As fire fighters and emergency medical caregivers we never look at failure as an option. We may know the outcome prior to its arrival but that isn’t failure, it’s just the way it is. A fully involved house on our arrival isn’t a failure, it’s just the way it is. Not getting the full-arrest back after an unknown down-time and the patient being flat-lined the whole time isn’t a failure either, it’s just the way it is. But what about outright failures? Are they an option? An unfortunate chain of events? Or are they determined before we ever get there?
One of the greatest failures of my career happened pretty early on when I was a paid-on-call member of my first fire department. I’ll never forget that day. It was a beautiful late summer afternoon in the midwest. All the bay doors were open, the actual work for the day was done and, if I remember right, we were talking about what we were going to barbecue that night. We were standing in the open bay doors talking when a car ran up onto the ramp and a guy jumped out and said something to the affect of, “Something’s burning down there”, and pointed behind the station. We ran around the corner of the building and saw a big black header rising above the trees a few blacks away. Then the 911 lines began to light up (they were connected to our in-house speaker system so we heard the entire conversation between the caller and the dispatcher). We were dressed and out the door before the tones dropped. On our arrival we found a two-story home that was built into the side of a hill, so the garage and basement were the first level in the front and the living area was the “second story”. Fire had a good possession of the garage and smoke was pushing from the upper floor. I was the nozzleman that day so I pulled the line, got masked up and waited for the water and my officer. We knocked the garage fire and then moved into the upper area through the front door. We made the entryway and had moderate heat and heavy black smoke. I crawled in about 10 feet and saw a glow in front of me which I quickly darkened. I looked to my right and saw a good body of fire at floor level in another room which would have been right over the garage. Now like I said, I was pretty new on the job at the time and didn’t have much actual pipe-time under my belt. I immediately told my officer what I saw and that “the floors gone”, because in my head that’s what it was. We backed out. About three hours later we had what was left of the house out and went back to quarters. At the time I think maybe I had made the right decision. My officer wasn’t in a position to see what I was seeing and when I said the floor was gone he took me at my word and we backed out. Now, in retrospect and with 17 more years experience, I think I failed. I think we could have at the very least held our position, darkened the visible fire, maybe relocated to the garage (more companies began arriving about that time), and seen what was going on. The floor was rock-solid where we were and throughout the rest of the house as well. I really think now that we could have saved a heck of a lot more than we did. I take that one on my shoulders. I feel that responsibility. A lot of people would say, “well, you were young and didn’t have a lot of experience. It’s ok.” But is it? That’s what I want to talk about in this post. Is it ok when we see fire departments fail? I’m not talking about pulling up and being behind the 8-ball right off the bat or having a true set of unfortunate circumstances hamper your best efforts. I’m talking about flat-out screwing things up and failing to get even the most basic of jobs done and then either brushing it aside as an inevitable or worse yet, slapping each other on the back and telling stories about the “hell of a fire” we had.
It seems that as of late there have been a lot of videos on the net showing fire departments having a bad day. A lot of the ones I have seen run the gamut from not being able to get the pump in gear, to not being able to get an airpack on, to taking so long to deploy the line that the Chief finally gets pissed off enough to pull it himself. And on the tactics and strategy front, man, don’t even get me started. There’s enough of those videos that I’m beginning to wonder if maybe I have it wrong. Now, I am a unionized, “professional”, full-time firefighter/paramedic. Those are facts. What I am not is a volunteer, part-time or paid-on-call firefighter basher. There are just as many bad videos depicting full-time departments as there are volunteer or small departments. I put professional in quotes because I truly believe that being professional has nothing to do with a paycheck, or lack thereof. But there’s a feeling I just can’t shake lately that we, the full-time firefighters who may have more access to training and on a more frequent basis than our volunteer brothers and sisters, have a responsibility to pay it forward to them. If you’ve read this blog before you know I’m all about training our next generation and doing it correctly. Well, I guess maybe now I’m kinda feeling like we need to do that to those brothers and sisters who, maybe due to no fault of their own, aren’t quite up to snuff.
