Ladies and Gents, Brothers and Sisters, do yourself a favor and go read this very emotional and well written piece by an active ED RN. Although she is writing from that perspective and commenting on her co-workers this could easily be applied to so many of our co-workers in the Fire/EMS Service. Simply replace your mental image of a hospital Emergency Department with the scenes you have responded to and the co-workers you serve with while reading.
Concussion. It’s been a huge concern and media buzzword over the last couple years. Much of the discussion and attention has been brought about by several high-profile athletes having taken their own lives after dealing with what they believed were the side-effects of numerous concussions they had suffered during their playing careers, most notably Junior Seau and Dave Duerson. Both former NFL stars shot themselves in the chest so that their brains could be studied after their deaths in the hope of preventing or treating others with chronic traumatic enchephalapothy (CTE). CTE is being categorized as a degenerative disease caused by repeated brain trauma over a period of time, usually years, that results in a list of symptoms that leads many of its victims to live lives that are almost unrecognizable as compared to their lives before CTE. The most common cause of CTE is repeated concussion.
I think I was about 10 years old or so. Fifth or sixth grade, maybe. We were playing floor hockey in P.E. class in the poured-concrete with (probably asbestos) tile over the top gym. I remember having the puck and moving up the left side of the court, heading towards the goal. I think I was tripped by some other sticks, or maybe a leg, and falling head-first to the floor, bouncing my forehead off the concrete and tile. I also remember a class-mate named Randy was running behind me, trying to catch me on the play. Randy was the biggest kid in the school, no matter what grade. Over six-feet tall and over one-hundred pounds already, he wasn’t able to hold-up after I fell. He tripped and fell on top of me, bouncing my head off the floor split-seconds after it had already struck it the first time. I don’t remember getting from the floor of the gym to the principle’s office. I barely remember being told my step-dad was on his way to pick me up and take me home. The ride home, about a mile and a half, was fuzzy at best. Getting home I remember my step-dad had to half-carry me inside to our small den, where he laid me down on the loveseat, covered me with a blanket and told me to take it easy. I have sporadic, disconjugated memories of the next two days. I slept the whole time, waking briefly to hear bits of conversation coming from the other room or to see my mom or step-dad leaning over me saying something. That I remember I didn’t eat or get up to go to the bathroom, although I’m guessing I must have at least done the latter at some point. My parents never took me to the doctor. It was the mid-eighties and not much was known about concussion or traumatic brain injury. Certainly not by parents of the time, unlike today. Concussion was just another way of saying, “he got his bell rung”, and didn’t warrant anything more than a little time to recover, a slap on the butt and a “get back in there” from your coach. Today, of course, we know much more about the causes, symptoms and cumulative effects of concussion. But back then it just wasn’t a big deal. So I slept for two days and when I was either forced or felt well enough to get up (I don’t remember what the circumstances were), I resumed life like nothing had happened. Back to school. Back to basketball and baseball. Back to playing with friends. That was the first of what I’m guessing to be six or more concussions I’ve suffered over the years.
According to the Mayo Clinic concussion is, “a traumatic brain injury that alters the way your brain functions. Effects are usually temporary, but can include problems with headache, concentration, memory, judgment, balance and coordination.” Concussion occurs when the head is struck violently or shaken very hard and the brain slams into the skull, causing injury. Contrary to popular belief losing consciousness is not necessary to suffer a concussion. The brain can sustain a severe enough injury to be concussed without the patient actually losing consciousness. This is the least severe of the three grades of concussion. While there is no universal consensus on the grading of concussions there are two scales that are most commonly used in the United States; the Cantu scale and the Standardized Assessment of Concussion.
The Cantu Scale was developed by Dr. Robert Cantu in 1986 and was adopted by the American College of Sports Medicine. In 1991 the Colorado Medical Society developed its own guidelines after several deaths of High School football players after suffering brain injuries. These guidelines were more restrictive than Dr. Cantu’s and were then adopted by the NCAA for evaluating college athletes. Whether it be the Cantu scale or the CMS scale they share four general evaluations. 1) presence or absence of loss of consciousness, 2) duration of loss of consciousness, 3) duration of post traumatic memory loss, and 4) persistence of symptoms including headache, dizziness and lack of concentration. When the results of these evaluations are determined the concussion can then be graded.
