Crew Resource Management for the Fireground by Dep. Chief Ron Ayotte

Safety for the fire service begins in many places, converging at an incident


I was reading the July-August issue of AARP Bulletin (please, no giggles from the peanut gallery, you will all be there in time!) and read an interview with Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger, who was the pilot in command of Cactus 1549, the US Airways Airbus A320 that struck a flock of Canada geese while flying out of LaGuardia Airport, losing power to both engines. He and his co-pilot, Flight Officer Jeffery Skies relied on something that I was taught in my flight training as a student pilot, every student pilot is taught this mantra whether they are starting out by learning to fly in a Cessna 150 or doing qualifications to pilot a Boeing 747: fly the aircraft until it flies no more.

Through their efforts and that of the three flight attendants on flight 1549, they were able to make a water landing in the Hudson River, saving the lives of all 155 passengers. Now, keep in mind that water crash landings for commercial aircraft are extremely rare and is something that cannot be practiced in reality or even in a flight simulator. Captain Sullenberger and Flight Officer Skiles had just 208 seconds (3.46 minutes) to come up with a plan to land the stricken aircraft safely. They could they could not make it back to LaGuardia, and asked about landing at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey; but Sullenberger and Skiles realized that they could not make it to Teterboro due to the lack of altitude. They knew that they had but one option left: to land in the Hudson River. They executed a water landing that kept the nose of the aircraft up and allowed the fuselage to skim across the water, bleeding of speed until it finally settled. A slight miscalculation in their landing trajectory could have caused the aircraft to break apart and sink.

It was their training, cool heads under pressure and working together that saved the lives of their passengers. In the airline industry, this is called crew resource management.

The fireground command structure is a lot like a commercial airline flight. You have an incident commander (the pilot in command), the Company Officer (the co-pilot) and the crew of the rig (the flight attendants) We even have a communications point, fire dispatch (Air Traffic Control). The difference is that the fireground IC has more companies to deal with.

Like Captain Sullenberger as the aircraft commander, there will be times that the fireground incident commander will have a fire operation “hit a flock of geese” at a moment’s notice, whether it is a flashover, backdraft, structural collapse or a MAYDAY. The modern day FD has to be built with crew resource management in mind; training and trusting its personnel and empowering them to communicate problems or potential problems on the fireground or at any incident before the fecal matter hits the rotating oscillating air movement device.

When answering Hugh Delahunty’s statement about the change in the “cockpit culture” that allowed the crew of Cactus 1549 to do what they did, Captain Sullenberger stated that “in the bad old days, Captains were not good leaders; they did not build teams, they were arrogant and autocratic”. Unfortunately, in today’s fire service we have incident commanders who are just like that. They don’t lead, they just bark orders. They don’t build teams in training at an incident; it is “their show”. They don’t trust their personnel and tell their people “it’s my way or the highway”. They are arrogant when asked even nicely why they did what they did and they slam anybody who has the audacity to ask with the hammer of autocracy.

We need to change our culture for the better, without forgetting our history or ignoring the traditions of the fire service.   When Captain Sullenberger testified before Congress about the Hudson River landing, Congressman James Oberstar from Minnesota said “Safety begins in the boardroom”.

In my opinion, safety for the fire service begins in many places, converging at an incident. Safety begins in City and Town Hall with adequate funding for staffing and operations. Safety begins in the corner office of the Fire Department, with Fire Chiefs advocating for their personnel. Safety begins day 1 at the fire academy, with the expectations laid out right at the beginning. Safety continues after the academy in training and learning the craft. Safety begins with senior firefighters and company officers passing on their knowledge and experience to their personnel. Safety begins with working together as a team. Finally, safety begins with the person you see in the mirror every day. Know your job, do your job and go home at the end of the tour!

Note: here is the documentary on the ‘Miracle on the Hudson”.

Photo courtesy of HitThePlug, used with permission. See more from this incident HERE.



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AyotteProfilePhotoRon 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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