Firefighting According to Pirate Rules

Reporting of Vermont house fire rescue emphasizes “rule breaker” persona and, well, very little else.





On 10 December, the Grafton Fire Department was alerted for a house fire. Volunteer firefighter Richard Thompson, who lives less than a mile away, drove to the scene instead of to the firehouse. There he was faced with fire showing from the rear of the 150-year old farmhouse and a relative telling him “Gram is in there.”

So, with his full one year’s worth of experience, Thompson kicked in the front door, dropped down and crawled in under the smoke. Hearing “Gram” – Mrs. Fisher – Thompson reportedly remembered to stay low and perform a right hand search. His first sweep of the area he was searching turned up nothing.

One a second sweep Thompson heard a faint moan from Mrs. Fischer. Once he located her, Thompson worked to free her from some unknown obstruction and drag her out of the burning home. Once outside Mrs. Fisher was turned over to arriving EMS personnel and was at last report listed in “critical condition.”

The original news report from the Brattleboro Reformer is titled “Firefighter praised for saving woman”, and in the body of the story are the elements that led to the runaway headline “Vermont Firefighter Broke Every Rule To Rescue Woman”,

” – he knew all of the basic requirements of never entering a burning building alone and always trying to make sure you had the proper equipment.”
“But with the fire growing by the second, and Fisher’s faltering voice coming through a shattered window, Thompson broke every rule he knew.”
“Even though he disregarded the training lessons on equipment and teamwork, he did remember about doing a right-hand sweep and about staying low.”
” – they are always under strict rules to wait for help and the proper equipment.”

So, rather than focusing on the fact that Thompson made a successful rescue, we – myself included -focused on the hype. I try to keep work separate from the blog writing but in this instance I’ll share that I wish I could rewrite that headline. “Vermont Firefighter Breaks Rules To Rescue Woman In Fire” should have been “Vermont Firefighter Rescues Neighbor From Fire”. The “rules” he broke, while legitimately worthy of debate, are specifically created for properly equipped firefighters operating at the scene of a fire. “Fisher’s home is less than a mile from where Thompson lives – ” shows that Thompson was clearly, simply, in the neighborhood, much like mail carrier in Cedar Rapids last month.

“That November day, she saw people standing outside of an apartment building at 127 20th Ave. SW and asked what was happening. When she peered inside the window, she said she saw three-foot flames shooting up from a sink. Martin said she went inside the smoky apartment and used a dry-powder extinguisher on the fire before firefighters arrived.”

And likewise in Staten Island,

“Smoke and flames billowing from the roof of a six-family home at 852 Bay St. drew the attention of letter carrier Angel Rivera, who was delivering mail in the neighborhood, and driver safety instructor Joseph Mastroianni, who was driving by after having conducted a training class.”

So is Thompson a rule breaker, or is he a civilian rescuer? Why is it that his knowledge of firefighting features him as a “rebel” and the untrained or minimally trained postal worker a “hero”? Is it a matter of sin-knowledge, that Thompson has about what to do and what not to do that shows him as risk taker?

“The fact that he came out, with a live victim, and he didn’t have any injuries himself, to me, means that he made the right judgment.” said Grafton Fire Chief Eric Stevens in an interview afterward. Do you see the conundrum with this statement? Because he successfully rescued Mrs. Fisher and wasn’t injured is stated as proof Thompson did the right thing, used good judgment. Really? Because if all the NIOSH firefighter fatality recommendations and firefighter safety reports I have read are correct, Thompson was nothing more than lucky.

– No PPE
– Operating alone; freelancing
– No 360-degree sizeup
– No Victim Survivability Profiling
– No RIC, RIT or FAST in place
– No hoseline
– No radio
– No incident command
– Lack of proper fireground communication
– Lack of proper firefighting tools (forcible entry)
– No thermal imaging camera

Looking at an ROE poster, he violated 8 out of 11 rules. I don’t say this to say Thompson was wrong – on the contrary, he was dead-on right in what he did. But, going back to his chief’s comments, what if Thompson were injured or killed? What if first-arriving members had to go look for Thompson and were injured or killed? The fire service community would be trampling his decisions before the dirt was cold over his grave. But since all turned out well, he’s a hero rule-breaker.

So, are these rules more or less guidelines? Do I have to do a 360 if I have another company arriving in the rear the same time as I arrive in the front? Are my truck companies “freelancing cowboys” because they perform VES? If you can’t put out a room and contents fire without having to setup the air management control board first and taking a pulse-ox reading first, do I have to do the same? I’m not knocking the safe practices we have in place, but I am knocking the cookie cutter strategy and tactics that they purport. They exist because firefighters are human and humans make mistakes, use poor judgment and are easily distracted. What applies to you may not apply to me and vice versa.

However you operate, this story affects you. If you’re in the safety camp, then you’ve read about a firefighter who operated recklessly and is being heralded a hero. If you’re in the aggressive camp, then you see a firefighter who operated as he should and is labeled a rule breaker. Thompson has become an example to and for you all.

Neither camp wins in this one.