Grade I: concussions are not associated with loss of consciousness, and post-traumatic amnesia is either absent or less than 30 minutes in duration. Athletes may return to play if no symptoms are present for one week.
Grade II: concussions in which the patient loses consciousness for less than five minutes or exhibits posttraumatic amnesia between 30 minutes and 24 hours in duration. They also may return to play after one week of being asymptomatic.
Grade III: concussions involve post-traumatic amnesia for more than 24 hours or unconsciousness for more than five minutes. Players who sustain this grade of brain injury should be sidelined for at least one month, after which they can return to play if they are asymptomatic for one week.
Post-concussive Syndrome can occur in the days, weeks, months and even years after a patient suffers a concussion. PCS is the presence and on-going problematic occurrences of the signs and symptoms of concussion after what should have been the “normal” healing time. Symptoms include memory and concentration problems, mood swings, personality changes, headache, fatigue, dizziness, insomnia and excessive drowsiness. While no one knows for certain it is thought that the symptoms and problems associated with PCS contributed to the suicides of both Seau and Duerson. Dealing with these symptoms on a day-to-day basis became too much for them to bare and the only way they saw to be at peace was taking their own lives. But they were football players with lengthy careers in one of the most violent sports played. What could they possibly have in common with us?
I think we would all agree that the profession of firefighting and the delivery of EMS care has countless opportunities for us to suffer head injuries. From collapses at structure fires, to falls off the rig or a ladder, to encounters with violent patients there is ample opportunity for us to suffer a concussion. In the span of my career I can think of at least three times I personally believe I have suffered a concussion as a direct result of the job. I’m sure there are many of you who could think of one or more times when you “had your bell rung” hard enough that you saw stars, became unsteady or even lost consciousness. These occurrences are severe enough to cause a concussion and warrant an evaluation. If you are suffering from the continued symptoms of what you believe to be a concussion suffered in the past you can still be evaluated presently despite the length of time since the injury. The exam will be subjective and based upon the history of the event and the symptoms you suffered or are continuing to suffer from. According to the United States Fire Administration report Fire-Related Firefighter Injuries Reported to NIFRS released in 2011, 15% of the 81,070 injuries suffered by firefighters between 2006 and 2008 (the time-period of the study) were head injuries. That’s 12,160.5 head injuries suffered. Divided by the three years of the study equals an average of 4,053.5 head injuries per year. That’s a lot in my book. Are all of them concussions or possible concussions? Probably not. But I’d be willing to bet that a large enough number of them warrant an evaluation for concussion and the possibility of on-going problems after.
As with Junior Seau and Dave Duerson repeated concussion, or a single severe enough event of concussion, can lead to a life time of disabilities and mental health issues. Depression is just one such mental health issue associated with concussion injuries and its associated syndromes. As we all know the issue of firefighter depression and firefighter suicide has been a significant topic of late and one which needs to be talked about openly and honestly. The days of “just suck it up and deal with it” are long over. The days of shrugging off the splitting headaches and continued dizziness because “you’re tougher than that” need to be left in the past too. We have enough on this job that can kill or lead to permanent disability, don’t let this be added to your list too.
Until next time,
A new and exciting opportunity has presented itself and I’ve jumped at the chance. I’ve recently been given the opportunity to work with Chris Huston of EngineCo.22, and John Shafer of Green Maltese in their joint venture Fire Training Toolbox. FTT began as their brain-child with the vision of a place where firefighters could go for free, top-notch training that was easily accessible and available to all regardless of pay scale, department size or training budget. It is also not meant to be a handful of elitist instructors who lecture down to the minions of the fire service, impressing them with their knowledge and puffing out their chests to each other. At the risk of sounding a little Utopian, FTT is supposed to be a group of highly motivated and eager individuals who enjoy learning and sharing their knowledge with others in order to make the fire service better. It’s basically open to anyone who wants to contribute, both on the learning and teaching end. That’s how I got involved. I asked.
