoke boiling out of the storefront, and worse, several hoselines that had been advanced through the front door. I remember thinking “Oh, no, that’s bad news for the firefighters.” I then saw that the store was the Sofa Super Store. I often visit Charleston by way of this area, so I knew that this was a very large fire in a very large structure.

The images were horrifying. The apparent absence of organized incident command, the obvious high heat discoloration on the truss void-level siding, the questionable decision to vent the front windows, a couple of firefighters bailing out the front…then the horrors of the flashover and the collapse…with the hoselines - sadly - still laid through the front door.

I couldn’t tear myself away. I knew that the chances of no firefighter deaths in that scenario were nil, but there was no information other than the announcement that Charleston FD had “some firefighters missing” and that one civilian had been rescued. Shortly after this, it was announced that CFD had “six or seven” firefighters missing in the fire, the enormity of what I was watching sank in.

I immediately called our on-duty Battalion Chief, Cliff Steedley and asked if he was watching TV. He said that he wasn’t. I told him to turn on WCSC “right now”. He caught the unusual tone in my voice and turned on the TV. He said something like – that looks like a bad fire. I told him that Charleston had six or seven firefighters missing – that they really were not sure and I’ll never forget the shock and disbelief in his voice when he said “How many?”

I repeated myself, then suggested that we notify our senior staff. I also told Chief Steedley that this might generate USAR team response, and that we needed to notify then-Captain Mick Mayers of the incident. We agreed that he would notify our Fire Chief and that I would notify the Deputy Chief of Operations. We started the phone notifications. Many sleepless hours later, we were notified that Charleston was not going to request our assistance and to stand down.

Needless to say, I can’t remember much from the next couple of days other than to wonder who had died. When the names were announced, I was stunned to find that I knew two of them. Many of our members knew others of the 9, and we went about our duties largely in shocked silence.

On the 21st, I was asked to work with another of our Captains, Randy Lindstrom, to organize our department’s trip to the memorial service. Randy and I agreed that I would coordinate the family escort unit and that Randy would coordinate the members who would ride in the procession. If you’ve never done this, suffice it to say that there are a million details, and that it’s not easy even when everyone is not stressed out. The preparation included some retired FDNY members who reside on Hilton Head Island, and who wanted to ride with us. We were honored to have seats for the FDNY members to attend with us, as we sent our Rehab 1, a bus that can be reconfigured from a rehab unit to a crew transporter.

On the evening of June 21, four of us went to Charleston to spend the night, as family escort duty started early the next morning. The members of our group were Fire Chief Tom Fieldstead, Captain Chad McRorie of Engine 2, Senior Fire Inspector Sam Burnette, and me. We had a quiet dinner and went to bed early. The next morning, we got up very early, ate a quick breakfast, dressed in our Class A uniforms, and went to the staging area. The staging area was in a store parking lot just up the street from the fire location. There, we met with members of several other SC fire departments who had volunteered as family escorts. We met the group leader to which we were assigned, Columbia Fire Marshal Carmen Floyd, and the sixth member of our group, Colleton County Fire Chief Barry McRoy. We were also assigned a detective from the Charleston Police Department as a guide and city liaison.

After a cup of coffee, the family escort groups left. Several had quite a distance to travel, so they left early. Our group was assigned to a family that lived literally a few blocks from both the staging area and the fire scene. We convoyed to their home, met the family, and then stood quietly outside while the widow and children completed their final preparations. Several members of the deceased firefighter’s family were firefighters from North Carolina. They were very quiet and seemed as if they were uncertain about the days plans. Our group engaged them, described the day’s schedule to them, and generally asked if there was anything we could do for them. One of them asked if we could locate mourning bands for their badges, as they did not have any. Capt. McRorie and I both had several, so we were able to do this small thing for our brothers from NC.

We then met the family members that would ride in our vehicles. I was assigned the deceased firefighter’s sister and her three children, a boy and two girls. The boy rode up front with me and his mother and sisters rode in the back seat of my department SUV.

When the time came to go to the staging area at the Citadel Mall, we took a convoluted route through several side streets and neighborhoods, rather than the direct route, as we did not want to go past the fire scene. Once at the staging area, we waited until the apparatus procession from downtown arrived, then made preparations to go to the Coliseum for the memorial service. I unfortunately have attended the LODD funerals for several friends over the years, but this procession was incredible. As we entered Interstate 526, the Charleston PD had completely isolated the eastbound lanes for the procession. Several things about the trip stand out in my mind.

The billboards with Charleston 9 memorials were literally everywhere. I’ve never seen an outpouring of support for public safety in the way the citizens and businesses of Charleston did that week.

Traffic was initially moving westbound on I-526. That ended very quickly. Three truckers angled their rigs across the interstate, completely blocked traffic, and stood on the edge of the median with their hands over their hearts. Hundreds of motorists followed the truckers’ example. Virtually everyone parked in the westbound lanes exited their vehicles, placed their hands over their hearts, and stood quietly while the huge procession filed past.

One of the overpasses was staffed with an engine company that displayed a huge U.S. flag from the guardrail. They wore their work uniforms and helmets, flanked their rig, and saluted. The bridge was blocked with parked vehicles whose occupants also stood, waved flags, or stood quietly with their hands over their hearts.
When we exited the Interstate to approach the Coliseum, the sidewalks were lined with people. Many of them – men and women – were openly weeping.

