From Sir Lancelot To Wyatt Earp to Dick Winters, Putting Others Ahead Of Ourselves

“Every day we read that we must all come home and we are well on our way to a world where you will have to justify going in to search, not the other way around.” Dave LeBlanc

The ongoing debate has been the search of buildings. Often the debate has referred to instances where departments have searched “known” vacant buildings and discovered a victim. As always there are many sides to this issue.

The debate is really a symptom of the bigger issue; The issue of firefighters being killed and what risks are acceptable to take.

There has developed a philosophy of putting firefighter’s lives ahead of everyone else when it comes to the dangers we face and the risks we take. It is discussed in the 16 Life Safety Initiatives; it is the main tenet of “Everyone Goes Home.” This may be considered heresy but not everyone will go home. The question is though, are we committing ourselves to an ideal that we know we cannot live up to?

This week saw the passing of Major Richard Winters. He commanded Company “E”, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, during World War II. Easy Company, made famous by their war record and subsequent mini series on HBO, was a tight knit community of soldiers. Their bonds were formed in their training and carried them through the war. These Taccoa men were indeed brothers.

Imagine the difficulty Major Winters and the men of Easy would have faced if their first principal was self before mission? If every day at Camp Toccoa they were told, “Everyone Goes Home.” It is unlikely they would have been as successful as a combat unit.

Like their job was about combat, our job is about saving lives. You can forget all the other stuff for a second, because that should be the first thing listed in everyone’s ‘mission statement.’ To save lives we must put ourselves at risk. Saving lives involves searching buildings that are on fire. It involves entering an IDLH atmosphere and subjecting yourself to physical and mental stresses that in their own right could kill you.

Since when does “Everyone Go Home”?

The spirit of the message makes sense, but it a message we cannot follow to the letter, unless we leave the trucks in the building and don’t respond. Then everyone should be safer.

These are not the words of Wyatt Earp or Doc Holiday. This is not advocating reckless endangerment of firemen. This job is absolutely about saving lives…….and to do that involves us risking ours. That being said the “Everyone Goes Home” mantra has led us to places that are in conflict with our core mission. Instead of being King Arthur’s Sir Lancelot, chosen to protect the kingdom, castle and throne, we are becoming a self serving entity. We are putting ourselves above those we are sworn to protect.

Every day we read about departments being questioned about their tactics and every day we read that vacant buildings are unoccupied, so there is no need to search them.

Every day we read that we must all come home and we are well on our way to a world where you will have to justify going in to search, not the other way around.

If we want to focus on being as safe as we can be in the job of unknown risks and hazards, then we need to learn from every fire. We need to learn from the fires that went right and we need to learn from the fires that went wrong. We need to read and study and LEARN from every Line of Duty Death report and every Near Miss Report. We need to study these documents and apply the lessons that fit, because not all the lessons apply to every department.

When was the last time you had a fire and everything went right? The next question is more difficult. When was the last time that after a fire you had an honest an open critique at any level (company, shift, or department) to review what went right and what went wrong?

That one action, a post incident critique, can do more to prevent injuries and mistakes than most training sessions. Others have written about “curbside critiques”, and their message is clear. After the heat of the battle, when it is all still fresh in your mind, when you body is still sore and you are bone tired, that is when the lessons sink in. It doesn’t take hours, a PowerPoint or a conference room. It takes some folks that are interested in being the best at this job they can be and the openness and willingness for peer and self examination.

Before we write our job description and change the culture which is the Fire Service, consider the following; in 2009 there were 445,400 total fires reported to United States Fire Administration. In these 445,400 fires there were 90 firefighter fatalities and 78,150 firefighter injuries. Roughly one third of the fatalities (30) and about half of the injuries (32,205) happened on the fireground.

While one death may be 1 too many, one could argue that 1 death in 14,867 is not worth changing the mission for.



Photograph courtesy Bruce Secrist/FITHP.net.


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17 Comments

  • firehat says:

    How do we combat the institutionalization of this extreme risk aversion at the national level? There doesn’t seem to be a unified voice in counterpoint to the Everyone Goes Home regime.

    Is it time to start a coalition of thoughtful and forceful advocates for the other side? This seems to be reaching a boiling point around the country. I love the recent Fire Chief headline “Eight Killed in Vacant New Orleans Warehouse Fire,” courtesy of the magazine with the E-I-C tacitly questioning the worth of saving homeless people.