So I submitted my first training article to FTT a few days ago. Hopefully it won’t be the last. I decided to do an article on a subject that I really don’t remember ever seeing done before, not to toot my own horn or anything. I wrote about opening an overhead door for defensive hoseline operations. “Huh?”, you might be asking. Well, think about it for a moment. There are two main reasons we open overhead doors, but both have distinctly different objectives. The first reason is to force entry. Meaning, the garage door is in the way and we need to get into the structure behind it. Obviously we have to force the door in order to get into the building. The second reason to force the door is to get at the fire behind the door. In this case we are going to assume the fire has us beat and this is a defensive operation. We aren’t going in but we still need to open those big overhead doors to be able to hit the fire. Will the same method work for both objectives? Depends on which method you choose. Guess you’ll just have to read the article. The link here will take you to the articles menu on FTT. Look for it there and check out the other articles and training modules available.
* Image from DETROITFIREFILM.ORG, all rights reserved.
Last night I had the opportunity and privilege to see the movie that most of us in the fire service have been talking about for a while now; “BURN; One Year on the Front Lines of the Battle to Save Detroit.” I realize I am behind many of you out there in having seen the film but this was the first offering in my area and myself and about half my shift, as well as a couple guys from the other two shifts we allowed to join us, went to take it in. And all I can say is, “Wow.” I’m glad I did.
I’m glad I didn’t just sit back and say, yeah I “know” what’s going on in Detroit. I “know” what the Brothers are up against up there. I “know” they fight a lot of fire and I “know” they are doing it in less than ideal conditions. Because if I were to have done that it would have been like saying I “know” what war is like because I heard my Grandfather talk about it a couple times. I never would have seen it with my own eyes, listened to it with my own ears and looked at some of these men in their eyes as they told their stories. Now, it’s true, this was done on a movie screen but it was that powerful nonetheless. Especially if you’re a firefighter and can relate to at least some of what is going on in that once, and perhaps again, proud city. You can’t help but be moved by the men who go to work every day knowing they are going to fight multiple fires with less than ideal apparatus and equipment, and in some cases backing, because it’s their job and they love it. Not only that but because they have a duty to the people that are still left in Detroit. And therein lies a forgotten story in the conflagration of Detroit; there are still people who call the city their home and who have nothing else in their lives but what is in that house, as run-down or decrepit as it may seem to you and me. It’s not all about Devil’s Night and vacant structure fires. The DFD is still in the business of saving lives and protecting property when it can and has the ability to do so.
Many of us have seen the illustration below that explains the different meanings associated with the symbol of our profession. Gallantry; Perseverance; Loyalty; Dexterity; Explicitness; Observation; Tact and Sympathy. At this point and time in our collective history I cannot think of another organization as whole that exemplifies these credos better than Detroit Fire Department simply by showing up to work every day in the conditions they must and continuing to do the job they have sworn to do. A very powerful scene in the movie for me personally, and I don’t want to give too much away for those that have not seen the film yet, happened at the funeral of a young fire victim. This case was well publicized around the nation. There were equipment failures. The first-due Truck Company’s aerial didn’t work. She was trapped in the upper stories. The first arriving crews tried to get to her via interior stairs and ground ladder but couldn’t. She succumbed. And there, at her wake and funeral, were the men and women of the Detroit Fire Department. Standing with their community saying, “This was a tragedy. This shouldn’t have happened. We are here with you and for you.” My first thought, selfishly, was, “I don’t know if I could have done that. What if they would have turned on us? Hated us?” But in Detroit things are different. The community, I believe, for the most part understands it’s not the rank-and-file firefighters who are not performing their jobs. It is not the guys with gear held together by duct tape and the last strands of stitching. Due in large part to individual efforts of neighborhood fire companies and the local press the community has turned its eyes downtown to the elected officials and has begun to call them to task for the state not only of the fire department but of the city as a whole. Again, this rapport with the community is not due to a Public Education Unit which is funded with tens of thousands of dollars in the yearly budget, a dedicated staff and its own vehicle to drive around to block parties and senior citizen events all year. It’s not even due to a Fire Commissioner who sits and eats a hamburger with at a local church gathering while asking, “What do you-all really need from the Fire Department?” It’s from the men and women who actually respond to the calls also taking the time to educate the people about the situation.
