The cowboy in us asks 'If great responsibility is founded on personal responsibility, then what place does personal experience hold?'
I think I finally put it all together….I understand it now. Call it an epiphany or a moment of clarity, but suddenly it all made sense. During a recent class the instructor made several references to the standard EGH ethos, “We come first” and “Risk a lot to save a lot”. As I listened though, I understood that while he spoke of these things, his perspective was different. And then it became clear.
People's experience level determines how they interpret "a lot" in terms of "risk a lot". In today's world of less experience, people are pushing to make a lot be very little because they just don't know any better…there experience pool is too small. They are willing to forgo saving a victim and save their own life because that is what they are being taught. Except those teaching it have the balance of experience to know that that is not what they are saying.
It makes perfect sense, risk is based on what you know, as far as what you experience. So when a very experienced firefighter tells you that you come first and you shouldn't risk "a lot". It has a different meaning in his mind than in yours.
But then you go back to your department and say "I just took this class where Instructor X from department XXYY says we come first" and that "we shouldn't risk a lot for little gain". So then every starts saying that we shouldn't search vacant buildings, that smoke kills our victims long before we get there, that we can put the fires out from outside and before you know it the cops are fighting more fire than we are. All of this is because no one in your department is comparing risk versus gain through the eyes of their instructor, and it can be very difficult to translate their experience into your experience.
When I mention LODD deaths, it is never done so casually. Each number is a person, with family and friends. Each number is a person taken from us far too soon, often under circumstances that were traumatic. We owe it to these people to learn from their experiences, to not repeat any mistakes that were made.
However we have become obsessed with the numbers. We count them up and then wring our hands that they are too high. We seek ways to reduce them, often without consideration for what effect it will have on the commitment we gave to the public to be there in their time of need.
Seatbelts and fitness standards will do more to prevent Line of Duty Deaths, than risk avoidance techniques. Consider this fact, if we never entered another burning structure, it would potentially only reduce last year’s reported deaths by 16. (with some of those 16 open to interpretation as to whether they occurred during inside fire operations) That means that 65 Line of Duty Deaths would have still occurred.
There is risk associated with stretching a hoseline, there is risk associated with searching above the fire, there is risk simply getting on the engine and responding. Yet the degree of risk is far different. We cannot create a culture of risk avoidance and still expect to do the job we are tasked to do. We cannot continually develop systems and methods to reduce the risk, when there will never be a uniform application of these ideas.
Chris Brennan made the statement that ‘aggressive does not equal reckless’. If we take the time to prepare ourselves for the job we have been tasked to do, and we do that job as we are supposed to, then we stand a good chance of reducing Line of Duty Deaths. Just like if we continue to advocate seatbelts use, and stop letting apparatus respond until everyone is belted in, we will reduce deaths in apparatus accidents.
If we want to truly reduce risk, then we have to start with ourselves. Get in shape and stay in shape. Go to the Doctor yearly and make sure we are in good health. Eat healthy.
From there we have to train. Train as if your life depends on it, because it does. But more importantly train as if your crew’s lives depend on it, because they do too.
We have to take each response seriously. Dress for each run, and expect that fire lurks right around the corner. Failure to do so not only endangers you, but it endangers everyone else on the fireground too. Imagine your failure to dress leading to someone getting injured, either because they had to help you or you were taking out of the equation trying to square yourself away?
Then there is company and department training. Realistic and relevant and repetitive. Train until you can’t get it wrong, then train some more.
If your department has a small workload, then comes up with ways to overcome that through training. There is no excuse for not being able to do your job because you were not prepared. And we cannot continually redesign the Fire Service because there is too much risk for those that are not prepared.
Remember, “Everyone Goes Home” was not designed as a shield to hide behind to keep you from doing your job. It is a program designed to reduce our Line of Duty Deaths by encouraging us to be smarter and better prepared.
I leave you with the words of Paddy Brown, “You can do everything right on this job and still get killed.”
Dave LeBlanc is a Lieutenant with the Harwich, Massachusetts Fire Department. Dave entered the Fire Service in 1986 as a Call Firefighter with the Dennis Fire Department. He worked full time during the summers in Dennis, while attending the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. In addition to his regular duties, Dave also manages the Department’s Radio system, is responsible for conducting Fire Investigations, and assists in maintaining the computers systems.
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