I think I’ve said this before so forgive me if I’m repeating myself. I don’t know why I read the comments written by other “firefighters” posted under some story or other regarding a fire or rescue situation. All it does, in general, is infuriate me. And so it has again. Buckle up lads and lasses.
Last Thursday evening there was a 2-Alarm apartment fire in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Five firefighters and one civilian were injured while four additional civilians were rescued. One of those rescues, in particular, has brought a lot of media attention and drawn the ire of many keyboard incident commanders. Captain Scott Kilpatrick of the PGFD entered a second-floor apartment above the the fire apartment, located a conscious victim who was unable for unspecified reasons to assist in her own movement, and then stayed with her for approximately 15 minutes after being unable to remove her on is own and radioing for help. Captain Kilpatrick shared his airpack with the victim, alternating breaths off his mask, while they awaited assistance from other firefighters. This resulted in both Captain Kilpatrick and the victim being transported to the hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation as well as thermal burns to the civilian. This is what the KIC’s or the keyboard firefighters are bashing Captain Kilpatrick for, and why I am supremely pissed.
I distinctly remember more than 18 years ago now, sitting in the training room of my first paid-on-call department, on the first day of the training academy, the training Captain giving his opening speech. In it he outlined what it meant to be a firefighter, what it meant to serve and that it was so much more than just a job. He also told us something that I already knew full-well and expected but something which I could tell some others in the room might not have thought much about before that moment. I’m paraphrasing a bit here so indulge me, but he said words similar to the following;
“Odds are ladies and gentlemen, that at some point in your careers, if you keep doing this long enough, you are going to get hurt. Hopefully it won’t be serious but it will probably happen. It’s just the nature of our job. We work in a dangerous environment that cannot be controlled all the time as much as we try. And of course, there’s always the chance that someone could make the ultimate sacrifice. Someone might die. Look around the room. There’s, what? Fifteen or so of you in here? By the time you get done with this academy, if you all make it, you will be a tight group. You’ll be close. Can you imagine if someone in here is just suddenly gone? You go to a fire together one night and only one of you goes home. It can happen. On average it does happen about 100 times a year. But we are here to save other peoples lives. To make a difference. Because if we don’t, no one else is going to.”
I thought those were powerful words back then and I still think they are powerful words today. But if we fast-forward those 18 some-odd-years now that training Captain would be delivering a different kind of speech. A speech that I think is at the center of a problem in today’s fire service and one that crops up in the comments made against firefighters like Captain Kilpatrick who go out and successfully save a life while making a conscious decision to risk his own. Here’s how today’s training Captain’s speech would go on the first day of the academy;
“Good morning and welcome to the first day of what will hopefully be a great career in the best job in the world. You know, this really is the best job in the world, isn’t it? We get to help people. We get to do some pretty cool things. We get to ride around in big red shiny trucks. But all of that doesn’t matter at all if you aren’t around AFTER your years of service to enjoy your family. Your grandchildren. Your pension you’ve earned. You can’t enjoy those things if you make bad decisions on this job. Bad decisions like not wearing your PPE. Not wearing your mask. Going into buildings that the fire is advanced to a point where there is nothing left to save and there is no viable human life left. You cannot be around to enjoy those things if you put yourself at risk! There is nothing, NOTHING!, that is worth risk to yourself, your health, your safety. You cannot save anyone else if you yourself are injured or incapacitated.”
Now, to be clear, I heard a variation of that speech too. But the focus was not on me. It was not solely on me first, mission an optional second and civilians a distant third. I feel that is what we are smashing into our recruits brains these days, and they are buying into it.
I am in full support of safety standards and of physical fitness. I believe in wearing all your gear, eating healthily, exercising and not taking unnecessary risks on emergency scenes. I am, however, in full support of doing our jobs and in knowing that in order to accomplish certain things on the emergency scene I may have to place myself in a position to risk my health and safety. This does not cause me to shy away from those tasks. This does not cause me to avoid those tasks or automatically label them as unattainable simply because they involve risk. Yet I feel that many in today’s fire service are doing exactly that. Take Captain Kilpatrick’s situation for example. One KIC in his reply to another KIC stated; “The [firefighter] did in fact put the Lady’s Life first. He demonstrated real Fire and EMS Dedication”…Dedication? By removing his mask? Please tell me you would NOT do the same.” I am standing up to say that I would absolutely do the same given the same circumstances. And here’s why: 1) I have a CONSCIOUS victim who is communicating with me. Are you telling me you are going to listen to her cough and gag and slowly loose consciousness while you continue to breathe off your tank? Oh, yeah. You would. It’s all about you. 2) I can leave. I came in off a ground ladder placed at a window. I know where that window and ladder are. If the victim becomes unconscious, my air runs out or conditions become untenable and I still cannot move her then I can leave and save myself. 3) It is a human life that you have taken an oath to protect. I don’t really think I need to expound on this one but maybe I do. For whatever reason the victim could not move. For whatever reason Captain Kilpatrick could not effect a rescue by himself. Captain Kilpatrick made radio and 911 contact and reported where he was and what he needed, help was coming. He made the decision to essentially shelter in place, for lack of a better term. He made the decision not to leave her. To do everything in his power to preserve her life until more help arrived. Even at the risk of himself.
Since 2009 our LODD numbers have been under 100. Thank God! Maybe we are finally listening. Maybe we are all exercising, eating better and training. Some would say we aren’t taking as many stupid risks. Some would point to VSP and other such “tools” as new innovations that have helped us to not place firefighters in harms way thus lowering the numbers. Maybe it’s a combination of numerous factors. But any way you slice it firefighting is always going to be an inherently dangerous profession that will never be able to be made 100-percent safe. It will require, yes require, firefighters to place themselves in positions that will risk their health and well-being in order to perform our job. If you do not subscribe to this treatise or worse yet do not believe it, maybe you were like some of the people in my academy class that first day and didn’t quite think this whole thing through.
Until next time,
Be as safe as possible in the course of carrying out the job you freely undertook and swore an oath to carry out.