Have Tool, Will Destroy

It is a common reaction on the fireground; give a member a tool and he or she will have a Pavlovian impulse to destroy something. The theory could be aligned to being on the truck (or squad) and having the assignment to “force” entry, “vent” the building, and “open up” for hidden fire. In some departments certain members have a tool “fettish”; they purchase their own tools and will be regularly found even at the alarm malfunction, with said tool in hand (not to be confused with a small officer’s tool, but a 4′ halligan hook or a 6′ Boston rake). I’m not certain where the need comes from, but it has to have some effect on fireground operations. In the opposite view, we can see where such a member has his impulses tempered, breaking only the panes of glass and not removing the whole sash. Either way, these extremes effect the the fire behavior or means of egress (sometimes both if you’re inside).

Take a look at each video, not necessarily for the whole fireground operation, but just the horizontal ventilation
Early horizontal ventilation (00:08) before the charged hoseline is in position to make the attack (1:08). Not a long period of time but the auto extension to the floor above has been greatly increased.
A “classic” (as far as age, in the YouTube world)…
Again, don’t become focused on the whole fireground, but look at the actions at 1:02. Why not take out the whole window? When conditions go bad your egress needs to be as uncomplicated as possible.

Where is the disconnect between taking out the whole window and when you should wait for the engine company to move in? Give the truckies some credit to be smart enough to know the difference.

Shootings and Being Shot At

It is one matter to be a soldier and fly into a hostile area expecting to be shot at.
It is an entirely different matter to be a firefighter and shot at while trying to fight a fire.

The tragic death of Firefighter Ryan A. Hummert [1] is something that cannot be critiqued in a NIOSH report. It cannot be trained against at Firehouse Expo or FDIC. Even if you were to search for information about firefighters and shootings, you would find that the great majority of information is about responding to the shooting incident; not about being shot at during a vehicle fire. Enter “shooting” into the National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting site’s search field and you find one report where “shooting” refers to being shot at with a firearm [2]. There is no preparation against the unknown criminal element yet to happen. It (being shot at, assaulted, etc.) makes for exciting reading as described by Dennis Smith, Harry Ahearn and other “war years” authors. It also is a means of defining the type of fire department you may be part of by defining the neighborhood you work in. The photographs of the old Mack engines with the wire mesh in the jumpseat windows, or the open cab tillers with plywood covering for protection are always interesting to look at. These are all simply reminders, informal recording of history, of a percentage of society that expresses itself in violent ways. Reading through the various stories prior[3] and following Hummert’s murder, fire departments are once again asking themselves, “should ballistic vests be issued?” The current opinions are equally divided. First is that this was a very random act and committed while responding to a truck fire, so why would you need body armor? The second is that shootings, especially at public safety personnel (excluding law enforcement) are becoming more common and not limited to the “ghettos”. They both carry weight and we would have to look at the numbers to see if the violence is on the increase or if it just reported easier and more frequently. Departments that do want to provide body armor will now have another item on their want list to try and obtain grant money for [4]. Either way, the best defense for now will be to expect anything and everything on every single run.

  • When responding to assaults, shootings, stabbings and other violent EMS incidents, be aware of the police presence. If your department does not have a level of safe staging, then consider waiting outside of the hundred block without your emergency lights running, until you have confirmation that the police have the scene under control. Keeping the lights off doesn’t draw attention to you or confuse responding PD of the incident location.
  • If you are provided with body armor, wear it. Who cares what the others think of you, and the ribbing you might get.
  • Most firefighter work clothes are as dark and similar to police uniforms, especially at night. Consider wearing your helmet and your running pants, to help the shooter distinguish you from the police officers. This also helps the police officers distinguish you from a possible suspect, if you respond in street clothes.
  • Wearing your helmet may also deflect a indiscriminate round. It’s better than a ball cap.
  • When approaching a private dwelling or apartment, especially ones known for violence, never, never, never stand in front of the door. Stay to the side when knocking and be sure to say “Fire Department” loud and clear.
  • Be very aware of who is in the apartment with you and what exactly is down that hallway. If possible, and this might not fly with most everyone, but I’ve done it and felt better, have the patient walk out to the living room, or close to the doorway. If your ambulance is running with more then three (volunteer companies mostly) then have one person stay by the door, with a radio. If you’re a two-man EMS crew, and things don’t feel “right” call for an assist. The more of you, the less likely someone will try something.
  • When working shootings, even if the police are on the scene, be aware of your surroundings. Shooters have been known to return. Just like we work on the roof with our back to the ladder, work with your back to the exit. Don’t allow yourself to be in between the criminal and the police.
  • Most bystanders, friends and family are going to be fueled with passion, emotion and rage, at such incidents. They will not be thinking clearly and will be trying to rush you. Try to remember it is not personal. Don’t let yourself or members get distracted and begin arguing with them. This will only fuel the fire. Keep your head about you.
  • Be familiar with firearms, so that if you have to secure one on a scene quickly, you can place the safety on and empty the rounds without hurting yourself or anyone.
  • Finally, when in doubt and things “don’t seem right” or it looks like a setup, then move out and make sure you call for assistance (documentation, “in preparation of litigation…”). Remember, you didn’t put the victims there. You’re responsible for you and your crew first.

