Tools In The Toolbox

Dave LeBlanc is wondering if the fire service has become so infatuated with the tools, that we’ve forgotten about the problems.

The fire service is fascinated with acronyms. Some have been around for a while. PSI, GPM, and RIT are examples. Some others are new VSP and CRM for example. We are also fascinated with new ideas and techniques. We are focused on these new ideas to fix old problems. Maybe the problem is that we keep looking for solutions when we should just fix the problem.

Why do we constantly seek to fix our problems with solutions from other industries and services? Clearly there are some similarities in the issues we face and those faced by these others, but there really is no direct comparison. Very few risk management models allow for decisions to be made in the seconds we have to make them. Probably the closest comparison is the military, but even the military planning model requires more time and detail than we often have.

Are our attempts to make his job easier actually making it harder for him to make the necessary, tactical decisions that are expected of him?

Why are we constantly looking re-write existing industry standards, when the problem is that time and time again it is not the process that failed, but a failed application of the process? Almost every NIOSH report written has the same three things listed as contributing factors: Failure of ICS; Failure of Accountability; and Failure of Communication. These reports never say that the ICS system failed to manage the incident correctly, or that communications were timely and accurate but the firefighter was still killed. Time and time again these reports indicate that we have failed to implement the procedure or system, and that is what contributed to the line of duty death. Yet instead of looking at this and saying, “we need to train on ICS and do this better”, often the answer is “if we employ Crew Resource Management, all our problems will be solved.”

We seek to change things to add another tool to the toolbox, but are we burdening our people with so much information? Are we giving them too many tools? How many hammers does a carpenter really need? Does an electrician need to carry a plumbers’ torch too? Victim Survivability Profiling is one example. Clearly a concept, in fact a research project for the National Fire Academy EFO program by FDNY Capt Marsar, we are now being told that a failure to use VSP contributed to a Line of Duty Death in Homewood, Illinois[1]. Yet by Captain Marsar own words, it is a concept he is not 100% completely comfortable with and no practical applications of its use have yet been published [2].

In his post on The Company Officer, “Situational Awareness and the Three Sixty”, Christopher Naum talks about how the term size up “doesn’t align with the newest directions in firefighter safety and incident command management.[3]” And that the 360 degree assessment is more appropriate. This is like the change in EMT training terminology from ‘Secondary Survey’ to ‘Focused Exam’. Many in the fire service perform a 360 as part of their size up, as long as conditions and policy allow. Many factor reports in from other companies or personnel in lieu of a 360. Often times it isn’t practical for the first arriving officer to attempt to get to the rear, for example when the fire building is in the middle of the block.

The fire service seems to be grasping at straws, frantically searching for ways to reduce the number of line of duty deaths. Instead of focusing on the issues we see over and over again, incomplete size up, poor communications, driving too fast, and seat belt use to name a few; we seem to be a erratic path searching for new techniques to lower our line of duty death numbers. With each new idea, each new acronym, we add more tools to our toolboxes; but are we really fixing the problem? Are we any closer to finding the solution? Or is the solution right in front of us and we just can’t seem to find a way to make it work.

1. “Another tool that the IC should consider using is survivability profiling. Survivability profiling uses the knowledge learned of fire behavior and spread, smoke (i.e., color, condition, movement), and building construction to examine a situation and make an intelligent decision of whether to commit fire fighters to life saving and/or interior operations.9 In other words, survivability profiling involves assessing the probability that a trapped occupant is still alive and can safely be rescued with the current or impending conditions.” One Career Fire Fighter/Paramedic Dies and a Part-time Fire Fighter/Paramedic is Injured When Caught in a Residential Structure Flashover – Illinois, NIOSH 2010
2. “Victim Survivability Profiling. Continuing the Discussion“, Brennan, The Fire Service Warrior
3. “Situational Awareness and the Three Sixty”, Naum, The Company Officer
“Survivability Profiling: Are the Victims Savable?” Marsar, Fire Engineering, December 2009
“Survivability Profiling: How Long Can Victims Survive in a Fire?”, Marsar, Fire Engineering, July 2010
One Career Fire Fighter/Paramedic Dies and a Part-time Fire Fighter/Paramedic is Injured When Caught in a Residential Structure Flashover – Illinois, NIOSH September 2010
“The Devil Is In The Details”, Brennan, The Fire Service Warrior, November 2010