The only comfort that I could give the family was to remind them that what we were watching was an entire city pouring out their love and respect for their fallen firefighter and his comrades. I was glad that we had the foresight to put several large boxes of Kleenex in our vehicles for the family members. When we arrived at the Coliseum and escorted the family inside, not a single unused Kleenex remained in the boxes. Some of the used ones were stuffed in my driver’s door pocket. I’ve driven apparatus in thick fog, heavy rain, ice and snow, and high winds, but despite the beautiful weather, this was the toughest drive I’ve ever made in an emergency vehicle.

Part 2 will describe my memories of the June 22 Memorial Service.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Household Hazmat - Not In My Back Yard

In the world of preventing the occurance of harmful incidents, the fire-rescue community has few peers and often excels. Innovative ways to prevent and reduce harm have included smoke detector programs, fire inspection programs, injury prevention programs like Risk Watch, and especially fire prevention education programs. My department is fortunate to have a very active Public Education Officer who coordinates and often instructs a variety of injury prevention and fire prevention education programs. The public education programs are well-received, and often receive good reviews in the local news media.

A few years ago, we developed and implemented our first-ever Household Hazardous Materials Round-Up. This is a one-day event where our entire department - firefighters, Hazmat Team members, the command staff, communications personnel, support services personnel, and the emergency management staff work conduct a drive-up hazmat collection point. A pollution control contractor licensed in hazardous waste recycling supports the effort with chemists, hazmat personnel, and logistics personnel. Last year, we added a new service - electronic waste collection - with another contractor that specializes in recycling old electronic components. The Hazmat Round-Up became an annnual event, and is now usually held twice per year.

The Hazmat Round-Up has several objectives. It removes literally tons of hazardous materials that would otherwise pollute our sensitive environment, reduces toxins and other hazards in our residents' homes, and reduces the number of hazmat spills, leaks, and fires to which we would otherwise have to respond.

The spring 2010 Hazmat Round-Up was held yesterday, and was a spectacular sucess. We set up the collection point at our new Training Center, which includes a 1/4 mile driving course. Local homeowners dropping off household hazmat items simply drove through the Training Center, where firefighters and hazmat technicians offloaded, sorted, classified, and overpacked the materials for the residents. As shown in the photo above, we removed tons of hazardous materials from our first-due, including virtually every class of hazardous materials. The hazmat total included three tractor-trailers and two other trucks filled to capacity with overpacked hazardous materials and an additional tractor-trailer filled with electronic waste (e-waste).

The variety of hazmat removed from the environment included batteries, paint, old fuel and lubricants, pesticides, old compressed gas cylinders, mercury-containing flourescent lights and thermostats, fertilizer, flares, and other items with the words "Caution", "Warning", or "Danger" in the labeling.

The e-waste included old computers, TVs, stereos, appliances, and anything else containing circuit boards, cathode-ray tubes, or other electronic components.

The inevitible questions about programs of this type involve NIMBY - Not In My Back Yard. That acronym has been used to include taking waste from one place and dumping it in another. I'm happy to say that this isn't a big problem with our Hazmat Round-Up. Most of the materials collected are recycled by the hazmat and e-waste contractors. In fact, the ability to recycle these materials contributes substantially to their business model, so they have an incentive to maximize the recycling of the materials they collect. We're glad to have developed a program that not only removes hazmat from our first-due, but that doesn't just take it and dump it somewhere else.

We rotate the on-duty engine, medic, and truck companies through the event, maintain a reserve engine, medic, and the hazmat rig on-site, and provide two meals, rehab, energy snacks, and hydration for everyone who works the event.

It takes a lot of planning, a lot of public service announcements (PSAs), a lot of coordination, and a lot of work to make this even successful. I can state without any hesitation that this event - again - was a resounding success. I appreciate our local residents who brought their household hazmat and dropped it off in a safe manner. That is a much-preferred alternative to finding it leaking, spilled, or on fire in our environmentally-sensitive environment here on the Rock, or worse, spilled into our marine and salt marsh environments, groundwater, and food chain.

It was a long, but rewarding day, and well worth it.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

I'm with STUPID

We’ve all heard the stories about firefighters doing stupid things on duty or off. Firefighters committing arson, breaking and entering, driving intoxicated, failing work-related random drug screening tests, abusing their domestic partners…the list goes on and on. As one of the replies to the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Fireman’s Association’s recent White Paper on Ethics in the Fire Service says, the report is a “litany of the obvious”. The ethical problems that plague the fire service include “Cheating, arson, theft, alcohol and substance abuse, harassment, discrimination, and misuse of departmental and personal information technology… “

It makes one wonder if the Fire Chief's uniform should include this shirt;

Here are a few examples of less-than-smart and ethically-impaired firefighter behavior I found in a Bing search that took about 10 minutes:

Firefighter investigated for arson at his own home.

Firefighter investigated for arson at his own home (another one)

Firefighter sets fire to another firefighter’s home

Firefighters involved in two separate break-ins

Firefighter DUI case

Firefighter arrested for DUI, spits in police officer’s face

Still another firefighter DUI

Firefighters charged with assault in bar brawl

Firefighter charged with child sexual assault

Another fire station noose incident

Here’s another twist – noose planted in fake firehouse racism incident

Firefighter charged with arson and convicted of bomb threat

Firefighter hospitalized after firehouse prank goes wrong

Ex firefighter gets prison for firehouse arson

Junior firefighter shot in leg during firehouse hazing

Peeping Tom firefighter arrested, peered from ceiling at female paramedic as she showered

Firefighters fired for obscene and harassing prank phone calls to female lieutenant

Female firefighter sexual harassment lawsuit settled

Female firefighter harassed

Son of late fire chief guilty of embezzlement

FireGeezer has several other stories about embezzlement from fire companies here

How do we reconcile this with the recent public opinion polls that rate firefighters as the most trusted profession in the U.S. and Great Britain?

