Fact: Safety Is Relative. How Do I Know?I Spend Time With Folks Who Have Been Shot At.

I like Arlington. Not for the touristy stuff, but for perspective.

I’ve been sick lately, well still am; a restless, cruddy sick where you want to rest but can’t; want to do a million things, but lack the energy. So in my off hours I’ve caught up on some reading, slept, watch some videos, slept and well, worked. The molasses-like transition from winter into spring constantly reminds me that I need to pick back up on the healthy habits because spring will be busy. I also watched Restrepo. Does this have any relevance to safety? Yep. Here’s how.

It was a few years ago, I met the guard at the gatepost and showed him my identification. He double-checked my directions not as a courtesy but as a polite enforcement that we don’t stray. Easy to find, I realize the stables are on the backside of the cemetery, behind Arlington House. Being promptly early, Mary Jo tells me they haven’t started yet, but will begin soon; she needs to get them to put together the ramp. I’m introduced her ‘staff’, members of the 3rd Infantry Regiment Caisson Platoon. They are generously polite and welcoming considering the funeral that some of them are preparing for that morning. They tell me to walk around, feel free to ask questions, and be sure to see Black Jack’s stall. I go in, but not too far, as other begin assembling the ramp. It’s a great piece of work that I’d love to have at the Equestrian Center in Upper Marlboro. I asked Mary Jo what riders she has. “I don’t know. Each lesson is different, I don’t know how many or what injury. It’s hard to plan out what Walter Reed is able to send. We just play it out as we go.” So I wait and watch as some in BDU’s clean tack, others impeccably groom black horses, the Section Sergeant giving direction and the occasional car and truck passes the casket-laden caisson parked on the street.

Go back farther. We were out getting fuel in the squad at 34 one night when Communications put out a Montgomery County 2 Box for fire in a New Hampshire Avenue high-rise. We pulled up right behind Engine 21 and Truck 2 and could see fire from a fourth floor window, about three windows over from a balcony. Truck 2 had their stick to that balcony as everyone grabbed their assigned tools and sprinted for the turntable. It was comical, the whole squad crew on that ladder, two had gotten onto the balcony and began throwing stuff off to have room. The sliding door is opened, we move in and realize we’re in the fire apartment.

We’re searching and fire is steadily coming down the hall, but not before Engine 44 comes in and knocks it down (that’s another story). We were put in a ‘time out’, after the fire was knocked; had us leave the fire building and sit while they triple-checked ventilation and pressurization of every single floor, before allowing us to go in service. We learned afterward that it was foolish to have the entire squad company on the stick at one time at that angle. We walked away from it – no damage. Maybe a lesson learned but not as valuable, at the time, as the snap shot of the crew afterward. Gray, Smedley and Hudson, all smiles among soot stained faces. We went in knowing the balcony and stick were behind us. It was safe.
It was fun too.

Back to base. More from the platoon arrive for this morning’s service. Dress uniforms, riding breeches, polished spurs. Others polishing tack, tacking horses, and then polishing tack again. And grooming again. The horses for today’s lesson are being groomed as well. No tack except for bareback pads and bridles. A young soldier asks Mary Jo if she needs any other mounts tacked up. No, she replies. Three might be enough. The blacks are being led out and another young soldier begins telling me about the hitching, positions and instructions the caisson follows.

Go back again. Delaware Avenue house fire. Second floor of the left side of the duplex is still burning when we pull up. We stretch a line into the right side up to the second floor. Dark, a little hot, we start opening up the wall and ceiling between us and the fire room. D shift has it knocked but a little bit of flame and ember show through. The lieutenant with us hollers through his facepiece, “It’s gonna flash! Get out! Get out!” and down the stairs he goes. We stop hooking the ceiling, laughing so hard it hurts.

Officer homes. We’re a rag tag parade, two mounted horses and a number of soldier and civilian, walking down the road past officer homes. The two riders are generations apart. One from Vietnam, the other Iraq. Each left a leg behind. I ask Mary Jo at what part of their routine are these two in. “It depends” she says.

“You have certain plans and parameters, but if one wants to go jumping when they show up, then you go jumping.”

“Really? No cavaletti first or trotting and cantering build up?”

“Well, we’ll do that of course, and ensure a safe operation, but you have to realize, this is mentally and emotionally important to them as it is physically, at times more. You can’t tell them it’s not safe to go jumping yet until we do flat work. They’ve spent a lot of time doing far more dangerous stuff than this, taking greater risks.”

I see the caisson team off in the distance. I’m told the service is for a retired Navy officer.
One of many funerals they will ride for.

Back to another fire. Elkton Hall, smoke on the top floor. Companies 12 and 14 arrive and confirm a fire in the elevator shaft on the top floor and the roof top mechanical room. We pull up, assemble tools and begin to go to the floor below, the staging area for the RIC in a high-rise. Command stops us; ‘just stage here by the command post.’ And we stand in the dark, hoping no one all those floors up drops dead. The fire is quickly done away with and like that so are the thoughts about questioning a chief officer.
Luke’s voice echoes in my head, “pick your battles.”