I’d rewrite that headline.

“Vermont Firefighter Rescues Neighbor”

References:
“Firefighter praised for saving woman”, Brattleboro Reformer
“Grafton firefighter breaks ‘every rule’ to rescue woman”, Burlington Free Press
“10 Rules of Engagement for Structural Firefighting and the Acceptability of Risk”, IAFC August 2001
“Rules of Engagement Project Increasing Firefighter Survival”, Draft, IAFC July 2010
Rules of Engagement Poster”, IAFC, July 2010


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8 Comments

  • michael says:

    “Vermont Firefighter Rescues Neighbor”

    Roger that!

    I would have done the same if I were on my way to work. My guess is, so would the car salesman, the baker, the banker and the mechanic. Regular people do heroic things, I’ve seen it many times. I’m fortunate to be a regular person who makes a living doing a job that is less than heroic when all of the rules apply.

  • Brooklyn Truckie says:

    We ALL would have done the same! He did the right thing, end of story! We save lives…thats what we do! Whatever it takes is what we do! He did what it took. He deserves a medal! Firefighting is inherantly dangerous. We can minimize danger but it will never go away. The situation required quick and courageous acting and he did so. Anyone scolding him and criticizing should reconsider. What he did is what we ALL as firefighters stand for! A job well done brother. I’d like to meet you!

  • Mick Mayers says:

    Yes, he didn’t adhere to the rules. No, we should not be bending him over and giving him a spanking. He used his judgement to save a neighbor. And while I certainly don’t advocate doing this kind of stuff normally, if I were going down the road and saw a house burning and someone said their loved one was in there, I’d do what I SHOULD do: conduct a risk/benefit analysis.

    To wit: “I will risk a lot to save a savable life, I will risk a little to save savable property, and I will risk nothing for a total loss or untenable conditions.”

    If he’d have dove into that house to save the X Box, I’d say we should string him up. In this case, maybe a medal is a good idea.

  • Ray McCormack says:

    There are portions of the fire service that are on auto pilot to criticize and critique what they deem as “aggressive” actions and decisions made by firefighters on and off duty. Negative cultural reinforcement for helping others and doing your job is becomming as pervasive as it is disturbing.

  • Fire Critic says:

    If he would have gotten injured or killed we would have been debating whether he was heroic or foolish.

    He did what I would have done. He had a victim, he made a choice. Luckily, everything worked out positively.

    I agree with your thoughts on the headline, but the Burlington press wasn’t writing it with the fire service in mind.

    The bigger question is if the Fire Chief is making sure that his firefighters understand what, why, and how it happened so that this type of thing doesn’t happen and the wrong choice is made in the future and a firefighter dies being foolish.

    • Bill Carey says:

      “If he would have gotten injured or killed we would have been debating whether he was heroic or foolish.”
      – Exactly Rhett. I suppose that this is a debate the fire service will never resolve, which in itself isn’t necessarily bad.

      “I agree with your thoughts on the headline, but the Burlington press wasn’t writing it with the fire service in mind.”
      No, they weren’t however, as indicated in the rest of the story, it is stressed that he ‘broke the rules”. This was also the headline in the news feeds and is the headline in the news section in fire service websites. Sadly, I and others made it that way and as I wrote, I’d take it back.

      Regardless if the chief reviewed this with the department or not, the larger issue for all of us is that “the rules” do not, nor should they, always apply. Yesterday a firefighter in North Carolina noticed smoke from a house and, breaking a window, rescued a teen and one other child. Do “the rules” apply to him too? It doesn’t matter, for the headline and story don’t bring it up.

      To add onto the headline, I believe that even though Burlington might not have been writing with the fire service in mind, news reports on reviews of firefighter fatalities are written with the scope that somewhere in the report someone did something wrong. We need to go back and look at the local news reports on the Homewood, Illinois LODD report to see that the civilian press latched onto the issues of mistakes and breaking rules.

  • I’m with the Lt. on this one. As Ray has pointed out several times, we have a current culture of ‘following rules’ rather than thinking about why we have those rules and doing a proper risk analysis, then making a decision and following through. Everybody points at “THE RULES” and hollers ‘Foul” instead of looking at what he had to work with, how he made his decision, and how it came out.
    For a Firefighter with 20 years on the job this would have been the right decision. For a guy with only a year this was a terrific decision.
    I suspect that his Department counseled him that the public face they should put on it was that he ‘broke the rules and got lucky’. This is bull, he put hos own life on the line to save another. There is no nobler decision a man can make.
    UU
    (BTW, Ray, I still love your speech from FDIC 2009, I wish I had a copy to use in my classes.)

  • Lacy Wolfe says:

    We ALL would have done the same! He did the right thing, end of story! We save lives…thats what we do! Whatever it takes is what we do! He did what it took. He deserves a medal! Firefighting is inherantly dangerous. We can minimize danger but it will never go away. The situation required quick and courageous acting and he did so. Anyone scolding him and criticizing should reconsider. What he did is what we ALL as firefighters stand for! A job well done brother. I’d like to meet you!

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