How do we, as a profession, reduce or eliminate the ethical problems that will inevitably knock us from the position of high trust we hold? Whose responsibility is it? Is it the fire chief’s responsibility? Does the responsibility lie with the officers, senior firefighters, or with instructors at the fire academy? Does it lie with a new fire recruit’s parents and family? Does the school system that has spent the last three decades teaching “value-neutral” education share the responsibility? Does a pop culture that downplays the role of religion share in the blame? Does the switch to playing computer games and baring our inner thoughts via social networking sites instead of learning a trade and the value of productive work contribute?

Without designing a multi-year sociological study, the short answer is that all of the above share in the responsibility and the blame. More importantly, what do we do about the problem?

When we accept a new fire recruit, we have to understand them for what they are. We can’t give them a two-parent home, send them to church, or give them a meaningful job outside the fire service. We can’t help them re-live their formative years. We can’t eradicate the computer gaming and social networking culture from the new firefighters – those are here to stay.

Potential Solutions

We can make our expectations clear.

We can provide supervision, leadership, mentoring, and Big Brother/Big Sister-type programs for our new members.

We can assign a reliable veteran to mentor every new firefighter not only in fire/rescue and EMS skills, but in ethics and the role of good behavior and public trust as essential to our mission.

We can institute smart business solutions including internal and external audits of department funds and business practices, frequent reports to the membership, and a fully-transparent annual report.

We can set firm rules for firefighter conduct and behavior.

We can make it clear that serious rules violations will result in termination and if appropriate, a referral to law enforcement for prosecution.

We can enforce the rules equally, regardless of rank or position.

We can lead by example.

We can limit or eliminate alcohol at fire department and related events. Alcohol doesn't make you smarter, funnier, better behaved, or more trustworthy.

We can develop an Organization and Discipline training course and require that every new member complete it prior to granting full membership in the organization.

We can develop a Fire Service Ethics training course and require that every new member complete it prior to granting full membership in the organization. (The CVVFA’s program is a good start.)

We can develop a program to review case studies involving the financial, criminal, family, and personal costs of firefighter misbehavior with new members, and periodically, with the more seasoned veterans.

The candidate pool is what it is. We can’t go back in time to better prepare our new members, we have to work with what we get. We can ensure that candidates are screened, supervised, and mentored to reduce the impact of bad firefighter behavior on the profession and upon individual departments. We can also make it clear that bad behavior will not be tolerated, and that if the new firefighter wants to become a veteran firefighter, good choices and ethical behavior are not just expectations – they are essentials.

I don't know how to say this any more strongly - If you're going to engage in unethical, racist, sexist, criminal, or stupid behavior, particularly while representing your Fire/Rescue or EMS department, GET OUT OF THE PROFESSION! The CVVFA White Paper shows the way to ethical firefighter behavior. It is a road map for maintaining the strong position of public trust we enjoy. This job is supposed to be the province of the people who can best do the job, who are the most trustworthy, and who demonstrate responsible behavior. Let's all commit to helping prevent a few bad apples from screwing it up for the rest of us.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Bathtub Collapse, Part 2

Part 1 of this series was an introduction to Bathtub Collapse problem identification, exterior size-up, strategy considerations and development, and safety considerations. Part 2 discusses tactical considerations, interior size-up, victim recovery, investigations, and incident termination.


In order to make a bathtub collapse rescue safe and efficient, the operation must follow a logical sequence. The first step in this sequence is to support the sides of the bathtub. If the bathtub is formed by structural walls or columns, start by shoring them. Raker shoring systems are a good way to support exterior walls.(1) For masonry or wooden walls, traditional raker shore types are appropriate. Modified split sole rakers may be used to provide columns with lateral support. Visibly stressed walls or columns should be shored first. If the wall or column is leaning or cracked, it’s stressed.

Extrication Strut as a temporary door shore

The next step is to support natural entry points, then open them. Door and window openings can be shored as in any other structural collapse. You may need to frame the edges of the opening with a raker system prior to shoring the actual opening. Once the door opening is supported, additional bathtub components such as metal Q-decking, rebar grids, and other metal components may be cut away to clear the opening for access and egress. Cutting operations create sparks, open flames, or both. Ensure that the building’s gas supplies are shut off and that the area is well-ventilated prior to using cutting tools that create ignition sources. Also ensure that both water and dry chemical extinguishers or a charged hoseline are nearby curing cutting operations.

Cutting Q-decking and rebar obstructions with a rotary saw

Once the interior of the bathtub is accessed, it may be necessary to use strongbacks and tiebacks to support inward-leaning walls. Picket systems or large, well-secured anchors should be used to anchor the exterior tiebacks. Place towels, blankets, etc. over the tieback cables to reduce whipping in the event of cable failure. Once the tieback system is complete, keep everyone out of the immediate area.


