Company Pride

The purpose of this piece is to preface the online symposium “Reducing Firefighter Deaths and Injuries: Changes in Concept, Policy, and Practice”, from 22 September to 3 October 2008, by the Public Entity Risk Institute and the IAFC.

Three months from now, after various national fire service organizations and departments have presented information ad nauseam about wearing all of your PPE, eating right, exercising and driving safely, another larger body will begin presenting information about why we fail to do what seems so simple. The Public Entity Risk Institute (PERI) has begun focusing on why many of the messages and recommendations from LODD reports seem to go unheeded. The focus will be on the “culture” among other possible factors within the nation’s fire service [1].

Culture can be loosely described as behavior that is socially taught. For us, our greatest culture is our company pride. Company pride is what perpetuates our purpose, our sense of acceptance and belonging. We are quick to tell the new guy from out-of-state that we really don’t care how they do it back home but that he’s in our county now, our department and he’ll do things our way. Company pride is what motivates us to not be beaten in to the box or to have the line taken from us (really though, how often is that happening?). It also motivates us to make sure jobs get done, the housework, the committee work, the work that nobody likes to do and is usually behind the scenes. Pride is also there for us as a tool of correction. It’s probably difficult to say you’re a member of xyz department which recently was seen doing something stupid on YouTube. It may cause you to think twice about wearing that department t-shirt after some of your guys are on Billy G’s latest posting. True there are bad apples in every bunch and the actions of a few do not constitute the actions of the majority, but what if you are not learning from the mistakes? I’ve heard from many firefighters in various departments that the NIOSH reports all are beginning to say the same things: poor sizeup; poor staffing; poor communications; poor command. PERI has begun to take information and research to try and find where and what disconnect there is in the learning.

From the Firefighter Near-Miss Reporting System I read the reports submitted during the period the “Probie’s Guide” articles were written (no, I don’t believe I made an impact, but that wasn’t the specific purpose). During that period, from 2006 to 2007 I searched reports filed regarding fires in single family dwellings. The parameters I chose were Communication; Decision Making; Human Error; and Situational Awareness. I then read through and noted the ones that involved operating a hoseline. Of the 16, 12 submitters believed that the same close call that happened to them will happen again. They mean that the same contributors to their personal experience will be repeated and possibly injure or take the life of one of their coworkers. If you read them, there are some that are simply the result of operating in a hazardous evironment (see, ‘put water on the fire’) and we can all learn from what the participant himself learned. The majority of them are the results of things gone wrong long before the fire started. It is akin to owning a gun and shooting yourself in the foot while cleaning it, because you failed to unload it – and you expect to shoot yourself again the next time you clean your gun.

Where is the pride in that?

December 2007
Report No. 07-00007499
Member of hose team injured in floor collapse; Deck gun weakened structure.
Do you think this will happen again? Yes

May 2007
Report No. 07-0000926
Firefighters operating hoseline within collapse zone, stuck by falling roof material
Do you think this will happen again? Uncertain

April 2007
Report No. 07-00008522
Firefighter falls from second floor inside home under construction
Do you think this will happen again? Not Answered

March 2007
Report No. 07-0000749
Engine officer and crew fall through floor into basement
Do you think this will happen again? Yes

Report No. 07-00008466
Firefighter on first engine suffers burns to ears and other areas due to not wearing a hood.
Do you think this will happen again? Yes

February 2007
Report No. 07-00008144
Hose team falls through floor; Mayday transmission delayed.
Do you think this will happen again? Yes

Report No. 07-00007355
Hose team caught in flashover in mobile home
Do you think this will happen again? Yes

Report No. 07-00007300
Nozzleman falls through burnt second floor.
Do you think this will happen again? Yes

January 2007
Report No. 08-00002611
Engine company was found in argument over advancing the hoseline while room flashed over, burning a firefighter.
Do you think this will happen again? Not Answered

Report No. 07-00008455
Engine officer and two firefighters on initial line become disoriented; third firefighter has problem with SCBA.
Do you think this will happen again? Yes

Report No. 07-00007277
Engine crew burnt attempting to advance line into structure.
Do you think this will happen again? Yes

Report No. 07-00006988
Nozzleman falls through floor.
Do you think this will happen again? Yes

July 2006
Report No. 06-00003933
Disorganized fire attack; many contributing factors
Do you think this will happen again? Uncertain

June 2006
Report No. 07-00008899
Hose team caught in building collapse.
Do you think this will happen again? Yes

May 2006
Report No. 08-00002722
Hoseline operated though rear window pushing fire onto the truck crew searching
Do you think this will happen again? Yes