And really educating people is what this film is all about. While this film has obviously become a hit with us, firefighters, it really is not meant for us. In the Q&A session after the screening last night Producer/Director Brenna Sanchez said (and I’m paraphrasing a little bit here because I didn’t have time to write the entire quote down); “This film was made so that the next time people go to vote for budget cuts for you’re department they’ll stop and remember Detroit, and think, “I don’t want my city to turn into that.” After all you guys are all 1 or 5 or 10 budget cuts away from being in the same situation just on a smaller scale.” And she’s right. East Fork Little River Fire Protection District (still doesn’t exist, I Google it every time I use it) might not fight 30 fires a day, but if they don’t have the equipment or manpower they need for the 1 fire in the year they do get, isn’t it just as bad? Especially if there is a life on the line? But this film can only educate the intended audience if it reaches them. And here is where the project is still running into trouble. “Whaddyamean?” I just heard you ask. The movie is being shown all around the country to rave reviews! That’s true, and the monetary goals for actually completing the movie-making portion of the production were met. But the project is still an independent release and has no studio or marketing back. Very few chain movie theaters have agreed to carry the film in their normal line-ups (although Brenna and Tom shared some exciting news for the Chicago area last night, but not knowing if I have the ok to release that info, too bad for you 🙂 So the long and the short of it is that the project still needs help to ensure that it will be released commercially nationwide and reach its intended target audience, civilians. If you can find it in yourself to help out please go to BURN’s official website and make a donation, buy some swag, host a screening or do whatever you can. It’s not just about Detroit, it could wind up being about any of us.
Left to Right: Producer/Director Brenna Sanchez, FEO Dave Farnell (ret.), Myself, FF Ted “Tito” Copley
Front: FF Brendan “Doogie” Milewski (ret.)
Until next time,
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.
* Image from the BBC
Five one-hundredths of a second doesn’t even exist to me. I really have no comprehension of what that measure of time even means. But try telling that to Michael Phelps. Better yet, try telling that to South Africa’s Chad le Clos. Because that was the exact amount of time it took to out-touch the world’s most decorated swimmer and win Gold in the Men’s 200 Meter Butterfly. An imperceptible amount of time to most was the difference as big as the Grand Canyon to a man who had just beaten his self-admited idol. But that’s not really what this particular story is all about. Although I love a good underdog story. It’s about what Michael Phelps said later about the race.
In an interview with NBC’s Bob Costas after the race Phelps said; “It’s probably the finishes I’ve done in work-out that ended up coming out here. You know, there were times where I’d go kinda slow into the wall in work-out or kinda touch kinda lazy, and it showed.” If you’re interested the entire interview can be seen here. I give kudos to Phelps to taking ownership of what he classifies himself as a lazy performance or perhaps taking something for granted. Something that he had done hundreds, probably thousands of times in practice, came out on the biggest stage in the world and cost him, for the moment anyway, his record-breaking 19th Olympic medal. If you’ve read my rants for any length of time you may know where I’m heading with this.
Pulling hose is pretty boring. I get it. But it doesn’t have to be. Remember when you were a kid and you’d make up scenarios? Like 2 out, bottom of the ninth, bases loaded and you’re up to bat with your team down by three? Why can’t you do that with your hose drill? You’re first-due, on the knob, it’s three A.M. and the fire’s on the second floor with no one standing outside. The truck is right behind you and you have to secure the stairway and get into the hall. GO! Would five one-hundredths matter? Realistically? Probably not. Would five seconds? Ten? A minute? Anything that you can do now, on the training ground to make yourself more proficient, more smooth, more complete will pay off on the bigger stage. Like Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s house at 3 A.M.
