Despite modern challenges, many basics still keep us alive.
Pushing the envelope. It is a phrase that was popularized in Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book about the NASA’s space program titled “The Right Stuff”. The accepted definition of the phrase is the attempt to extend the current limits of performance; to innovate, or go beyond commonly accepted boundaries.
The term first came about in mathematics and was adopted by the aerospace industry. Test pilots push aircraft to its limits to see how it performs and reacts when the limits are exceeded. Race car drivers do the same thing on the test track. They push the car’s performance envelope until it can’t go any faster, handle any better or something breaks.
Pushing the envelope is something that firefighters do on a daily basis on many different levels. For some, it is testing a new company officer trying to “push his/her buttons” to get a reaction or to see where the boundaries are, or busting the stones of a new probie to test his/her mettle. Others push the envelope when it comes to following the rules and regulations. Some know when to stop, others keep going until the envelope tears… and then cry when they “crash and burn”.
It isn’t only firefighters… line officers and chief officers do the same thing. Some purposely push for confrontation, whether it be with one or more members of a company or in the case of chief officers with their line officers or with the union or association.
While pushing the envelope seems like a bad thing in the firehouse, it does have its benefits. It can be used to gauge the performance levels of personnel in training sessions, finding out where one’s strengths and weaknesses lie and establishing a baseline for improvement.
One place where we are expected to “push the envelope” is on the fireground. This is most challenging and deadly for firefighters, especially in the days of reduced staffing, brownouts, station closures and more reliance on mutual aid than ever before.
How can we be safe when the time comes that we have to push the envelope? It isn’t rocket science or brain surgery. These basics are so simple, even a caveman could follow them.
• Check your truck and its equipment to make sure it is ready for use.
• Make sure your radio is on the proper channel and the battery charged.
• Make sure that your SCBA unit is ready to go and the PASS device is operational.
• Wear your turnout gear as intended.
• Follow your department’s SOP’s and SOG’s.
• Don’t freelance.
• Company Officers should carry the ride list for who is on the rig.
• Chief Officers should carry the ride list for the companies under their command.
• Company and Chief Officers should be thinking a couple of steps ahead. Call for additional companies as conditions warrant. It is easier to get ahead than it is to catch up, and you can always return companies id they are not needed.
• Use the incident command system.
• Report anything that looks out of the ordinary to Command… the lives you save may be that of your Brothers and Sisters and even you.
• Don’t be afraid to call a Mayday if you get into trouble, your brothers and sisters have attended far too many firefighter funerals already.
• Keep in mind that like test pilots and race car drivers… we can get injured or killed when the envelope tears, so be careful, be aware, and do the job safely.
Photo courtesy of Todd Dudek/FITHP.net with permission.
Ron Ayotte is a Deputy Chief of the Marlborough (MA) Fire Department and employee to the Support Services division of the Massachusetts Department of Fire Service/Massachusetts Firefighting Academy.
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