What is safety? I know what it is within my former department. I know what it is back home, and between the two it is as different as night and day. I know what it is when on the firing range, the riding ring and the walk to school. It is different from what is safe to you and in that we will agree on some, disagree on others, but one thing is certain, safety is a chameleon. I dislike it when a near miss or tragedy is summed up by the call for better risk analysis. The only thing certain from that call is the greater difference of opinion as to what risk is. Unfortunately, instead of looking at our own risks, we try to undermine the other guy’s. If department A has a tragic fire, departments B, C, and D easily find the faults. The problem with this is that departments B, C and D don’t weed out what it is operationally that they do different from Department A. Is it logical and reputable for a rural department to mirror its safety with that of a urban department? Some would say yes, in principle as far as general strategy and education; however I say no.

One department operates with well staffed companies using successive alarm assignments carrying detailed company task-specific responsibilities. The frequency of their work is at a rate that provides a near routine performance of completing these responsibilities. Another department is minimally staffed, relying on mutual aid to bring staffing to complete the basic initial fireground tactics. The frequency of their work is at a rate that provides a routine of expecting to simply do the best they can at each alarm. What makes each one a “safe” department? Surprisingly, for some of you, it is not General Orders, SOPs, SOGs and such. I claim that it is only the interpretation of “safety” that makes each one safe.

There’s a general degree to what we all say is safe. It’s safe to make sure you have water before advancing into the fire room. It’s safe to wear all your PPE. It’s safe to wear your seatbelt and it’s safe to eat right and exercise. What happens, what gets everyone all worked up, is that your safety doesn’t match my safety, vice versa, and we try to convince each other that the other is right. Go back to the earlier example of the two departments. Which one is unsafe? You can’t tell until you’ve experienced the working conditions in their environment.

Riding without stirrups. We’re in shady, uneven, clearing amid some trees. Not what I would call an ideal riding area, but it’s flat enough to work. Mary Jo said they usually ride in the area just outside the caisson building, but with the number of funerals we have to stay clear. I’m with a young man who’s only been stateside for a few months. An IED took his leg, embedded some shrapnel as well as did other damage you can’t see. I’m with his left side walker as we begin warming up, stretching. Most folks think it’s your legs and hands that guide the horse, but it’s not; it’s your butt and core, your sense of balance and your breathing. Imagine how hard it is when you have all your God-given appendages. A horse is the only (domesticated) animal to have a triplanic motion similar to humans as they walk. The movement felt on horseback, for a physically disabled rider, transfers through that rider’s body. Muscle tone is affected, as is posture and stamina, influencing recovery. Mentally the aspect of guiding, directing an animal larger than you, especially if you can’t move your arm or leg, or have no arm or leg to move, is beneficial emotionally and mentally. I had a friend at Hyattsville, a Sergeant now in D.C. who I invited to go riding with me. He turned me down, scared to death of horses; won’t even go up to one. Funny, he’ll run a rack full of 1-1/2 in a high-rise, but won’t go near a horse.
Am I not safe? Is he? Who knows?

Stretching done, some exercises in rotation done, we’re trotting, a little. I ask the rider a simple question.

“So how do you feel up there? Good?”
“Yes sir.”
“Is there any nervousness?”
“Well, no, but once you’ve gone through what I have, it takes a bit to make you nervous.”

I felt embarrassed as soon as I heard his words. He’s had a crap load to deal with both before and after the IED (you do know that some of these kids are flown straight over after being stabilized, with the little bit of clothes on their backs and little else) and I’m asking him if he’s nervous being on this horse, who at that moment appears to have fallen asleep. At Upper Marlboro, he’d not be trotting and I immediately feel bad for some of our riders. We should challenge them more, but we can’t because of our own definition of safety. Some of what is done on the backside of Arlington would make the hunter/jumper elite roll their eyes and shake their heads. But how do you define safety to someone who’s degree of safety and risk is on the opposite spectrum of your own?

You can’t. Yes, you can define it for all of us in vanilla, white bread, generic way that we would all agree on. But the deeper, meatier definition of safety is impossible to define for another person outside of your department.

We parade back, and dismount. Care is taken to be mindful of prosthesis and make sure the horses are controlled. The first day is wrapped up learning more about the platoon, visiting the horses not being used, learning how the soldiers make their own tack, and looking over Black Jack’s stall. Mary Jo comments how funny it is that during his time, wives of officers and generals would bake him cakes and celebrate every birthday.

Churchill was right, the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man.

So, as I look at what this season brings, I know we’ll be safe with our riders as we always are. It is two different worlds between Arlington and Upper Marlboro. We’ll see riders at Arlington advancing sometimes in leaps and bounds because of what is “safe” to them. “Safe” will at times be a difficulty for some riders at the center. They’ve never known being shot at. Their ‘injuries’ came at birth, or due to an accident, or a chemical imbalance. Risk is very different for them and is approached differently.

Can I tell if you are operating safely on the fireground? Maybe. I can pull out the old ‘Risk A Lot – Save A Lot’ pictogram and tell you about culture, analysis, etc. But it has no impact once I get into your department’s specifics, unless I use your own specifics to show what you violated. So, should we give up trying to get fire departments to operate safer? No, but we need to pick our battles. A lot of people, figures, and organizations write about risk analysis and what you should be doing. The rub is to find what among their writing is relative to you. Everything else is just setting up to throw stones at one another.

The trend needs to focus on learning, if we want safety to have an impact. Safety is not a poster, a ‘white paper’, a conference lecture, or a roundtable of chiefs getting paid to preach to the choir. Safety is learning more about culture trends, education values, differences in disseminating information and how to make the greater lesson smaller and more personal.

Safety is relative.

Photograph courtesy of Washington Post.

All comments must include your name or the name of your department. Either one, it makes no difference. If you don’t, well we can do nothing for you.

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