Once the bathtub walls are secure, it’s time to take care of overhead hazards. Identify all widowmakers and eliminate falling object hazards by using one of the following methods;

1. Secure the widowmaker by tying it to solid structural components with cables, chains, come-alongs, etc.
2. Remove the widowmaker by bolting it, then tensioning it with a crane, and cutting it loose from the structure.
3. Avoid the widowmaker by marking and enforcing a collapse zone beneath the widowmaker. This may not be possible, as the victims may be trapped directly below the widowmaker.

Search Tactics

Once the surrounding structure is secured, the interior search can begin. Start by searching voids and by manually removing selected debris.(2) Voids may be searched visually with flashlights, thermal imaging cameras (TICs), USAR or fiber optic search cameras, and by probing voids with pike poles. It is important to note that wet concrete produces heat, and this heat may mask the heat signature of a human body when searching with TICs. Remember that TICs cannot “see” through solid materials such as structural components.

Simultaneously with the void search and light debris removal, other crews may start searching through the wet concrete in the bathtub. You may manually search for gaps in the horizontal Q-deck by simply using gloved hands to probe through the wet concrete and any gaps in the edges of the Q-decking.

Victim Search in a Bathtub Collapse

It is also important to create horizontal openings in the vertical Q-decking parts of the bathtub. This allows horizontal removal of some of the concrete while it is still wet. Hoselines can be used to keep the concrete wet and dilute as long as the water will not run into voids and drown the victim or cause hypothermia. Scoop shovels and even stiff-bristled push brooms can be used to move wet concrete through the bathtub openings.

Hose Stream dilutes and moves wet concrete

Bathtub Collapses into Basements

If it is necessary to lift wet concrete out of a basement, simple bucket-and-rope systems may be used, but they are manpower-intensive. Vacuum trucks may be useful, but the concrete may be too heavy for the vacuum to lift it very far. Large amounts of water will probably be required to dilute the concrete enough for a vacuum truck to lift it, and that much water may drown the victim prior to completing the rescue. Water also adds weight to an already-damaged structure, which may cause additional collapse. It may be necessary to move large volumes of wet concrete in order to locate the victim. It also may be possible to use a trash/solids pump to move dilute concrete out of a basement if the aggregate size is small enough to make it through the pump without clogging it. A bathtub collapse into a crawl space is generally similar to a collapse into a basement, but may allow grade-level access to one or more sides of the bathtub.

Victim Extrication

Once the victim is located, determine the body position and attempt to expose the airway. If the victim is alive, follow local blunt trauma and crush/compartment syndrome protocols. If the victim is deceased, ensure that all other potential victims are accounted for. If other victims are not accounted for, it will likely be necessary to continue in Rescue mode. If all victims are accounted for and have been determined to have died, then shifting to Recovery mode is more appropriate.
It is likely that rebar will be submerged or semi-submerged in the concrete. Large sections of the rebar grid may be cut away with minimal effort by locating the rebar and cutting it around the outside edge of the area you desire to expose. Cut rebar grid away with hydraulic cutter or large bolt cutters if it is submerged in the wet concrete. Rebar cutters, reciprocating saws, and/or torches may be used to cut any exposed rebar, particularly if only one hydraulic cutter is present.

Hydraulic cutters being used to cut rebar

Removal of rebar grid section

To extricate the victim, it is useful to locate the Q-decking edge closest to the victim. Once this edge is located, it can be used as a purchase point to move concrete and steel away from the victim. A variety of tools and techniques may be successful. Once the Q-deck edge has been located, start moving wet concrete away from it. A good rule of thumb is to move wet concrete away from the hole at least three times the depth of the remaining concrete. This will help prevent wet concrete from running through the hole in the Q-decking and burying the now-exposed victim.

Once adequate amounts of wet concrete and rebar have been removed, it is time to attack the Q-decking. You can start by using the exposed Q-deck edge as a purchase point and lifting the edge with hydraulic rescue spreaders. As you open the spreaders, the Q-decking will start peeling back. You can extend the cuts with hydraulic spreaders or reciprocating saws. If power tools are not available, even hacksaws can be used to cut the Q-decking. Small rescue air bags may be used to lift the Q-deck, but remember that sharp rebar ends or Q-decking edges may cut or puncture the air bags. If using air bags, pad them with sections of rubber matting such as old tractor-trailer mud flap material or short sections of old large-diameter fire hose. Bottle jacks or small scissor jacks can also be used to lift the Q-decking.

Hydraulic spreader used to roll up exposed Q-decking edge

It is not necessary to remove all of the concrete from the Q-decking prior to cutting it. Additional personnel can be used to continue moving concrete away from the victim with scoop shovels. As with any other heavy lifting operation, cribbing must be installed to support the lift. Use the “Lift an inch, crib an inch” cribbing method. It may be possible to use a come-along to support rebar grid sections that are too large for complete removal.

If it is becomes necessary to remove very large sections of Q-decking or other metal components, several cutting methods may be employed simultaneously. These can include alternating hydraulic spreader lifts with hydraulic cutter relief cuts, lifting with a spreader while extending the cut with reciprocating saws, or by removing concrete and steel in an area away from the victim in order to create an intermediate location in which to move materials away from the victim. If using torches, make sure that you do not burn the victim. If using torches remotely from the victim, use an atmospheric monitor near the victim to ensure that torch byproducts are not compromising the victim’s clean air supply.

If it is possible to quickly move a large amount of wet concrete out of the bathtub, consider making purchase points with a hole saw or core drill, inserting short sections of heavy-duty rebar or pickets, and attaching cables in order to lift a large section of steel away.