Photos courtesy of Billy Adkins,; Jake O’Callaghan/CWN/Harwich Fire Department
Image courtesy of Firemark Tools

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  • Jeff Mrwik says:

    Well stated.

  • chiefreason says:

    Excellent post.
    In my opinion, we almost see panic as we try to find ways to reduce the number of LODDs. The areas have been identified, but that’s it. NIOSH reports are a great starting point, but just like some of the tests that I have taken, they will tell what was wrong, but they won’t tell you how to fix it. We have to do that.
    But, you are dead on with “too many tools for the toolbox”. That buzz phrase has been around for a number of years, so I think that it’s time to go back and look at the toolbox, take out all of the duplicate tools, keep the tools that can serve more than one purpose, reduce the size of the toolbox and become more proficient with the tools that you have.
    With too many tools, we are finding difficulty deciding which ones to use. That could be part of the problem with the initial minutes on scene.
    With regards to Homewood, that was the first NIOSH LODD report where I have seen a reference to the Victim Survivability Profile, but I think that the major contributing factor was uncoordinated ventilation with interior team.
    Good food for thought.

  • Dalmatian90 says:

    On a more serious note, I think you need to approach it similar to the attitude of risk awareness v. risk aversion; rather then being afraid of everything that could possibly go wrong, you need to know what is likely to bite you — or in this case, rather then adopting everything that comes down the pipeline of ideas, you need to figure out what “fits” with the unique situation and circumstances of the fire service.

    It goes both ways, too. By the late 1990s I was seeing a lot of ICS terms and diagrams in computer disaster recovery training classes. That has only increased since, as well as general awareness of NIMS so corporations can plug themselves into that framework whether it’s a utility responding to incidents in the community, or a corporation making contingency plans for events on their own campus.

  • Dalmatian90 says:

    (Sorry about the nonsensical in this context “on a more serious note” leading off the last post…biological interface problem here)

  • Dean says:

    Nice post Dave. How about “back to basics” already used I know but still probably the most appropriate. Evert time we ID a problem there has to be a new solution. With fires down, experience levels down, available dollars down, training levels down, and often staffing levels down we must be more consistent in our approach. The pilots got their Crew Resource Management from looking at team oriented operations and the fire service was one. NIMS and ICS are important but often it is the tried and true basics that will get us through the rapid decision making needed by first arriving officers. If. like CPR, you constantly change the rules, methods, and terms, you’ll probably get poor results.

  • Dave LeBlanc says:


    A great quote I heard the other day was “we should never have left the basics to need to go back to them.” I agree with what you are saying, and much of that was my point. We have the tools needed, we just need to get better at using them. Instead we seem focused on using somebodies elses fix,we may not be the most appropriate solution.

  • Timothy Bullard says:

    A phrase I heard from another field of endeavor. “What problem are you solving?” I have been using around my firehouse the last year to address this exact issue. Sometimes it seems we are presented, or worse, saddled with a solution in search of a problem. We must examine each new process and integrate the useful bits that can help solve our problems, District by District.

  • Billy Schmidt says:

    I agree, I don’t believe that employing any particular “tool” will solve a problem. I do believe that the “basics” really begins with the human element: our ability to observe, orient, decide, and act. Call it CRM or anything else, but it’s the individual “frame of mind” that brings thinking to action. That’s a culture, not just a word or an acronym. Incomplete size up, poor communication, and driving too fast are all based on our think-ability. We need to be better thinkers. That concept has been around forever; we just haven’t learned from history.

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