Around the Chicago suburbs we do a drill called the “Paxton Drill.” It is in honor of the Paxton Hotel fire that occurred in Chicago, Illinois on March 16, 1993. The Paxton Hotel was a four story single room occupancy hotel in which most residents made their homes on a permanent or semi-permanent basis. When the Still Alarm was dispatched for light smoke it took initial arriving companies less than one minute after arrival to begin screaming for a Still and Box Alarm and an EMS Plan 1 for a heavy fire with numerous people trapped. The late Chief Ray Hoff was then Captain of Truck 10 and was the first-arriving Truck officer. He and his crew immediately began throwing ladders to as many windows as possible rescuing the people trapped by smoke and the advancing fire. Once those rescues were made they would roll the ladders into new positions or strip the other on scene apparatus of their ladders. Most firefighters on scene that night operated on their own, at least initially. The “Paxton Drill” times a crew to see how fast every ladder on the rig can be deployed to designated windows on a building or training tower. Can it be kind of boring? Maybe. Can it be monotonous? Perhaps. Did it pay off for the members of Truck 10 and the other units that operated at 1432 N. LaSalle that night? Ask the 100 people that were rescued by the CFD, most over ground ladders. Did time matter? The next time you do a ladder drill wait for a crew who is motivationally challenged and hold your breath as soon as they begin the task of removing the ladder and see if you can hold it until it would be in a position to actually effect a rescue. Then you tell me.
In many ways the world of sports is parallel to the profession of firefighting. I think Michael Phelps’ words are very apropos to us. We cannot expect to continuously practice at half-speed with no sense of purpose and then think that we will just be able to “turn it on” when it really counts. It just doesn’t work that way. Five one-hundredths of a second. About the amount of time of the last agonal breath of a victim in a smoke filled bedroom at 3 A.M.
Train with purpose.
* Image Copyright 2009 Paul Combs, all rights reserved
By now you have probably heard of the terrible news out of Aurora, Colorado from last nights senseless shooting at a midnight screening of the last in the series of the “Batman” trilogy. In case you have not here are some links to the coverage, L.A. Times, ABC News and CNN. My thoughts and prayers are with all those innocent people who were killed and wounded just for trying to go see a movie and have a fun night out as well as their families and friends who will be affected by this event for long after. But my thoughts immediately turned to the firefighters, paramedics and police officers who responded to the scene.
This scene had the potential to be a career altering one to many that were there last night, whether they realized it at the time or not. From the probie or new patrol officer just out of the academy right up to the grizzled veteran with decades of experience anyone could be susceptible to the unusual amount of stress and emotions that they were subject to last night. Especially since, according to reports, there were children involved. The next days, weeks and months will be critical for all involved in this horrific event. The brothers and sisters that work alongside those involved are going to need to be acutely aware of their co-workers behavior, moods and tendencies and not be afraid to speak up if they notice anything that could lead them to believe that anything unhealthy is going on. Anger issues and irritability are the least of the problems that could lead to alcoholism, depression and even suicide. I would hate to think that I sat idly by while I watched a brother or sister spiral down and take their own life while knowing I had a feeling I should say something to him or her, or a supervisor. I wouldn’t want that on my conscience. Bosses, look for it. Union reps, look for it and push the administration to schedule Critical Incident Stress Debriefings if they have not done so already. Everyone needs to be each others keepers.
The incident does not need to be on the size and scope of Aurora to have an effect on someone either. You never know what will get to someone. One that got to me was a fatal involving a child very soon after I found out my wife was pregnant with our first child. I wasn’t even a father yet, but just knowing I was going to be in a relatively short amount of time stirred up emotions in me that I had never experienced responding to a similar scene multiple times before in my career. It took me by surprise and several days to process through what was going on with me and why. A little while ago my friend Lloyd Mitchell, an aspiring firefighter and current photojournalist, shot one of his first homicide scenes. Soon after he polled his network of public safety friends for how we get over bad scenes. I offered my insights as I’m sure numerous others did. While I offered my advice sincerely and with best of intentions, as others surely did, unfortunately I feel that it is a most individual thing. There are tools you can use that many counsellors, psychologists and doctors advocate for dealing with stress issues, but in the end I think it comes down to what healthy method works for you and, unfortunately, exposure to enough of it. After a while that crust does get built-up. But that does’t mean that something, at some time, won’t make it through.
