“We have met the enemy, and he is us”… Walt Kelly, from the comic strip “Pogo”
If you ask a firefighter who the enemies of the fire service are you will more than likely get a myriad of answers ranging from “fire itself” to “politicians”. While some may feel this way, and in some cases true, they are but the mere tip of the proverbial iceberg.
The true enemies the fire service is facing are:
Complacency: About a year ago, Chief Rick Lasky made a statement during a Fire Engineering podcast that really got my attention, “Complacency is just a fancy word for laziness”.
Boy, does that ring true. We as firefighters tend to fall into a routine. For some of us, the routine is one that we do to make sure that our PPE, SCBA, meters and thermal imagers are ready for use. Sometimes the routine turns into a rut… we take the off going shift’s word that “everything is all set”.
While that may be true for that particular day, are they merely parroting what was said by the group they relieved the previous day, who were merely parroting what was said by the group they relieved the previous day?
If one goes to the same alarm activation every tour at the same time of day because of a system malfunction, we tend to think that “it’s only another @#$%^&! False alarm… when will Fire Prevention drop the hammer on the building owner? When we become complacent, we may not don all of our gear or get off the rig without SCBA and tools when we respond to that type of call. The day that we have heavy fire and smoke showing from that address, we will look like a bunch of monkeys attempting to fornicate with a football trying to get geared up and looking for tools. While John and Jane Q. Public may not see it that way, any fire buff or brother and sister firefighters will know what is going on… and with cell phones capable of uploading pictures and video to the internet, our screw ups can go viral on YouTube and other websites within minutes. Hundreds of them are uploaded to YouTube and social networking sites daily!
Apathy: There are times that we become tired of beating ourselves up over matters in the firehouse, whether they are problems with our coworkers or with our Department over things like writing up a minor problem with a rig that never seems to get fixed. We tend to say Screw it, if “they” don’t care (“they” being the FD brass, the Department mechanic, our fellow firefighters or John and Jane Q. Public), then why should I? This apathy can snowball into the “Broken Windows” syndrome (Backstep Firefighter, Chief Concerns, and November 2012).
Ignorance: There are firefighters who have never attended any fire class other than drill school or other mandatory training When they are at mandatory training, they take the “great, I’m a prisoner for the next few hours” attitude and do not partake in any discussion. When the class is on something basic like, SCBA review, they feel that the training officer or their company officer is busting their stones, stating that “they have put on SCBA more times than anyone else”. While that may be, could they close their eyes and from memory state what side the regulator comes through the harness, or perform emergency SCBA procedures in the event of a problem? A friend recently ran a drill and found that while his crew was proficient in basic SCBA ops, they were somewhat less than proficient when it came to emergency procedures. The “been there, done that, know it all attitude” has probably killed more of our brothers and sisters than we care to admit.
Arrogance: This is another “enemy” hat has taken its toll on our brothers and sisters. The “it won’t happen to me”, the “my low air alarm just went off, I can work a little bit longer and still get out safely” or the “ if I call a MAYDAY, I will be perceived as a wimp/pussy/coward” attitude puts each and every firefighter on the fireground at risk., especially in a MAYDAY situation. MAYDAY’s are a low frequency/high risk event, and while fire conditions can change at a moment’s notice, being aware of our situation and responding appropriately to the cues given can make us a little safer in a dangerous environment.
Professional Negligence: Professional negligence takes many forms, whether it be a blatant disregard for SOP’s and SOGs, freelancing on the fireground or a company /command officer who refuses to listen to his/her personnel on the fireground or seek their advice in matters where they may have more expertise. Not all of the brightest minds in the fire service have trumpets or wear gold badges, some of the best ideas and inventions have come from the “grunts” on the front line.
How can we combat the enemies? I think it can be summed up in a quote from a recent class I attended at the Fire Academy:
“Be where you are supposed to be, doing what you are supposed to be doing and doing it when you are supposed to do it.”
Photo courtesy of Lloyd Mitchell Photography, used with permission.
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.