This post might be meandering and I may have lost some of you already. I think I might have lost myself. I am currently sitting in my backyard enjoying a nice night, a fire and a couple (or so) adult beverages. Maybe not so great for blogging, but anyway. With a lot of these videos I have mentioned there have been many comments to them that kind of say, “well, they’re doing the best they can,” “they’re obviously a small department, they can’t do things any better,” etc. etc. I beg do differ. I know volunteer and part-time departments that consist of one or two stations and have 3 to 8 guys on duty that will kick the crap out of a lot of full-time jobs pulling up with 20 on the initial alarm. And I’m not talking about Kentland or a bunch of other volunteer departments that are staffed with off-duty full-time big city firefighters either. Here’s where I have a problem with that theory. Little old Mrs. Smith who is trapped in her bedroom on the second floor of her 100 year old farm house on Rural Route 9 doesn’t give a shit about your pay situation, the size of your department or if you wear “Co-ed Naked Firefightin'” t-shirts on your “off” days any more than she would care if she were living in a $300,000 condo in a big city. The expectation that you are a firefighter and you know what you are doing is the same.
I know that not everyone who reads my drivel is a medic or provides EMS care but you’re going to have to bear with me for a minute. As paramedics or EMT’s we are required to have a certain number of hours spread over a certain amount of time in numerous different subjects in order to maintain your license or certification. You have to demonstrate this knowledge through quizzes and tests and through practical evolutions. If you are unable to do so, you may be in risk of suspension or losing your job. If a major screw-up occurs on an EMS run does your department blow it off and say “oh well”, or is a big deal made out of it? Do rural service paramedics have to meet less stringent requirements than their big-city counterparts? Not anywhere that I know of. So why do we do it on the fire side?
There are a lot of departments out there that just don’t know any better. They’re small services that don’t run a lot of calls, that may be remote from any sort of regional training center and that don’t have a lot of money to send members to school. I get it. But it still bothers me about Mrs. Smith. When I was in college the first thing I did when I got settled on campus was to call around to the local volunteer fire departments to see if I could get on. One place called me back and invited me to their station to look around and talk about my availability etc. I met the Assistant Chief at a pole barn literally at a cross-roads in the middle of corn fields. He shook my hand and we did introductions. He then unlocked the building and led me inside. There was what looked like a converted bread truck sitting right inside the overhead door with a very old looking engine behind it. He told me a little about their district, how many calls they run (150, if I remember right) and what they would expect out of me. I asked why the bread-truck was in front of the engine. He replied that it carried the “rescue” gear and that they got a lot of accidents on the rural roads. It also carried the two airpacks for the department. So if they got a fire the first two guys went in and did a search if they were able and then the rest of the fire was fought from the outside or they waited for other departments with more packs to show up. Which meant, of course, that the rest of the fire was fought from the outside anyway. Even at my young age and my enthusiasm to enter the fire service I told the Chief I didn’t think I’d be able to meet their commitment and thanked him for his time. That was the level of service in that area. Is that ok? I don’t know. Two guys in airpacks with no water and probably very little training in the dangers of searching in front of or above a fire and with no water is absolutely suicidal in my mind. But that was how they were actually set-up to run. Someone had thought that through and decided that was the best they could do in a life safety situation. And we wonder why the LODD statistics stay the same.
Now, I am not advocating East Fork Little River Fire Protection District (I googled it, there isn’t one) should pull up on a working structure fire and perform VES like FDNY does. FDNY may have more people on one rig than East Fork has on 4 (not counting pick-up trucks). These departments have to operate within their capabilities and man-power. But, if they do have 15 people on the seen right away because the department corn roast was going on and everyone was there, and someone happens to be trapped in the uppers, then why can’t they perform an aggressive VES and save a life? IF THEY’VE BEEN TRAINED CORRECTLY AND CONTINUE ON WITH THAT TRAINING? I know, I know. You’re all telling me to responsibly put my outdoor fireplace out, collect the bottles and throw them in the recycling and go to bed. Clearly I’ve had too much. I guess it’s just my way at looking at things. Remember that “professional” in quotes earlier? In my opinion, if you are going to be a firefighter then you need to be a professional one, regardless of pay or departmental structure.