Keep your eyes and ears open for each other brothers and sisters. Don’t be afraid to speak up. I’d rather be called an asshole or be told to mind my own business than look at a widow at a funeral knowing I had “a feeling” and never said anything.
Be safe. Be healthy.
Keep the Aurora and surrounding Brothers and Sisters in your thoughts and prayers.
There’s that saying; “I’d rather be lucky than good.” When it comes to the fire service I agree but I also believe that those that work very hard at being good tend to make their own luck. Sometimes those lucky breaks are really just preparations made by thinking firefighters who put a ladder in the right place before it was needed and someone called it lucky. Other times an incident commander calls it luck that the interior crew withdrew when they did before the hostile fire event occurred, never realizing that the well studied and experienced company officer was keeping tabs on the interior conditions and using his noggin as well as his book knowledge and experience to make an educated decision as to when to beat feet. Is there luck in the fire service. I think so. But I don’t rely on it, and I certainly don’t wait for it. I believe you go out and make it for yourself.
There’s another saying that; “Practice makes perfect.” We all know, or should know, that the statement in and of itself is false. You can practice something wrong every time and all you’ll be doing is something perfectly wrong. Perfect practice makes perfect. That, however, takes a huge amount of effort. More effort than a couple hours here and there on the training ground a couple days a week. If you do a ladder drill during your prescribed training time are you looked at like you have leprosy if you suggest later in the shift to go over the drill again back in quarters? Daniel Manning wrote an excellent article for Fire Service Warrior entitled Focus, give it a read. It talks about keeping your, a, focus, and about becoming infectious to others. Something you can do with training as well. If you want a little more up-beat inspiration take a look at the below video. It’s of Remi Gaillard, soccer star. Watch the vid and think about how much practice he has gone through over the course of his career to be able to do the things he can with a soccer ball. Is it luck? Maybe. Or maybe those that put in the effort get paid off in spades sometimes too.
Pretty cool, huh? Imagine being so confident with a 24 or a 35. Imagine grabbing the line and just knowing how much line you’ll need to make the stretch. What if you never had to be nervous when standing in front of the pump panel again? It could all come true…with some hard work.
I have been very honored to hear from some young brothers and sisters that are just starting their careers in the fire service via both this blog and the Facebook page. I always like hearing from these younger members who are eager to soak up anything fire service related. It reminds me why I continue to be involved in training and why I m so passionate about it. It also reminds me that there is an opportunity to mold these young firefighters. Not into mini-me’s or anything but into good, solid young firefighters who will grow into excellent firefighters as their knowledge and experience increases. So it is with these young lumps of clay in mind that I write this post. Some of you older lumps of something or others may find it helpful too…
So why is this post titled “Free Agency” and why is there a picture of a guy wearing a free agent t-shirt? Remember something, my rookie phenoms. You are the Michael Jordan’s; the Patrick Kane’s and Jonathan Toews; the Ben Roethlisberger’s; and the Hope Solo’s. You’ve picked your team, er, your department. You’ve been assigned your teammates, the guys and girls you’ll take field with. But guess what? In something that is very unique to our job you get to pick your coach. You may have been assigned a Lieutenant, Captain or a mentor by your department who is officially responsible to oversee your probationary period and make sure you get all of your required items checked-off in your first year, but they don’t have to be your career-long mentor. Your true coach. You are a free agent. You, and only you, get to decide who gets that honor. The honor of having you as someone who looks up to them. Someone who goes to them for knowledge and experience and guidance. Choose wisely and it will serve you well for your entire career.