Prior to removing most of the wet concrete, air chisels and reciprocating saws will be of very little use, since they are designed to use in open air. Pneumatics may have limited utility, but electric tools will quickly burn out and become useless when submerged in wet concrete, due to the saw’s inability to radiate heat into the air.

If the victim is pinned over a secondary void, install supplemental shoring beneath the victim if possible. It may be necessary to install an improvised lifting harness on the victim if a secondary fall possibility is created by the extrication process. If the secondary void is very deep, it may be necessary to have rescuers shore beneath the extrication operation. This is highly dangerous, and is recommended ONLY as a last resort and with IC and Safety Officer approval.

Patient Care

As with any other extrication, provide medical care during the extrication if the victim is alive. If the extrication is prolonged, it will be necessary to provide protection from ambient temperature, extremes of weather, and to provide specialized crush syndrome care. USAR Medical Specialists and paramedics and physicians specializing in cave or mine rescue may be very useful in this situation. USAR medicine may require medications and medical protocols outside of normal EMS procedures. USAR medicine protocols should be approved by local and/or state EMS authorities in advance. It may be necessary to conduct a field amputation in order to save the victim’s life. If possible, a field-qualified physician should make the amputation, as amputations require training and equipment outside the normal paramedic scope of practice.

Once the victim is completely disentangled, package the victim, take any required steps to move the victim outside the structure, and turn the victim over to the transporting unit. All rescuers working near the victim should wear any necessary body substance isolation (BSI) personal protective clothing. If advanced life support (ALS) procedures are in use, EMS personnel should have a sharps container at the patient’s side for IV needles other contaminated sharps disposal.

Third-Party Investigations

If one or more victims are deceased, a scene investigation will be necessary prior to moving the body. The coroner, medical examiner, and/or law enforcement agencies will want to photograph and diagram the scene, interview witnesses, and determine whether any foul play is suspected. If the coroner or medical examiner staff is not trained to enter collapse zones, they may ask that rescuers take scene photos and/or measurements for them. If possible, put the coroner in a location where he/she can direct the rescuers as they take photos and measurements, but do not compromise responder safety to investigate a death.

OSHA investigators may also be on the scene. It is important to note that OSHA investigators do not generally have the authority to interfere with body recoveries, and they do not have the authority to interfere with the rescue of live patients. Fire-rescue and EMS personnel should document any actions they take on behalf of an investigating authority.

It is also important to inform coroner, medical examiner, law enforcement, and OSHA investigators that time is of the essence due to concrete curing. If the concrete hardens with the victim’s body still entrapped, a one or two-hour recovery may become a multi-hour or multi-day recovery operation. Once the body is removed, place it in a body bag, secure it in a Stokes basket, SKED, or other rescue litter, and remove the body from the collapse zone.

Decontamination and Clean-Up

USAR decontamination considerations generally involve cleaning equipment and PPE that may have been exposed to biohazardous wastes and cleaning concrete dust, powdered glass, or other building components from personnel and equipment. Bathtub collapses require an immediate additional step.

Several charged hoselines should be present to remove concrete from responders and equipment while it is still wet. This is particularly true for exposed skin and any tool that was submerged in the wet concrete. Exposed skin is vulnerable to thermal burns from the warm concrete, chemical burns from concrete components, and traumatic injury from rough aggregate or sharp metal edges encountered during the rescue. Concrete will find every nook and cranny in hydraulic rescue tools, bottle jacks, pneumatic hose couplings, pneumatic strut feet, or any other equipment that may have been placed in the concrete. Two or three engine companies assigned exclusively to decon will enable responders and gear to be cleaned quickly, efficiently, and thoroughly.


As with any other incident, all tools, equipment, and apparatus will need to be returned to service, cleaned, and inspected. Any equipment damaged, destroyed, or contaminated beyond salvage will need to be reported and replaced. Powered equipment will need to be serviced and fueled. It may be necessary to replace large quantities of cribbing and shoring materials, contaminated life safety rope, or other materials that it is unsafe to recover. Do not risk personnel to recover a few pieces of wood that can be easily and cheaply replaced.
Any personnel injury or exposure will need to be treated, reported, and receive any necessary follow-up care. An accurate incident report should be completed, anticipating third-party investigations and possibly criminal or civil actions due to the collapse. An after-action review should be held as soon as all the incident facts can be determined. The critique should involve all personnel and units that participated in the response.


Bathtub collapses have not been previously identified and traditional USAR training does not specifically address collapses involving wet concrete. Wet concrete is not easy to shore or support. Wet concrete adds a new degree of difficulty to USAR searches, as you can’t just drill a hole and look through it with a search camera or fiber optic scope. Wet concrete flows to the lowest point and collects, which can concentrate structural weight in a small portion of the supporting structure. Bathtub collapses add an entirely new set of challenges, even for well-trained and experienced USAR teams. One of the most critical elements is time – the concrete won’t stop hardening while we call resources, shore the structure, or search for the victims.

Concrete buildings may be constructed virtually anywhere. All concrete structures are vulnerable to collapse while under construction. With the increasing demand for structures to house people, businesses, and to repair our country’s aging infrastructure, it is anticipated that bathtub collapses will become more common. Any fire-rescue and EMS agency may be faced with a bathtub collapse. Preparation, safety, equipment, training, and above all, anticipation are important to keep responders safe and to successfully conclude the response to complex and dangerous bathtub collapses.


