Pushing The Envelope


Start off on the right foot – Don't shortcut the basics


'Pushing the envelope' is a phrase that was popularized in Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book “The Right Stuff”, about the NASA’s space program. 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.

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 the thermal imager is charged and ready for use.
  • 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 if 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 yours.
  • 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 understand that pushing the envelope does have its risks.  Someone may get injured or killed, so be careful, be aware, and do the job as safely as possible.

Photo courtesy of Lloyd Mitchell Photography

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Ron Ayotte Ron Ayotte is one of four Deputy Fire Chiefs with the Marlborough Fire Department, Marlborough, Massachusetts. Ron began his career with the MFD in November of 1981, was promoted to Lieutenant in November of 1988, Promoted to Captain in August of 2000 and was promoted to Deputy Chief in 2006. Ron’s responsibilities at the MFD include incident command, communications, plans review, inspections and training. Ron also works per diem in the Support Services division at the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services/Massachusetts Firefighting Academy, working support for various Academy programs, including Recruit training, Call/Volunteer training, Certification and LNG-LPG firefighting training. Ron’s writings and musings can be seen at Chief Concerns.

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