One of my past part-time jobs was as a flight-paramedic on a helicopter out of a local trauma center. This trauma center was also a teaching hospital for both future doctors and nurses. It gave ample opportunity to teach not only for formal educators i.e. the Doctors and Nurses that actually taught in the programs but also the Doctors, Nurses, Techs and guys like me who worked there as well. Anyway, one day a local ground ALS unit was inbound with a gunshot wound to the chest. I was working the helicopter that day and happened to be in the ER at the time. We were allowed to assist in the ER with codes and traumas and such so I thought I’d stick around and see if this turned out to be anything good. Soon, the attending trauma surgeon entered the trauma bay followed by his gaggle of doctors-in-training. He started shooting questions at them; what are things to be looking for; what could complications be; what should our interventions for those complications be etc. The medics rolled through the door soon after and it was immediately clear that the situation was critical. CPR was in progress, blood was everywhere, two large-bore IV’s that were almost empty etc. etc. The patient was transferred over to the ER bed and the assessment was begun. The patient had been shot once in the left upper chest with an unknown caliber gun. Never conscious at the scene. CPR in progress the whole time. Weak pulses with CPR, nothing without. The trauma surgeon went right to work but was still shouting out questions and listening for answers the whole time he was working. The pt wasn’t intubated so he looked at me and asked if I mined helping one of his “kids” with the intubation. After that, and purely for the teaching aspect I think, the decision was made to crack the patient’s chest right there in the ER. Even the ER staff was like, “holy crap.” So after the chest was open we saw the problem. That problem was a very large hole in the patient’s left ventricle of his heart. The trauma surgeon didn’t get excited, he didn’t back away and declare the patient dead. He calmly asked for a foley catheter. One of those catheters that goes in the end of a penis to drain urine from the bladder into a bag. The nurse he asked did a double-take and he calmly repeated his request. She went and got the foley and handed it to him. He took it out of the packaging, inserted the end that would normally go into the penis and then up into the bladder into the hole in the heart, inflated the balloon on the end of the catheter that normally would hold the catheter in place in the bladder, asked one of his students to hold the tubing and collection bag and “make sure this doesn’t fall out”, and then told the nurse in charge of the trauma bay to call the operating room and let them know they were on their way. Everyone, myself included, looked around stunned. Where the hell had he learned that?! For the non-medical type peeps out there, the balloon on the end of the catheter plugged the bullet hole in the heart, the catheter drained the blood into the collection bag to be transfused back into him later. He hadn’t learned that in medical school, he learned it while serving in Vietnam. If you want to look at it in our terms, he didn’t learn it in the academy or in his probie year, he learned it after. When it counted. From people who had been there and done that. Get where I’m going with this? Medical school, the fire academy, high school, it’s all the same. It’s the basic preparation for what you will need to perform in your job or in life where most of the real learning will come from doing and experiencing. But you can’t just hope to stumble upon things on your own. You can’t just hope for “a-ha” moments to happen throughout your career. You need someone to help and guide you with the things that don’t ordinarily get taught as part of a regular curriculum. You need a Yoda.
Now, as fair warning, not every guy in the firehouse wants to be Yoda. Not every guy in the firehouse should be Yoda. There’s no reason to rush picking your sensei. Your probationary year should be a year of learning the things your department wants you to learn in the manner they want them to be done. As long as you have someone assigned to you who is half-way competent at their job and can teach you those things you’ll be ok. Picking your Yoda, your career coach, is something else. It doesn’t need to be done in that first 12-months. Make sure you have a job first. Take that time to look around and see who really has a passion for the job, not just who comes in and does the job. Who’s the guy or girl who’s still out on the apparatus floor doing a little extra spit and polish on the rigs or tools after everyone else is sitting having a cup of coffee? Who can seemingly answer almost any question with a reasonable answer but if they don’t know something then takes the time to find out and share the knowledge? Who might join in on the inevitable kitchen table airing of the grievances but then actually offers solutions to the problems and tries to mediate what’s going on instead of simply fanning the flames? Who is the guy or gal that loves this job? Maybe that’s who you should be thinking about to be your tour guide through fire service life.