(1) U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
US&R Structures Specialist Field Operations Guide, 3rd Ed.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Readiness Support Center, 2001, pp IV-42 – IV-48
(2) Goodson, Carl, et al
IFSTA Essentials of Firefighting, 5th Ed.
IFSTA, Stillwater, OK, p 364

All photos courtesy of Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue

About the Authors
Ben Waller is a Battalion Chief with Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue, currently assigned as the Training Chief. Ben is a paramedic, a hazardous materials technician, and a USAR rescue specialist. He is Safety Officer for South Carolina USAR Regional Response Team 4 and is an adjunct faculty instructor in the fire, rescue, and incident command programs at the South Carolina Fire Academy. He is a member of the South Carolina Fire Academy’s Rope Rescue and Water Rescue Technical Development Committees. Ben’s education includes a Master’s of Public Administration degree and undergraduate Fire Administration and Paramedic/Allied Health degrees.

Jason Walters is a Lieutenant with Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue, currently assigned to an engine/medic company. He is a Rescue Manager with South Carolina USAR SCTF-1 and is the Team Coordinator for South Carolina USAR Regional Response Team 4. He is an EMT-B, a hazardous materials technician, and a USAR rescue specialist. Jason is an adjunct faculty instructor in the fire and rescue programs at the South Carolina Fire Academy. His education includes an Associate of Fire Science Degree from Luzerne County College. Jason has 18 years of experience in fire-rescue, EMS, and hazardous materials response. He has 34 years of experience in fire-rescue, EMS, and hazardous materials response.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Bathtub Collapse: Part 1

This article is co-authored by my friend and colleague Jason Walters. Jason is the Team Leader for USAR SC-Regional Response Team 4.


FEMA’s USAR system, basic firefighting texts, and other fire-rescue references describe how to recognize and respond to a variety of structural collapse situations. These collapse types are specific to structures with rigid components. Freshly-poured concrete isn’t rigid, and collapses involving wet concrete create a unique set of circumstances not described in typical structural collapse references.

Collapses have traditionally been classified in four categories. These are the Lean-To Collapse, the V - Collapse, the Pancake Collapse and the Cantilever Collapse.(1) Some USAR documents now describe an additional collapse type – the A-Frame Collapse.(2, 3) The A-Frame Collapse is also known as a Tent Collapse. An A-Frame Collapse is essentially two back-to-back Lean-To collapses that share a common wall or other upright structural component.

There is another collapse type that has recently been identified. This collapse type involves concrete that is still wet. We call it the Bathtub Collapse. Unlike cured concrete, wet concrete does is not solid and when freshly poured, it does not form slabs and or give off dust. Wet concrete runs to the lowest point available, then collects like water in a bathtub. Bathtub collapses have some things in common with other collapse types, but there are several significant differences. The most important are the difficulty in stabilizing a collapse involving wet concrete, handling concrete that does not stay in one place, and the relatively short time it takes for the wet concrete to harden.

Typical Bathtub Collapse

Concrete Weight

Wet concrete is slightly heavier than a corresponding volume of dry concrete. When concrete cures, some of the water evaporates, but much of the water stays in the concrete. Water binds chemically to the solids in the concrete, and thus concrete retains much of the water weight when it cures. Concrete loses some weight as it cures, but surprisingly, that weight loss is relatively small.

The rule of thumb for the weight of a cubic foot of wet concrete with aggregate mix is 4000 lbs/yard3, or approximately 162 lbs/ft.3. The rule of thumb for the weight of a cubic foot of dry concrete with aggregate mix is 3700 lbs/yard3 or 150 lbs/ ft3. (4) The bottom line is that all concrete is heavy. Remember, the primary difference between wet concrete and dry concrete – wet concrete flows to the lowest point and then collects there.

A factor that construction personnel may not take into account is that once a concrete slab is poured, water, wet burlap, or other wet material is often left on the concrete surface to assist in insulating and hydrating the concrete as it cures. This water adds additional weight that may not be considered in the design of the shoring system that supports the pour. If that additional water weight is not accounted for in the shoring system, then a collapse is more likely.

Building Construction Factors

Virtually any type of building construction may be involved in a bathtub collapse. Bathtub collapses usually occur when construction personnel pour a concrete floor at an elevation above the lowest structural level. Bathtub collapses occur in one of three basic configurations. The first is when the collapse rests on the ground or on a slab at grade level. The second bathtub collapse type involves collapses above grade level. The third type is a bathtub collapse into a basement or other below-grade area. Bathtub collapses will most commonly occur at or below grade. Bathtub collapses that begin above the second floor are rare, as the collapse of an upper floor often causes a progressive pancake collapse that destroys the entire structure.
Basic bathtub collapse strategies are based on grade-level collapses. Above-grade and below-grade bathtub collapses involve the same basic strategy as a grade-level collapse, with a few additional considerations.