January 2006
Report No. 07-00008955
Engine crew pushed out due to opposing handline from the exterior
Do you think this will happen again? Yes

1. Reducing Firefighter Deaths and Injuries: Changes in Concept, Policy, and Practice, PERI Virtual Symposium Center
Next Week Dedicated to Safety, Health, Survival“, June 2008
Public Entity Research Institue
National Firefighter Near-Miss Reporting System
The Probie’s Guide to the Engine Company” (five article series)
Photograph courtesy of Fire In The Hole Photography

Nothing New Under The Sun


As new generations enter the fire service, they begin to sort out their own place, their own social order. As new technology enters the fire service it also goes through a sorting, being fully embraced without question in some instances, tried and tested in others and flat out refused in few (see “we’ve always done it this way” or “that’s trying to be like the big city”). The culture changes as well and in the fire service a lot this involves pride. It’s part of the tradition in the fire service, company pride, which is passed on to the incoming generations. In turn they use the methods that are easiest, and most likely innovative, to express that pride. One area is in apparatus response and arrival on the scene. Years ago there was no “pre-alert” system; no signboard or CAD printer. Members listened to the department radio for the address being announced. Quality drivers who knew their area well would make for the rigs when they heard a certain hundred block announced. In other ways, a keen dispatcher would ring the station on the phone and give the person answering the address before the call was announced. This was really good to benefit from especially if the address was not in your first due area. An engine company beating the first-due engine company had all the bragging rights, without having to say a word. Everyone would know it with the announcement of the layout instructions and the initial sizeup report. But pride doesn’t let us stay silent, and word gets around quickly. Nearly every company has some small bit of grandstanding at the expense of another company. It’s human nature and comes in various ways, reinvented by each new generation of firefighters.

The “calling card” pictured is one form. I remember when on a box alarm the engine was third-due and arrived first-due. At the end of the alarm as we were racking up, a senior member called me over and told me to discreetly go to the assigned first-due engine, and their tower, and leave a bunch of these cards inside the cabs. Innovative, maybe the idea came from “Apocalypse Now” where Robert Duvall’s character, Colonel Kilgore, is tossing out the division’s playing cards onto the bodies of the dead NVA and Viet Cong soldiers in the village they just overtook. No doubt it is a manifestation of pride. Why else would we put “Death From Above” on the front of our helicopters or a catchy phrase on the front of our engines? Some of what is out there is pure genius. Some is pure stupidity. But none of it is brand new.

In a 1948 edition of “With New York Firefighters” (WNYF), is a interview with then retired Battalion Chief Michael Conley, who came on the job in 1898 [1]. As a fireman with Engine Company 213 in Brooklyn he shared his experiences with the bell system and horse drawn apparatus to mention a few. In order to find breaks in the telegraph lines, some firehouses had circuit sections. Conley stated that the one they had would always give them a jump on an alarm. “So fast moving were our men and so well were the horses trained that we sometimes had the horses hitched and the company out the door before the first bell hit”. But getting the jump wasn’t the only bit of pride, as he explains further,

“Now there was a certain box in Greenpoint to which 229 Engine, at that time located on Kingsland Avenue and Frost Street, was first due. We were second due. That box was hooked up to our section circuit. The tip-off we thus received enabled us to get down Driggs Avenue before Engine 229. There we would wait. Pretty soon we’d see 229 turning into Driggs Avenue, the driver shouting and the horses straining at their fastest pace. My captain would hold my arm with one hand and wave them on with the other. As soon as they passed us, the captain would release my arm and say “Now, Mike, pass that company,” and we were off like a shot. We always passed them, beat them to the nearest hydrant to the fire and often had water on the fire before they found another hydrant. Sometimes, just to “rub it in,” one of our men would mockingly let a short piece of rope trail behind our steamer as we passed them as if to offer 229 some aid in getting to the fire.”

One hundred and ten years ago a company was getting the jump on a box, beating the due company and rubbing it in. There is nothing new under the sun. It’s just pride and traditions passed down and reinvented in different forms.