  • I think what is getting misunderstood most, is EVERYONE GOES HOME is not tactics based. The program is designed to improve safety awareness through out the fire service. No where in the program are tactics. Go or not go, offensive vs. defensive are decisions that can only be made by those on scene. If we can educate those individuals to keep safety a priority, we can prevent the needless loss of firefighters. If you really look at the numbers very few firefighters lose their lives actively engaged in fireground operations and even fewer performing rescue operations. Their will be times when firefighters will lose their lives, it should only be if the benefit is worth the risk. What is already lost cannot be regained by losing even more.

    It’s just getting a little stale hearing the program get beat up on just because it’s based on keeping firefighters alive. I also don’t think comparing soldiers in a world war to modern firefighting activities is the best comparison…..

  • John B. VBFD L11 says:

    Good article. Too bad for us, some of our “leaders” do not place the same value on the “rats” that 3/4 of the troops in the trenches do.

  • Dave LeBlanc says:

    Chris, that may be how you view it, but EGH is the cloak that is wrapped around many of the issues we are discussing.

    Don’t search vacant buildings, they are vacant….EGH.

    Homeless people flee as soon as the fire starts, they are not WORTH the risk……EGH.

    If we constantly teach to a goal that cannot be realized, where does that leaves us? We all have the same goal, but we all also have a job to do, and we are diverting from the mission of saving lives because we are now putting ourselves first.

    What is even more stale is having good, decisive firefighting operations that end in tragedy thrown under the EGH/Life Safety initiative bus. And as long as that happens, the “buy in” factor will be an issue.

  • ChiefReason says:

    When members of the fire service states that “firefighters are going to die”, they are admitting that we aren’t smart enough to keep them alive. We are accepting that the loss of the firefighter was “worth the risk” and yet; we don’t know because by the time the reports come out, the causes and corrective actions are lost from those who scream that it is an intrusion on the aggrieved department to discuss it.
    Why is not there this same belief for the cure for cancer? “Cancer is a disease and people are going to die and we have to accept it”. Do we?
    Organizations such as EGH are NOT trying to re-program the firefighter into judge and jury with regards to savable life. They are sending a message that reminds everyone to control the things that you can control.
    As a risk manager and as reminded by OSHA, my goal every year is ZERO injuries/deaths. Programs to achieve that MUST be supported by the company leadership AND employees. And though I have not gotten it down to zero, I have gotten it down every year for the last nine years.
    The fire service should remove “worth” from its lexicon because we use it when the mission was successful and it comes into question when it is not.
    But, we had better get our hands around this issue and soon because the signal is getting mixed and I can say with some certainty that the move towards lowering the LODD rate is not going away any time soon.
    And let’s face it; if we haven’t been in the situation, how can any of us know how we will respond? We say it’s worth it, but we are still standing.
    There is this notion that if a firefighter doesn’t prescribe to be a certain type of firefighter, then he isn’t true to the tradition of the fire service.
    If many believe that firefighters will die on the job, then I will say that there is every reason to question every one of them.
    You know; to establish “worth”.
    IMHO.

  • Dave LeBlanc says:

    I know not of this “notion’ you speak of Art. I know that when I signed up for this job, it was with the understanding that my job was to help people. My job was to save people. And that both of those things may involve a certain amount of risk. Just as a soldier knows when he puts on the uniform he is signing up to be the barrier between our Country and it’s freedom, and those that are against us. Just as a Police Officer knows that when he puts on that badge, he is there to protect people.

    My point is that worth should not be a consideration, we are here to protect and save those that can be saved. Yet in the name of Everyone Goes Home, the “worth” of our victims has been included into the debate.

    If we want to reduce the number of LODDs, let’s look at the things we can fix today, no cost, program…..put seat belts on or firefighters and slow down. That would make a huge dent. Of course, so would not counting those that Drag race on their way home from training.

    Bill Carey has said it before, if every program and seminar offered free medical screenings for the participants. That could go a long way to solving some issues.

    Yet we focus on the “bad, aggressive firefighters”…..and develop new “concepts” like Victim Survivability Profiling.

    I agree that we have the need to question every LODD, but without second guessing why things were done. Without the article like Avsec’s and Murphy’s that make it seem like certain Department’s started fighting fire last week.