Photograph of Trenton, NJ Engine 9 after being shot at while returning to quarters. Note the “Everyone Goes Home” sticker. Photograph courtesy Michael Ratcliffe/The Times

What the future might bring the fire service, regarding these repeated random acts of violence, is to consider:

  • will violent acts be justification for increased staffing (“safety in numbers”) as well as augmented response assignments?
  • is simply staging in a safe area enough?
  • will the ‘traditional” fire service look to tactical EMS for training?
  • what department will be the first to let exposures burn after being fired upon (remember MOVE in Philadelphia?) what are the resulting legal ramifications?
  • will requests for body armor be reviewed along with the exisisting law enforcement capabilities in your area?
  • will PPE manufacturers begin developing current roadway/safety vests incorporated with Kevlar or other body armor?
  • will apparatus manfacturers play on fear and design bullet-proof features?
  • can families of firefighters killed or injured by shootings and/or assaults sue the department for failing to protect the fallen if there is a history of such events happening?
  • will firearm safety and use become a NFPA requirement?

Lock and load

1. “
Friends, Family Remember Fallen Missouri Firefighter” Firehouse.com July 2008
2. Report Number: 08-0000080. National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System.
Event Description. The initial responding EMS Crew asked sheriff deputy “is it clear” to rear of the school shooting scene. It was a chaotic time and manpower management needs were occurring. The deputy stated “it’s clear” ushering fire rescue unit into direct line of live fire exchange. Medics were compelled to grab critically injured patients and visually triaging out dead under return fire. Personnel were able to make it off scene without injury or damage to crew. Lessons Learned. Different terms mean different things to agencies, individuals, and under different context. Local police use terms for stable/no life threat. The deputy thought fire wanted to know if it was physically clear for truck access. Priorities of known GSW victims requiring aid versus personal safety of crews continued to be in play.
3. “Fire engine is hit by bullet during ride back to quarters” STATter 911 June 2008

4. “Bulletproof vests – the next PPE for firefighters? Jamie Thompson, Fire Rescue 1
“Recognizing this growing risk to our responders is one of the factors that led me to apply for a Fire Act Grant this year under the PPE category for ballistics vests for all of our on-duty personnel. It is a sad statement but I believe active shooter situations have become common enough that firefighters and other emergency responders should have benefit of the same bulletproof protection that our brothers and sisters in law enforcement enjoy. A bullet proof vest should be considered the same as SCBA, medical gloves, a helmet or a bunker coat; just another PPE tool.” Chief Dan Jones, Chapel Hill, NC Fire Department

The Probie’s Guide to the Engine Company

The article series “The Probie’s Guide to the Engine Company” was originally planned to address topics seen on the fireground, discussed in the apparatus bays or dayroom and to enhance the fundamental training I expect a new firefighter would have. I can only go with what early initial training I received (MFRI Basic Fire) and with what I knew was being taught to new members at Hyattsville. Andy Fredericks was, and still is a big influence on me, not just about engine company operations, but about the fireground as a whole and more importantly the factors that cause us to do, or not do, certain things. He had written excellent articles for Fire Engineering and Fire Nuggets that approached the basics and he brought with his writings something that is missing in some of today’s articles: science; education; and reasoning. What made his delivery acceptable was that he was able to write in such a way that gave you college-level fact without reinventing the wheel and boring you. Anyone who has ever read “Little Drops of Water [1]” or “Father’s Day [2]” will agree that Andy was just as intellectual about the job as he was passionate. Certainly, I am no Andy Fredericks. I am far, far, far from it. But I am given an opportunity to contribute to the training content, so instead of wasting time inflating my ego while referencing war stories, the only other course is to write material that could be “Nuggets” worthy, and hopefully able to give some firefighter or officer a different look at the day to day work.

The “Probie’s Guide” is in five sections:
Where Am I Going?
What Am I Getting Into?
Lines, Lines, Lines Part I
Lines, Lines, Lines Part II

I borrowed a writing style from Vincent Dunn that always got my attention. In his early Firehouse magazine articles, when he was a FDNY chief officer, he started each of his articles with a fictional depiction of a fireground scene. Each one involved some form of fire attack or structural collapse that put a picture in your mind. From there he would lead you into the construction-specific terminology. This makes the reading easier to get into, to become interested in, and to finish. This was my intent with the probie from Engine 7. I believe this was successful, as I received emails for each article about how it reminds the reader of their own experience. However, I can’t sugarcoat what I intend to get across.

