It’s All About Me

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.

Chris

What I Really Think, In Case You Didn’t Already Know

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on other blogs lately and doing some soul-searching related to what I’ve read. Much of what I have been reading has had to do with aggressive versus safe operations, and what those two terms really mean. Indeed, much of my “Pussification” post that caused a little stir dealt with that very topic. Because of that post and the subsequent debate I entered into on Firefighter Nation I feel that perhaps where I really stand on this current hot-button issue may have become a little blurred in all the rhetoric and back-and-forth. I’d like to take a little time to try and clarify my position and perhaps open up some more discussion, because I think open and honest debate in our profession is good and constructive.

Ok, so in the one corner you have what others have termed, “the aggressives.” I use the picture of our friendly neighborhood pooch up there to illustrate that camp. In the other corner are the “safeties.” Some other people have used a little more disparaging terms to describe our brothers and sisters in this camp. I, for once, will not. Then there seems to be the third camp. I haven’t seen a catchy name for them yet so I’ll make one up. Let’s call them the “scales”, as in balance the two approaches. All these camps are populated with good, strong and well-respected firefighters and fire officers. They all make good and convincing arguments for their stances and all have sizable followings. If you have read any of my comments in either my posts or my debates you would probably put me in the “aggressives” camp. That may be a fair assessment but I am going to disagree. I’ll give you a moment to pick your jaw up off the floor.

I consider myself to be an aggressive firefighter, that is true. I also consider myself to be a safe firefighter. I believe I am well-trained, have a good understanding of my job, tactics and strategy, building construction, basic chemistry and a kind of sixth-sense that taps me on my shoulder every once in a while. All of those things aid me in approaching an incident scene in both an aggressive and safe manner. I think that perhaps many of my comments previously may have been misconstrued to mean that I may suffer from “Duty to Die Syndrome” or that I am aggressive to the point of ignoring any potentially fatal circumstances. Believe me, I do not want to die any earlier than I have to and I certainly don’t want to be internet fodder for the second-guessers if I were to meet my demise on a run. I don’t want to sit around the camp fire singing Kumbaya or appear on the evening news tearfully pleading for us all to just get along, but I would tend to put myself into a different camp. Again, take a moment to compose yourself before reading further.

I’m going to try and make a singular statement to sum up my own, personal, firefighting edict. I suppose you all will be the judges if it is effective or not. Here it goes.

“I believe that I freely chose an honorable, important and inherently dangerous profession that may leave me seriously injured or worse. I believe it is incumbent upon myself and my brother and sister firefighters to risk our well-being to try and save another human life within the limits of our human selves. I believe that a building is not empty until we say it is empty, regardless of the tactic or technology used to determine that. I believe that, although secondary, property conservation is still a part of our mission and should not be treated as an option or a matter of convenience. I believe that training, including physical fitness, is the best way to prepare for our missions and to ensure that the highest quality of service is delivered to the people that depend on us. I believe that it is unequivocally my job and responsibility to pass my own knowledge and insight into this job on to our younger members and anyone that does not believe or accept that should remain quietly in the corner and await their retirement date. I believe it is up to the administration of our departments to give us the tools and support we need and deserve to carry out our missions and to stand up to those that would seek to diminish our ability to do so. Finally, I believe that the job of firefighter is much more than a job, it is truly a calling, and the participation in this profession should be treated with the utmost respect.”

With liberty and fraternity for all. Amen.

So there it is. I think I got everything, maybe not, but I think you got the idea. I do not believe you can be 100% in one or the other of the “aggressive” or “safety” camps and be an effective firefighter. On the one hand you would be dangerous to yourself and others. On the other you would be completely ineffective as you were immobilized into inaction. That’s what I think anyway. And I would like to be clear on something else, also. I don’t apply my edict only to the rank of firefighter. Our officers, from company level on up, should have the same core belief structure as well. I completely understand that as you progress in rank so do your responsibilities to those you lead and by extension their families. I get it. But sometimes I think that if we get involved in a little bit of a real firefight and companies have to do a little work suddenly the fire becomes a “loser” and we’re waiting for the fire to remove the fuel side of the tetrahedron so we can all pack up and go home. I may have lost some people there so I’ll try to illustrate better. Sometimes it seems that if a fire can not be contained and extinguished with a single pre-connected line and less than one minute of nozzle operation troops are pulled out and the building is written off. Many times the “safety” argument is made to support these decisions. If everyone is out and accounted for then it isn’t worth a firefighter’s life. And I would totally and completely agree with that basic statement in its most simplistic form. However, if it is possible to get in, get at it and get on it, then do it and the building gets a lot safer.