  • ChiefReason says:

    Dave:
    You know and I know that we understand why we joined and what motivates us. Of course it is to help and to save lives if called upon.
    And if we could change the diet and infuse a regular exercise program into fire departments with yearly physicals and such; yeah, you bet LODDs would drop. But some even resist medical screenings, even though they are free to them. Why? Because they are afraid of the answers. It might put them at a desk; it might put them on medical and it might lead to early out.
    I know why there is discussion on why we search (by the way, I would recommend getting a new “face”. Ted Williams is going to be busy for a while)and go/no go on abandoned vacant buildings and that is this fear that we are getting away from the core of the oath that firefighters take. That doesn’t mean that we have to rush to an early death.
    And I know it’s frustrating to see a building collapse with a firefighter death grab national headlines, but that’s our beloved news media. Though we get the news of a firefighter dying in his sleep at the station, my guess is that it won’t go out over the AP wire.
    I have also said that a building isn’t vacant or abandoned until it has been searched, but that is also tempered with the understanding that it is a good tactical decision at the time of the fire.
    The thing about the Chicago LODDs is that I saw Commissioner Hoff look right into the camera and tell the world that the collapse occurred during OVERHAUL. But, some of the prognosticators apparently didn’t know it and went right after the “when to search, why do we search, and the abandoned/vacant buildings” playbooks.
    Firefighters do what they do for the same reasons and even if they aren’t sure when they join up, they soon find out. Others will make sure they know.
    Firefighters know that what they do on any given day is dangerous and poses certain risks. They should be trained to watch for changes in their surroundings.
    In either example, those who advocate for firefighter safety have to be the angel on the shoulder of firefighters, because we all know that little devil Murphy is on the other shoulder.
    I don’t see safety causing firefighters to seize up or to hesitate.
    If done properly, safety widens the picture that provides the information to keep them safe.

  • Dave LeBlanc says:

    If it is done properly Art, it is taught at every level, with every task. It is incorporated into our basic skills.

    Often we get “safety as a sidebar” training. As I have written before, it doesn’t bear any resemblance to what we do.

    As I am not advocating “rushing” anywhere….Your size up is your size up, and your fire is your fire. Blankets statements like always and never rarely work in this job. And vacant buildings are not always vacant.

    Less fires duty, less training and emphasizing the worst can also lead to the same disasters we try and avoid. Or a bunch of firemen that are scared into inaction……

  • Joyce Lopez says:

    Everyone doesn’t go home, sadly. All the training, etc., doesn’t change this. The men/women in this profession respond proudly, fearful of what awaits them, but, they still respond. R.I.P. to those that didn’t make it home.

  • ChiefReason says:

    Yeah; we’ve had some good discussions on this subject, haven’t we?
    Here’s an example of “safety as a sidebar”.
    We have a training program where I work. We train employees to safely operate everything from nailguns to forklifts to straight trucks. Things go along well and then someone has an incident. After an incident investigation and the cause is that procedures where violated that led to the incident, we have safety meeting.
    We have monthly meetings where safety policies are re-iterated. We don’t show them how to do their jobs again; we simply remind them that safe operating procedures will reduce the likelihood of an incident.
    And from someone who promotes behavioral based safety, it is hard to change unsafe behavior unless you target the unsafe behavior that led to the lapse in safety.
    Isn’t the purpose of SOPs to lay out the safe process by which to perform a task?
    I agree with you 100% that safety should be incorporated into training.
    But sometimes; because of the topic, such as “situation awareness”, it has to be done ala carte.
    We agree more than we disagree.

  • John VBFD L11 says:

    Here is an interesting question I thought of today. We place this whole “Everyone goes home” mantra out there. We STRIVE to ensure NOT ONE firefighter is killed in the line of duty or evn injured.

    Ever notice that across the country roughly 2x to 3x the number of police officers are killed in the LODD every year, yet the police department has not started a huge national “Everyone goes home” campaign?

    No they accept the fact that as a police officer they are SUPPOSED to place themselves between a problem and an innocent. Do they take their time responding to that frequent drunk on the corner? Yea. Is that because they don’t care or because they have 20 other calls holding?

  • Nate Q. says:

    John VBFD,

    Not sure I understand what you’re getting at with the cops and their 20 other calls, but your numbers are way off. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, police LODDs have averaged around 170 a year since 1980 (2001 being the exception…we all know why). As you can see, this is not roughly “2x to 3x”. check out the website, and you’ll see there are “campaigns” and such that you may not have heard of.

    I think both Dave and Art have some valid points, and appreciate the discussion. I just sometimes get irked by unchecked “facts”, especially since I have a family stake in the police business too. They have no problem putting themselves “between a problem and an innocent” due to their training, but also temper it with discretion.