Construction Process Factors

The collapse of a concrete floor during or immediately after a pour may be due to one or more of the following factors:

• Inadequate shoring beneath the pour
• Wall-floor structural connector failure
• Shoring material failure
• Excessive amount of concrete poured
• Excessive pour concentration
• Failure of walls, beams, or other supporting structural materials

The Bathtub Collapse Sequence

Steel span drops with the outside edges supported, forming a rough bathtub shapeWet concrete runs to the center of the bathtub
Wet concrete runs out of small openings in the edges of the bathtub. These may be quickly blocked due to the heavy concrete viscosity or obstructions outside the bathtub. If small openings are blocked, the concrete in the bathtub will form a larger and deeper pool. This will make size up and extrication more difficult.
Concrete forms a thicker but smaller diameter puddle than the original pour
Rebar, Q-decking or other steel sheeting, and shoring materials are twisted and mixed into the wet concrete

Supporting beams and damaged overhead structural materials may create widowmakers
Supporting beams may fall into the bathtub prior to or during the rescue operation

Size-Up and Strategy

Size-up should be completed in accordance with standard structural collapse protocols. This should include the situation, potential entrapment problems, specific hazards, and a 360-degree look at the structure. When possible, include an elevated look at the collapse. An aerial ladder or nearby building may be used as an elevated observation post. When size-up is complete, Command should develop the Incident Action Plan (IAP) goals, communicate the IAP to all responders, make tactical assignments, and ensure that the personnel accountability system is fully implemented.

Important strategy considerations include:

Define the building factors including construction type
Identify the most likely victim locations
Develop and communicate the IAP
Safety considerations
Remove easily accessible victims
Make the rescue vs. recovery decision
Estimate the concrete cure time
Wet concrete removal methods

Bathtub Collapse Incident Management

Command should consider appointing at least a Safety Officer, a Liaison Officer, and a Rescue Group Supervisor for even a small bathtub collapse.(5) The Safety Officer can help isolate the scene and identify the primary hazards. The Liaison Officer can work with the construction company to determine how many workers are missing or known to be entrapped. The Liaison Officer should communicate with the construction supervisor, gather information, and keep construction personnel available to assist if needed. The Rescue Group Supervisor can concentrate on rescue tactics and needs and allow the Incident Commander to keep his/her attention focused on the overall incident strategy and safety.


Structural collapses typically require more resources than may seem likely during the early incident stages. It is important to have at least one engine company for water supply, one truck company for tools and an aerial device, a heavy rescue or USAR unit for tools and shoring materials, and additional manpower. A large law enforcement presence may be required to keep bystanders, construction personnel, or distraught relatives out of the collapsed structure. Additional construction personnel and heavy equipment such as cranes, front-end loaders, and other machinery may be useful in the rescue effort. If in doubt, call for additional resources early and often. Structural collapse rescue is hard work, and personnel may quickly become exhausted, especially in extremes of temperature and/or

Safety Considerations

One of the first priorities is to assign an Incident Safety Officer. This should be an officer who has a good basic knowledge of building construction, collapse types, USAR strategy and tactics, and common USAR safety problems. The Safety Officer should ensure that a safety zone is established. Collapse zones should be established to exclude responders from areas exposed to potential secondary collapse, particularly in areas beneath widowmakers. The Safety Officer should ensure that building utilities are shut down. Construction company generators and other power supplies should be shut down to reduce electrical hazards and atmospheric contaminants. Construction personnel should be kept on standby, as their generators may be useful power sources later in the incident.

Assessing the outside of the bathtub

The Safety Officer

A Safety Officer should be appointed early in the response. The Safety Officer should don the appropriate PPE and the Safety command vest. Once search and rescue operations begin, the Safety Officer should be located at an elevated observation point, if possible. Observing from an elevation gives the Safety Officer the ability to observe conditions in the bathtub as well as the condition of supporting walls, columns, and the stability of the surrounding structure. Most importantly, an elevated observation point gives the Safety Officer a better perspective on how rescue operations may change structural and personnel safety. For example, if wet concrete piles up against the base of a column that is already leaning, it may topple that pillar and cause an additional collapse. A properly-positioned Safety Officer will be able to anticipate this problem, advise Command, and ensure that the concrete flow is diverted prior to impinging on the damaged column.

Safety Officer’s view into the bathtub from an elevated observation point

Personal Protective Clothing

Standard USAR PPE is usually adequate for bathtub collapse operations. Lace-up safety boots are the most appropriate footwear. Wet concrete has a consistency very much like quicksand, and fire boots may be pulled off of firefighters who walk in it. Leather construction gloves, mechanics gloves, or extrication gloves are adequate for most hand protection, but medical exam gloves will be required for patient care.

Modified Turnout Gear Ensemble used for heavy cutting PPE

This concludes Part 1. Part 2 will discuss discusses tactical considerations, interior size-up, victim recovery, investigations, and incident termination.

(1) Goodson, Carl, et al
IFSTA Essentials of Firefighting, 5th Ed.
IFSTA, Stillwater, OK, pp 362-364

(2) English, Leslie, et al
NFPA 1670, Standard on Operations and Training for Technical Search and
Rescue, 2004 Ed.
NFPA, Batterymarch Park, MA, pp 25-27

(3) U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
US&R Structures Specialist Field Operations Guide, 3rd Ed.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Readiness Support Center, 2001, p VI-3


(5) Jones, Jeff
NIMS Field Operations Guide, 1st Ed.
InforMed, Tigard, OR, pp 14-20

All photos courtesy of Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue

Saturday, January 30, 2010

What kind of foam are you?

Firefighting foam has been around for a long time. The Navy, ARFF firefighters, and the petrochemical industry have used Class B foams for decades. When used properly, foam does a good job of extinguishing fire types for which water is not an efficient extinguishing media. Foam can be used on Class A fires, Class B fires, and for hazmat vapor suppression.

Different foams have different characteristics, are applied differently, and do different things. It may surprise you, but fire officers share several of those same features and characteristics. So, let’s think about the characteristics of different foams and apply them to fire officers.

