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”
“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