  • Patrick L. Brown says:

    The key is training, learning and teaching. Nationally there are far fewer fires which means far less experience for all of us. In addition we are now dealing with increasing older structures that are waiting for a reason to fall and newer buildings that are only designed to stand under perfect conditions thus waiting for less then perfect conditions (fires) to fall. We cannot just sit back and say it is our job to risk our lifes for something or someone that cannot be saved. Our job is to save LIFES not bodies. Risk and survivability must be assessed at all incidents. That does not mean we don’t do searches. It means we do searches when there is a chance that a LIFE can be saved. When firefighters suffer permanent injuries or deaths at incidents they are rendered unavailable to perform life saving tasks at an incident where a life may be saved. We cannot waste our very valuable resources…that being a well trained firefighter. We have to be educated. We are to act when the situation provides us an opportunity to act in accordance with our mission which is to save a life. We have to ask ourselves….can a victim survive in that environment?….will the structure maintain its integrity long enough for me to search locate and remove a victim? do we have the resources available to perform the tasks confronting us? If the answer is no then you don’t go. If the answer is maybe or yes then you go. I went to four funerals in 2010 (three of which were deptarment brothers)….the first died trying to save someone that could not have been alive…period. The second died when there was no life threat at all. The final two died searching for a potential victim which turned out to be unfounded…..more details about that incident will be released in the future. The New Orleans incident, just prior to Xmas, demonstrated why we need to do searches but we need to be smart about if, when and how we do the search because a Firefighters life is far too valuable.

  • John VBFD L11 says:

    Nate, you completely missed the point.

    Find me ONE police chief who has ever said, well that building is empty so there is no chance of there being a drug lab in there, we don’t have to. Or a police officer who pulled up and said, you know what, that guy is bigger than me I’m just going to contain him to the house till he tires out.

    No they ask for help and do their job. They don’t have their leaders going on international forums saying “they’ll just scatter like rats” or that the incident is too “dangerous” for them.

    Do they work to lower their deaths and injuries? Duh YES. Do they have their LEADERS going onto international forums or papers giving excues for NOT doing their job? NO.

  • Nate Q. says:

    John,

    I understand what you’re saying now, and must say that I agree. It was just hard to figure out what the end of your second post was referring to. I still don’t feel that the police comparison is a good one, though. The cops do “contain people to the house till they tire out”…it’s called a stand-off. They don’t blindly go in guns blazing to every incident. Cops even wait for backup based on discretion, due to potential “danger”, just look ant any roadside felony stop, especially one with multiple occupants. But that is a discussion for another site…

    I do agree with you that many in our service are missing the bigger picture. Along with my organization’s SOPs, I’m going to base my tactics on my knowledge, training, experience, and the information I have on hand (conditions, witnesses, size-up). Or, more simply put…based on the above, “do conditions allow me to do what I want to do at this moment?”

    There are too many exceptional circumstances (on both sides of the aisle): hidden construction features, buildings collapsing unexpectedly, victims surviving unsurvivable conditions, closed doors. We can’t afford to have our posture determined prior to arriving on-scene.

  • John says:

    Chris Michigan Advocate EGH said ” I also don’t think comparing soldiers in a world war to modern firefighting activities is the best comparison…..”

    I don’t think its an off comparison at all. We both have a job to do, it’s dangerous, and some of us are going to get killed or injured. If you can’t accept that you shouldn’t be in the fire service. No one wants to die on the job, but it could happen. We keep ourselves safe by being competent and good at our jobs, not by abdicating responsibility. If you can’t accept the fact that this job could hurt or kill you, don’t sign up for it. Just like the military, if you can’t accept the possibility of getting hurt or killed stay out. You are going to do your best to avoid injury, but you still need to get the job done. Soldiers kill the enemy before they can kill them. We kill the fire before it can kill us.

  • Dan Rice says:

    Dave,
    Great article here, I think misinterpretation of the EGH program has led to the overall issue of fear driven tactics by some of our leaders in the fire service. And regardless of what blinders others want to put on, this has and will continue to cause unnecessary lack of aggression during incidents that could have been stopped or a rescue performed. I will always attempt to bring my men home the way we left, that is obvious in any company officer. We find no middle ground with these debates it seems, if you want to be aggressive then someone throws out the ol wreckless abandon BS. EGH is a good program and I support it, however this does not mean I will not do my job and potentially lose my life for anyone else. And that had nothing to do with not being smart enough to bring me, or my men home. It has to do with the job we do. Thanks for the article Dave, Keep it up.

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