So there it is. Believe me, sitting on the fence goes against just about every fiber in my body but I really don’t think that I am. I still would put myself in the aggressive camp. Or maybe I’d lead a popular uprising and go start another camp fire somewhere else and hang a banner reading, “The Aggressively Safe” camp. Yeah, that’s it. And it would have nice warm cabins with satellite TV and refrigerators instead of tents and those cheap styrofoam coolers those other camps have. Come join me, we’re better.

Stay Safe!

Chris

The Pussification of the American Fire Service

 

I freely admit that this post is coming from a place of anger and frustration. If you don’t like it, tough. It’s my blog, my opinion and this is not a professional, journalistic media. Get over it.

This all started yesterday when a good friend of mine, also a firefighter, posted a link to an article on his Facebook page. This link led you to an article on Fire Chief Magazine’s on-line blog that was written by a Mr. Robert Avsec. This particular blog post dealt with the recent deaths of two Chicago firefighters in a structural collapse at a  vacant laundromat located at 1744 East 75th Street. The basic premise of his post, in my opinion, was that the CFD killed Brothers Corey Ankum and Edward Stringer by conducting an offensive, interior operation for the fire located within this building. Click here to read the article and form your own opinion. I’ll wait here.

So. Whaddya think? Did you come to the same conclusion I did or am I totally off-base? If you think I’m off-base, screw-off. You’re one of the people this post is talking about. Told you I was pissed.

Turns out Mr. Avsec is a retired Battalion Chief from the Chesterfield (VA.) Fire and EMS Department. Looking up Chesterfield on the net I find that it is a county-wide, combination department that protects approximately 466 square miles and an approximate population of 311,000. Not a bad size district and a decent population. I’m sure they, and Mr. Avsec, have seen a couple fires. His article, however, leads me to question both his understanding and commitment to the job of firefighter.

Mister (I’m not even going to give him the courtesy of using his retired rank) Avsec bases much of his argument on the International Association of Fire Chief’s “10 Rules of Engagement for Structural Firefighting.” If you have not read this particular document you can click here to view it directly from the IAFC’s website. Again, I’ll be here stewing until you get back.

Interesting reading huh? What I find particularly interesting is that in the introduction of the document the IAFC authors state:

  • A basic level of risk is recognized and accepted, in a measured and controlled manner, in efforts that are routinely employed to save lives and property. These risks are not acceptable in situations where there is no potential to save lives or property.
  • A higher level of risk is acceptable only in situations where there is a realistic potential to save known endangered lives. This elevated risk must be limited to operations that are specifically directed toward rescue and where there is a realistic potential to save the person(s) known to be in danger.

Huh! A certain level of risk is accepted when life could be in danger. Kinda like when there is an abandoned laundromat on fire that has had the gas and electric shut off for years (hence no chance for an accidental ignition), previous fire and EMS runs have made the first-due companies aware that homeless people use this area, and this building in-particular, for shelter, the companies find board-up materials removed in the rear and a door standing open. The only possible argument is the last line in the second bullet point, “where there is a realistic potential to save the person(s) known to be in danger.” But that is only an argument that would be made by those of you on the no-risk bandwagon. The rest of us, those that signed up for the job of firefighter and not that of fire chief/risk manager, would say, in a Chicago accent here, “Ay, if ‘dere ain’t anyone out front pointin’ and yellin’ ‘den I guess we godda go in and make sure ‘dere ain’t anyone in ‘dere.” That’s our job, you bunch of pansie-ass fuck-sticks! You do not simply pull up on a structural fire and automatically write-off the building and any life that may or may not be present simply because the building is abandoned! Period. You pack of assholes. <Exhale>

Rather than keep writing as I get more and more irritated all over again, I am going to post something that was a reply to Mr. Avsec’s article. I think the author of this comment summed it up pretty well. Have at it:

“Bob, I don’t know why your post doesn’t show up here but I feel compelled to comment. I don’t know you, your rank, your department or your experience so I could be commenting on someone who is a chief of a large metropolitan department with 30 years experience, I don’t know. BUT, your article in “support” of the Chicago brothers showed this support by questioning every action of the CFD and, in my opinion, blaming the CFD as a whole for their deaths based upon their operating procedures or your misinformed, lack-thereof.
Firstly, CFD does have SOG’s regarding both abandoned buildings and bow string trusses. I am not a member of CFD but do have friends and other contacts in the CFD. According to both them and published reports, SOG’s for both these types of buildings were followed.
Secondly, as you eluded to in your comment that does not show up here, the first-due companies did find a door propped open and board-up materials displaced. This lead them to believe there was a life-safety issue.
Thirdly, the first-due companies had knowledge due to previous EMS and fire runs that homeless people used the buildings in this area, and this building in particular, for shelter.
Fourth, and I will argue this to the day I die (hopefully not in a fire event in an abandoned building), abandoned buildings do not set themselves on fire. Especially those with electric and gas services shut off.
Fifth and in conjunction with the above point, our job is entirely based upon life safety followed by property conservation. I am in 100% agreement that property conservation is in no way worth anyone’s life or well-being. Especially a building such as the one on East 75th. However, life safety, in my own opinion, is. As you pointed out in your article, we risk ourselves when people or callers are telling us someone is still in the building. In the absence of those bystanders or callers it is up to US, the firefighters who willingly take on a dangerous job, to ensure that everyone is out. This responsibility is not predicated upon what type of building the event is taking place in.
Sixth, the “accepted risk/benefit practices, such as the IAFC’s 10 Rules of Engagement for Structural Firefighting” is great for “writing off” buildings and even lives in buildings involved in fire to the point where no reasonable expectation of viable life exists or that the fire is so far advanced that it is not worth the risk of offensive operations. Neither of these conditions existed at this scene. In case you missed it this was a one-line fire that was extinguished and overhaul begun in under 20 minutes.
The last point I would like to make is a personal one and it also is in regards to the “accepted risk/benefit practices, such as the IAFC’s 10 Rules of Engagement for Structural Firefighting”. This is a dangerous profession. I will not risk my life unnecessarily for a life or a building that is lost. However, the problem with these “rules of decision making” is that they use static flow-charts to try and control a dynamic and unique environment. You need only look at the annual Firehouse Magazine Hero’s edition for proof. If you read those snippets of actions taken by firefighters from around the country the ones that are recognized the highest are usually for those involving great personal risk that resulted in the saving of a life or, at the least, giving that life the greatest chance at being saved i.e. the rescue was effected but the person succumbed anyway. How many of those simply would have added to another fire fatality statistic had the “model” been employed?”

Damn, wish I would have said that <wink>.

Over the last few years it seems to me that the American Fire Service has suddenly lost any form of balls it once had. Our fire chiefs came up, pulled down our zippers, yanked off our junk and threw them in their collective purses. Yes, I said it, and I’ll say it again, fire chiefs. In general you won’t find too many firefighters who think they should not encounter any risk in the performance of their jobs. Evidently our chiefs do. Do not get me wrong. I will not risk my own life or safety for a life that is already lost or a building that has nothing left to save (sounds kinda familiar, almost like that was written somewhere else). I will, however, gladly and to the best of my ability and last of my strength risk my life in an attempt to save another human being’s life. And yes, even if I don’t even know if that human being is even in there or not.

Another good friend of mine spent nearly a month in the burn unit after he was caught in a “rapid progression fire event.” He and his partner were searching the top floor of a Chicago brownstone for kids that were reported trapped. The fire had originated on the rear porch, a “Chicago lumberyard” as they are known. While my buddy and his partner were in the front room the rear door failed due to the fire, the fire rushed down the common front-to-back hall, into the living room where they were located and out the front, large, picture window that had been ventilated during their search. My buddy’s partner was able to roll behind a couch and pull it on top of him and suffered only a couple minor burns. My buddy, on the other hand, was directly underneath the picture window when the “freight-train of fire”, to use his words, blew over the top of him and briefly enveloped him. Pain, disability, skin grafts, infections, rehab and 9 months later he was back to work. Oh, and those kids they were looking for? Not there. They were down the block at a relative’s house and the other occupants of the building didn’t know. Does that mean that my buddy and his partner should not have been there? Does that mean that they essentially burned themselves? If you answered “yes” to either of those, fuck-off. Do I make myself clear?

The job of firefighter is inherently dangerous and may require us at any moment to put ourselves at great risk. Not carelessly, not recklessly, not without a real justification. What I think has happened in recent years is that those situations that are truly justified have been narrowed to such a fine focus that many in today’s fire service, such as Mr. Avsec, would only advocate the risk of a firefighter when there is stone-sober, MENSA member standing in the front of the fire building, pointing to a specific window, with a blueprint of the building and a personal guarantee that nothing bad will happen. Bullshit.

Ok, I need to go have a snort of something and calm down. While I’m doing that why don’t you go over to Chris Brennan’s page at “Fire Service Warriorhere and read his post entitled, “Quit Telling Me to Change My Culture.” He writes a good article and you won’t have to be subjected to all the profanity and negativity I just bombarded you with.

Until the next thing pisses me off,

Stay Safe!

Hallway Sledge