Merchandising Your Safety

I was asked my thoughts on a firefighter survival subject at Firefighter Basics. The matter involved whether or not NFPA Standard 1971 should include personal escape systems. The question itself is presented well and the many replies are what have made it a great discussion. Co-contributor Dave LeBlanc also added to the discussion. You can read his comments here and on Firefighter Basics. For the record, I am not against personal escape devices; I think they should be part of our PPE everywhere. The narrow minds that believe they don’t need them because they have nothing bigger than two stories, or because their department isn’t ‘urban’, have no valid argument. The potential problem I see is that they will become another recommendation listed to prevent line of duty deaths instead of focusing on the causes of the majority of those deaths. “If only they had a bailout kit”, will fall in line with “if only they had a TIC”, or “if only they had done a 360.” I can imagine what you are thinking, ‘What about Black Sunday? Would you not give the FDNY bailout kits?’ That is an extreme and irrational thought. Of course they should have them; however, keep in mind that the fatal Bronx fire had many things working against the members of the FDNY. When looking at standards and their effectiveness in reducing firefighter deaths, we have to ask ourselves which solution has the potential for a longer lasting and more effective result – merchandise or mentality?

Photo 1. This series of photos captures a close call for two Maryland firefighters. They had been operating a handline off a portable ladder when the front part of the structure collapsed. The two were taken to the hospital, treated and released. Note the lack of SCBA as well as questionable firefighting strategies. (Bruce Secrist/ with permission)

“Throughout the years the fire service has dealt with line of duty deaths in a myriad of ways. The currently unchanged shotgun approach is to have nationally recognized associations create and endorse solutions in almost generic, neutral methods. This leaves many departments and municipalities freely able to pick and choose which prevention recommendations and life saving initiatives they wish to incorporate. That in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The problem lies when initiatives and recommendations are tied with merchandising. The saying ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ has been the legacy of the American fire service. Everything from the Halligan bar to high-rise blankets have found their origin in the problem of some fire department. Many of our tools are reactionary, in other words they exist to perform in response to a problem, not prior to a problem.

“Many of the products designed for our personal safety are reactionary and have a origin based on fatalism. PASS devices; thermal imaging cameras; enclosed cabs; backup warning devices, all were created because someone died and to stop others from dieing in the same manner. It is easy to rectify a tragedy by offering a solution of substance; by saying ‘here, use this and your department will never have to go through this tragedy again.’ Unfortunately human nature prevents this from being successful.”

“When I first read the title I immediately thought of the Andy Fredericks quote, “if you put the fire out right in the first place, you won’t have to jump out the windows.”

Obviously there are situations that we cannot account for, no matter how prepared, and situations like “Black Sunday” will happen. But they should be the exception, not the rule.

One issue I see with bailout systems is the required training for them to be issued and then keeping that training current. It isn’t as easy as hooking up to a hydrant. There needs to be a suitable place to train and safety lines need to be rigged. Not your average “daily drill”.

Everything we add to our equipment increases weight, training requirements, maintenance costs and replacement costs. All at a time where there is little money do to cover the most basic needs.

I have to say I am really on the fence about it being part of the standard, for some of the reasons others have mentioned, as well as some of my own thoughts.”

-Dave LeBlanc

“The same thought applies to strategic and tactical recommendations. Broad neutral remedies are offered as solutions to sloppy, and at times downright shameful firefighting, and are done so without any instruction on how to correct the current culture. Again, this leaves departments to pick and choose what suits them best, or what they find culturally favorable. In most cases, just like with tangible solutions, true change never occurs.”

Photo 2. (Bruce Secrist/ with permission)

“The only true validation any bailout kit will have, will not come from a NFPA standard, but from departments that take the time to openly investigate their firefighting problems. These departments will first make the necessary personnel, tactical, strategic and cultural changes first and then supplement and reinforce those changes with the appropriate tools. Departments that simply rely on picking and choosing the various association standards and recommendations without bothering to invest in the practice will only look good on paper. They will not be making their firefighters any safer than they had before such standards and recommendations existed. I wrote about this and a series of Houston line of duty deaths. Despite numerous recommendations, and actually having the tool, thermal imaging cameras did not save some of their dead firefighters. Likewise, regarding the FDNY, how many bailout kits could have saved their dead firefighters since Larry Fitzpatrick and Gerald Frisby died? My point isn’t that they do not have a valuable place, but that they are only reactionary life-saving measures. In the end, they will only become an additional burden, as in cost, maintenance, training and replacement, to departments that could make more of an impact by taking a stronger stance on the medical and physical health of its members.”

Photo 3. (Bruce Secrist/ with permission)

“Finally, through work I see a number of fireground operations and behaviors. The fire service, unfortunately, has a large number of departments that still cannot attack fire properly. Ladders not thrown, hoselines stretched wrong, ventilation done that increases the fire spread and communication issues that are nearly chaotic. Endorsing a bailout kit standard does nothing to rectify those problems, and may well place firefighters in greater jeopardy. Until the errors in the basics are corrected standards attached to merchandise will be nothing more than fire service commercialism.”

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  • Marques Bush says:

    Another great post brother and I thank you for your insightful thoughts. Training is still the number one option to me also. Thanks for all the work you do and I love the site it has been inour blogroll for a while. Stay safe hope to catch up soon

    • backstepfirefighter says:


      Credit goes to you for prompting the discussion. There are a lot of very good points being addressed by your readers.

      Bill Carey

  • Nate Q. says:

    Ahhh yes. The ever popular reactive approach. God forbid we get proactive about some aspect of our job (Don’t get me started on vests/chevrons…they’re good, but that idiot is still probably going to hit us either way. We should be proactive in enforcing “move over” laws and in preaching driver awareness). There, now that the mini-rant is over, let’s get on to the post at hand 🙂 I read both this post and the discussion on Marques’ site, and have to say that I am also on the fence. While I understand the theory of standards, I don’t completely trust them. As mentioned, many organizations pick and choose which standards to follow, depending on when it’s convenient to follow them. For example, my organization has the SCBA-integrated escape systems, but never formally trained the members on its use (luckily, most have taken the initiative to use a spare pack to practice…but still, it needs to be engrained like the basics-when the s has hit the f, it’s no time to figure it out.)

    We owe it to ourselves to strive for that proactive aproach. Get your basics down solidly, then start adding. Just as a cool-looking vest shouldn’t be a cure-all for drivers who won’t move over, a bailout kit shouldn’t be a cure-all for sound tactics/decisions…it should be another option available to you if/when (hopefully never)you experience that “all out of options” moment.

  • Problem Prevention
    Not only are safety products born out of fatalism so are training tracks. The explosion in firefighter self rescue and RIT training are two prime examples. While having equiptment or training options available to you when you need it increases your ability to escape, what underlying lapse caused this to occur? Some causes are overt while others require further investigation. Some department will push the basics aside to endorse dramatic solutions to problems, because it is often an easier sell than outing the real culprit. Something that has a proven record of results and is often ignored or dismissed is – Water on the Fire!

  • Mike says:

    Basics safe lives, stay orientated stay low and pay attention. We spend so much time training to react we need to train to know bldg construction, fire behavior and just put the damn fire out and the problems go away.

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