Not everyone picks a coach. Some guys, most guys maybe, don’t. They make it through their probie year and figure they’ve got it made. They figure they learned what they needed to learn and that they’ll get what else they need in drills and whatever future classes they’ll take for certifications. But there are so many more things to learn about this job than just what you’ll learn in drill or at those classes. Maybe that’s why you’re reading this website in the first place. Obviously a mentor, a coach, doesn’t have to be just one person. You can pick up as many things from as many people as you can in this career. And we all know that you can learn just as much from people that you don’t want to emulate as those that you do. But you should find a couple people on this job whom you can consistently go to for solid advice. For good direction. For answers to questions that other people seem to be guessing at. But take the time to evaluate who you want those people to be. You are the free agent. You are the rising star and you don’t want to sign with just anyone. So take a look around and see who’s making the best offer to help you and career. And then go play your heart out, kid!
Until next time,
I love tinkering. I love the process of having a rough idea in my mind of something I want accomplished, a pile of parts and some ambition and then setting about trying to make it all come together into some kind of functioning something-or-other. Sometimes it’s frustrating, sometimes downright angering, but I generally enjoy that process. I would say that our profession is, in general, full of tinkerers. Whether it be Chief Hugh Halligan and some pieces of metal that eventually took the form of the tool that bears his name today, or Commissioner Robert Quinn looking at Chicago city work crews utilizing a cherry-picker and asking the fire department shops to figure out a way to run hoses up to the bucket, thus creating the first snorkel. Or the shop at the back of Rescue 2’s quarters in Brooklyn which is affectionately known as “Jackass Fabrications” for all the tinkerers in that house. This job leads us to look at things and wonder, “Huh? Can we make that better / more usable / easier / lighter / tougher / etc. etc.?” Don’t believe me? Just look through the back of any trade magazine for all the “thingys” for sale that one of us has developed. Take a look around your job. Is there anything you can tinker with?
Now, to be clear, I’m not talking in a metaphorical sense here about shaking up the organization or anything like that. I’m talking about little things that probably won’t take committees and months of discussion to implement. Are balance points painted on your ground ladders? That’s an easy one. You probably don’t even need to run that one very high up the chain. A couple cheap foam paint brushes, a pint or two of paint and some tape and presto! Balance points. Do you carry pressurized water cans or pump-cans on your rigs? Do you have a way to carry them or you lugging them around by the handles all the time? Some spare backboard straps can sometimes be used to make a cheap sling from something that might already be laying around the station. Take a look at your particular cans, could that idea work for you? Tinker around. Never know what you might come up with.
Tinkering can be the seed that gets other things going, too. It’s funny how one little idea so often leads to other off-shoots and side-paths and before you know it you are on to a totally different thing than you began working on. But that’s ok. If there is a need in your department who cares how you got to fulfilling that need. I remember doing some routine maintenance on a tool once at a department I worked for early on in my career. A coworker came up to see what I was doing and we began chatting while I was working. He then went over to the rig that the tool had come from and looked at the mounting system that we were using to keep our tools in. A couple months and a proposal later and we were mounting the new keeper systems that the department had purchased to replace the older somewhat antiquated ones we were using. All because I had decided to get a tool out and tinker around with it. Maybe you won’t have the same thing happen the next time you play around with something but you don’t have to. Maybe you’ll just find something that improves your personal operational readiness or ability a little bit. That’s ok too. Because then maybe a coworker will see that and ask you about it and there will be a ripple effect. You never know.
Of course not everything you try is going to work, or even be a good idea. A while back I had presented an idea for changing hose loads. We tested them, ran them through their paces, let the different shifts play with them, and in the end it was decided not to go with them. I was disappointed but I also saw the limitations and problems that arose during the testing period, so why force something that wasn’t going to work the way it was intended. On the other hand, while I was preparing the last post on my hinge hooks I came across one of the original prototypes that I had tinkered around with in the shop. It was the basic shape of the modern incarnation. Had the same function. But boy was it ugly, crude. I was tinkering! I had an idea, some pieces and parts and I put something together that worked and then I went back and refined it to what they are now. Which I think are pretty effective. So in that particular instance it was a success.
Take a critical look at something. Wonder how you could make it better. Wonder how it could work better for you or your company or your department. Then try it out. If it doesn’t work? Oh well! Make adjustments and try something else. I don’t know who said it but someone said that, “It’s better to fail spectacularly than succeed with mediocrity.” Give it a shot. Tinker around. Watch this short TED video below for some inspiration.