Where Am I Going?
Learn your area. Be as detailed in your mind as you can be regarding your first due area. No matter what the truckies say or do, the engine puts the fire out. Not knowing the details of your area is like coming up to bat with two strikes already against you.

Where Am I Getting Into?
Working fire experience (or the lack thereof) impacts the firefighter’s ability to make decisions. This may sound like a “no brainer” but read some of the LODD, Close Call and Near-Miss reports and you’ll realize it is a problem that affects each and every firefighter and officer year after year. I stand by a statement made from an earlier article of mine “Soldiers who have not been trained under stressful conditions do not react well when confronted with antagonistic situations. [3]” Our training needs to be more antagonistic.

Lines, Lines, Lines Part I
Estimating the stretch is a practice that can always be drilled on. But it requires you to get off the couch and out in the street.

Lines, Lines, Lines Part II
Look around in your own department or area. Who stretched short on that last fire? Who pulled the 400’ and had 200’ to spare? Who charged the bed? What was the delay in getting water to the nozzleman? No t-shirt or fancy website is going to save you now once you’ve messed up the stretch.

Just take a few seconds, gather yourself, take in what is burning and then put the fire out. It’s really that simple as long as you keep your head about you and pay attention. Work out all of the mental “kinks” during your training and don’t wait for the box alarm to handle the what-ifs.

The fire service learns by “doing”. We take books, formal instruction and practical evolutions and gain knowledge, but it isn’t until we actually put all of this to use in the street, that we learn by “doing.” There we see how it comes together, when we are away from a PowerPoint projector and our sterile, empty burn buildings. Hopefully, we don’t learn about tragedy by “doing”.

1. “Little Drops of Water,” Part 1, Fredericks, Fire Engineering, Feb. 2000 and “Little Drops of Water,” Part 2, Fredericks, Fire Engineering, Mar. 2000.
2. “Father’s Day” Fredericks, Fire Nuggets August – November 2001
3. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences

Talking Back to Basics

A new approach to back-to-basics training was recently delivered at Firehouse.com. The latest post on Training and Tactics in over a year, Chief Doug Cline leads a discussion on training philosophies with Battalion Chief Jeffery Pindelski and Buddy Hyde. Together they discussed what is needed to be looked into regarding the training of firefighters and officers.
Training & Tactics Talk: Training Philosophies

The podcast is open to comments.

Interesting statements from the podcast:

  • The breakdown is in basic skills; a lot of tasks expected are advanced skills that rely on the solid foundation of basic skills
  • Early retirements; rapid promotions; backgrounds are missing from the newer generations
  • The “slide tray” (personal experiences) we have is limited, affecting our choices and decisions
  • Pulling hoselines and throwing ladders is timeless
  • Need to focus training on the actual risks and fireground evolutions
  • We’re not aggressive but reckless; identify the difference
  • Need to have veteran officers participating, not just leading and being off on the sidelines
  • Firefighters need to better understand the technology given to them
  • Building construction and fire behavior are predictable situations; how does this affect our operations?
  • Some of our tactics were built long before the situations we’re experiencing today
  • Need to focus on failures, close calls
  • Settling for the status quo

July Unscientific Survey

What Does He Need To Know?
The process of cognitive decision making is complex and quite rapid. According to research by Dr. Gary Klein, fireground commanders will make 80% of their decisions in less than one minute [1]. These decisions happen as often as the working jobs come in. What impacts the chief officer greatly is communication. Experience plays a large role for him; knowing the area, knowing the assignment and any CISD information. In some departments the initial chief officer may know the personnel directly, by name, but the intial reports by the unit officers are what fill in the blanks as he is responding. Some chiefs know to expect the first line to be near the seat of the fire; the trucks opening up and searching. Some are looking to see who will be the RIC or where the second tanker is coming from. Other chiefs want to know if the Charlie Group Leader has the right vest on, or if you went in before the “two-out” arrived. Either way, it all comes down to communication and the expectations we have of one another.

Unit Officers: What do you believe your chief officer expects to hear and see when he arrives on the fireground – in the first minute?
Chief Officers: What do you expect to be told upon assuming, or initializing, “command” – in the first minute?

1. “Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions” Klein, 1998
Additional Reading

“Fireground Chatter vs. Clear Communication – Part 1″ Bailey, Fire Rescue 1, 2008
“Dunn’s Dispatch: Life and Death Decision Making” Dunn, Firehouse.com 2007
“Fireground Command Decisions” Bouwsema, Fire Engineering.com 2007
“Findings From the Wildland Firefighters Human Factors Workshop. Improving Wildland Firefighter Performance Under Stressful, Risky Conditions: Toward better Decisions on the Fireline and More Resilient Organizations” USDA Forest Service, 1996

Photograph courtesy of Patrick Davis