Class A Foam

Class A foams are designed for one thing – fighting structural or woodland fires where the fuels are solid and have no special hazards. Class A foam does an excellent job of sealing air away from fuels and often result in less fire damage to a structure. Class A foams are very efficient at one thing, but they are a one-trick pony. Class A foams are useful as wildland fire barricades or for direct structural fire attack. However, Class A foams don’t produce much steam, so they are very ineffective when indirect fire attack is required, as in an attic fire.

Are you a Class A fire officer? Are you very good at one thing, but very ineffective at the other dimensions that make up your job? Do you perceive your job duties as “We just fight fires”? Are you uncomfortable with any emergency that doesn’t have smoke and flame showing?


CAFS is Class A foam that has air bubbles mechanically added at the pump so that the hoseline is pumping finished foam rather than foam solution. It makes the hoselines lightweight and easy to handle. It also makes the hoselines much easier to kink and completely shut off the foam flow than either water or Class A foam lines. Class A foam is high maintenance – it requires a compressed air pump in addition to the water pump.

Are you a CAFS officer? Are you light and frothy, without much substance? Do you seek the easy way to do things without considering that by making some things easier, you may be keeping the job from getting done at all some of the time? Do you require twice the motivation to work as other fire officers? Do you make others chase your “kinks” or otherwise add to others work because of how you do your work?

Protein-Based Foam

Protein Foams are designed for Class B liquid fires. They are old school, having been around since World War II. Protein foams are made from either animal blood and byproducts, from soybeans, or from a combination of both. They may have fluorine added to increase shelf life, but the fluorine adds environmental toxicity to the foam.

Are you a Protein-Based fire officer? Are you old school? Does something have to die to get you to work properly? Do you, like soybeans, create a lot of gas? Like flourine, are you toxic to the work environment? Do you have a long shelf life? Have you changed how you do things, but not enough despite getting the job done?


AFFF is a Class B foam that creates a vapor suppressing film between the foam bubbles and the fuel surface. It is very effective on spill fires. It is good to great at sealing flammable vapors into liquid fuel spills. The AFFF film is slick and oily. Applying other Class B foams atop AFFF usually results in the other foam sliding away due to the slickness in the AFFF. AFFF is good for suppressing polar solvent (alcohol) fires, but it requires twice as much concentration (6%) for this application as the normal (3%) application rate needed for hydrocarbon spill fires.

Are you an AFFF officer? Do you suppress anything that rises from below you? Do you do a good job, but have a slick and oily finish? Do other fire officers not mix well with you?


AR-AFFF is a new foam type that is similar to the older AFFF, but with several important differences. AR-AFFF is around 50% more expensive than standard AFFF. However, it is applied at 1% to hydrocarbon spill fires and 3% to polar solvent fires, so a given quantity of AR-AFFF will suppress three times as much fire as an equal quantity of standard AFFF. This results in an actual decrease in cost-per-gallon of the foam concentrate. Typical AR-AFFF is completely biodegradable, and is manufactured without the fluorine additives common to AFFF and protein foams. That makes it a much better choice for fighting both hydrocarbon and polar solvent fires. Additionally, AR-AFFF can be mixed at 0.5% and used as Class A foam for both wildland and structural firefighting applications, making it the most flexible foam currently available?

Are you an AR-AFFF officer? Are you flexible? Can you adjust your approach to adapt to different problems and challenges? Are you friendly to your work environment instead of using effective short-term solutions that leave long-term toxicity in your environment? Are you effective in handling a variety of emergencies rather than just being good at one thing? Can you adjust your intensity and concentration to fit with changes in your work environment?

High Expansion Foam

High Expansion Foam is designed to fill up confined spaces and exclude fire. It does not perform well in exposed positions, because its high expansion ratio makes it light, fluffy, and easy to blow away in a light wind. High expansion foam applications are so limited that most public fire departments don’t even carry it. High expansion foams require special application devices. They also require a lot more effort than conventional foams in order to be effective.

Are you a High Expansion officer? Do you require special treatment to be effective? Does it require additional effort by someone else to make you get the job done? Are you light and fluffy, without substance, and easily blown away by the winds of change? Are you comfortable only within narrowly-defined limits?

Hazmat Foam (vapor suppression foams)

Hazmat Foams are designed to suppress vapors from liquid hazmat spills. They are usually not effective for firefighting in Class A, Class B, or polar solvent fires. They are very, very good for one thing – preventing vapors from rising up from below. In this respect, hazmat foams are even more specialized and limited than is traditional AFFF. Hazmat foams are very effective not only at keeping vapors from entering the environment, but they are effective at keeping the environment out of the hazmat spill.

Are you a Hazmat Foam officer? Are you useless at firefighting? Do you suppress the idea vapors rising from your subordinates into the general environment? Do you work harder at keeping the environment out of your firehouse than you work at being an effective leader?

In conclusion, all firefighting and hazmat foams have their place. Good fire departments have access to all kinds of foam in order to handle a variety of fire and hazmat incidents with the best possible solution. However, not all “Foam Officer” types are good for either the fire department or for the firefighters. The best fire officers have AR-AFFF characteristics; they are flexible, they are good for several different problem types, they can suppress problems when needed, they are cost-effective, and while seeming more expensive on the surface, they actually save the department time, money, and effort in the long run.

And remember, even good fire officers, like good foam blankets are not perfect. Sometimes problems break through the fire officer's ability to handle them, just as the fire can break through the foam blanket.