1. "Uncle Mike Recalls" Michael F. Conley, Battalion Chief (retired) as told to Charles S.W. Rubin (Fireman, Engine 213) WNYF January 1948

Wind-Driven Private Dwelling Fires

Two interesting statements were made regarding firefighting strategy and tactics in May of this year. The first came during FDIC in an interview by Fire Engineering’s Bobby Halton. Chief Halton spoke with the NIST staff about the wind-driven fire experiments conducted in February of this year [1]. NIST along with the FDNY [2] and PolyTechnic University [3] conducted experiments on the techniques used to control the wind in high-rise fires. The process, funded by a FEMA grant, collected scientific data about thermal heat transfer with the use of a large fan (simulating high-rise wind conditions) and positive pressure ventilation fans, aligned with the “routine” fire attack strategy. Throughout this year, the information gathered is being entered into computer simulations by both PolyTech and NIST to provide theories as to why some equipment and strategies are, or are not, effective [4]. Dan Madrzykowski’s statement “maybe sometimes the tactic of sending the guy to the roof to open the bulkhead first before they go open the door to the fire room may not be the right thing” is what should cause us to follow this study in earnest, or at least be mindful of the resources available for reviewing our own strategy and tactics[5].

The second interesting statement is found in the NIOSH Firefighter Fatality Report of Prince William County, Virginia [6]. In April 2007 Technician I Kyle Wilson was killed after becoming trapped in a second floor bedroom during a wind-driven fire. The converse is that this was not a high-rise fire, as we would normally think of when discussing wind-driven fires. Four times in the NIOH report the prevailing wind was referred to as having been a highly probable factor in the sudden change of fire conditions. The first recommendation in the report urges fire department SOPs “address the hazards of high wind and gusts[7].” According to the investigative report from Prince William County we can learn that there was a “high wind advisory in effect [8]“; and that the high wind impact was among other attributes, “blow torch effect”[9]. We usually are accustomed to the blow torch phrase when reading of high-rise fires, but this comes out of a two-story private dwelling[10]. Of the recommendations from this report and others where weather is a contributing or significant factor[11], we may see the inclusion of weather facts as part of the information in the initial dispatch. We know it has been in use for years in the area of hazardous materials response and if we are to take anything, immediately from past high-rise fires and past wind-driven fires, we should begin to consider it within our own departments. In some instances, what will come out of recognizing the effects of wind on private dwellings, departments may reconsider where the initial line enters and where (or when) the primary search will start. The wind is not the only contributor to this fatal fire, but as begun in this piece, the wind is being noticed on a scientific and strategic standpoint by more than one particular audience. To receive a copy of “Positive Pressure Ventilation Research: Videos and Reports” from NIST, Fire.Gov, email with your name and mailing address. Comments about this piece are welcomed. When doing so, sign your name.
Photographs courtesy FDNY, NIOSH
1. Wind Driven Fires, Governors Island, NY. Fire.Gov
2. FDNY Studies the Science of Wind-Driven High-Rise Fires, FDNY
3. Poly teams up with FDNY to fight fire with engineering, PolyTechnic University
4. FDIC interview. A practice turned myth, according to FDNY Battalion Chief George Healy, is “about our attack strategies; send two lines down the public corridor and through the strategy and technology and NIST was able to provide the data, that really we weren’t effective at all and the only thing we were accomplishing was injuring our own members.”
5. Ibid. FDIC interview
6. Career Fire Fighter Dies in Wind Driven Residential Structure Fire, Virginia. NIOSH May 2008
7. Ibid. See also “Brunacini, A V [1985]. Fire Command. Quincy, MA: National Fire Protection Association.” and “Dunn V (1992). Safety and survival on the fireground. Saddlebrook, NJ: Fire Engineering Books and Videos.”
8. 15474 Marsh Overlook Structure Fire Investigative Report, April 2007, page 27
9. Ibid
10. Career Fire Fighter Dies in Wind Driven Residential Structure Fire, Virginia. NIOSH May 2008. “LT#1 and his crew along with the R10 crew were still at the front door which had slammed closed.”
11. Career Lieutenant and Career Fire Fighter Die and Four Career Fire Fighters are Seriously Injured during a Three Alarm Apartment Fire, New York. NIOSH, December 2006
Due to the adverse weather conditions [snow], the department had increased the staffing to five firefighters and an Officer in all Engines normally staffed by four firefighters and an Officer, and to six firefighters and an Officer in all five Rescue companie
s which are normally staffed by five firefighters and an Officer. The following units responding to this incident on the first alarm had the additional fifth firefighter: Engines 42, 46, and 75, and Rescue 3.”

“The weather at the time of the incident included light snow with a temperature of 17°F and an average wind speed of 12 mph, with gusts up to 45 mph from the northwest. A blizzard leaving a snow depth of 13 inches occurred within hours preceding the incident. Weather conditions played a role in this incident with frozen hydrants, wind affecting the fire conditions, and a slightly delayed response time due to road conditions. The entire city block around the structure had not been plowed prior to the incident.” brackets and emphasis mine