* Image from City of St. Lego Fire & Rescue Service

Firstly, if you haven’t clicked on the link above for the City of St. Lego Fire and Rescue Service take some time and do so. The only thing I know about the site is that it was apparently built and maintained by a man named LegoTom and he appears to be the Chief of Department. I gotta admit, it’s pretty cool. He is in charge of quite a large department with many stations and apparatus, an EMS division, Beach division and even an Air Wing! It’s an entertaining visit that both you and your kids would enjoy tooling around on. Give it a look. And now on to our main topic.

When does size-up begin? “Before the tones go off,” is usually the text-book answer you’ll receive when asking that question. And the answer usually refers to being prepared for the call before it even begins. Knowing your still district and its particular building styles, knowing the roads and their peculiarities, being familiar with target hazards etc. etc. But I disagree. I think size-up really begins when your alarm clock goes off in the morning. Let me ‘splain.

When your alarm clock goes off on the morning of your shift is it a normal day or is something off right from the get-go? Are you feeling ok? Is that darn cold still hanging around or is your back more sore than usual this morning? Were the kids up in the middle of the night so you didn’t get as much sleep as you would have liked? There are numerous things that can affect your next 24 hours at the firehouse that consciously or not, you begin assessing as your feet are hitting the floor first thing in the morning.

Next comes your drive in to work. Some of us have a long commute with plenty of opportunity to get the day off on the wrong boot. Traffic, idiot drivers, car trouble and the weather can all lead to hypertension before we even lay eyes on the house. What house are you even going to? Are you going to your normally assigned station or are you on a detail today? If you are detailed, what companies are out of that house? Do you know what position you’ll be filling today? What kind of still district does this house respond to? What things are just a little different about working at this station that you should start getting your mind right with that you may not have to think about if you were working at home today? How about the crew? Let’s be brutally honest here. Every department has a particular shift/station/crew that seems just a little “off”. Are these the guys you’ll be hanging with for the next 24?

Ok, so now we’re in the station. Cup of coffee, shoot the bull a little, get dressed. If you do not have a regular riding assignment what are you doing today? I go so far as to carry different things with me when I’m pumping than when I’m in a different position. In the summer I carry sun screen in case I’m standing at the panel for a long time. In the winter I carry heavy ski-style gloves for the same reason. Is there anything extra you should prepare for given your particular assignment that day? I have a different check-out I go through depending on what I’m doing that day. I work in a house with an Engine, Tower and Medic. So on any given shift I could be driving any of the three, back-step on the Engine, right front seat of the Tower or attendant of the Medic. Besides the obvious differences of each check-out I do little extra things too. When I drive the Engine or Tower I always turn the rear flood lights on and point them down and to the corners of the rig right at the beginning of shift. I do this for two reasons. 1) If we get a night-time run and I have to back-up with no help I have a little extra light already on. 2) We respond to a couple interstate highways and some heavily travelled state and local highways, so if we get a wreck at night there is a little extra scene light and it lights up the back of the rig when we are in a blocking position. Maybe, just maybe, it’ll prevent someone from plowing into the back of us. There are extra little nuances that each of my check-outs has like this depending on what I’m doing that day.

Speaking of check-outs. What rig are you even in today? Is it your regular front-line rig or are you in a reserve due to maintenance? Being in a reserve rig can be a pretty big change. From cabinet placement to equipment storage to seating, there can be numerous differences that will lead to a small level of unfamiliarity throughout the shift. There’s one reserve rig that I am in from time to time that I physically cannot get into my air pack while in the jump-seat. That’s something I better be aware of before we roll up on a working fire. On days when we are in that rig I put the air pack in an exterior compartment along with my irons and make a conscious mental note that I need to speed things up a little more throughout the day when we arrive on scene. Maybe you like your tools positioned a certain way. Or maybe the guys on the shift before you do and you can’t even find the irons because they’re in a different compartment or other little hiding place that the back-step guy before you likes. Better find that out before the first run. Some of the guys I work with make fun of me because it takes me about 10 minutes to get my gear and arrange it on the rig. I like things a certain way. I have come up with a system that I feel lets me gear-up quickly and efficiently with everything in its right place and it begins with how my stuff is positioned on the rig. Boots on the floor angled toward the living area of the station, suspenders spread out so they don’t get tangled up. Bunker coat on the grab-rail. Radio strap hung over the bunker coat next, then the hood. This allows me to put my hood on first, then my radio strap (I wear mine under my coat), then my coat. I position my helmet in the jump seat the way I like. I hook my mask up and check it and my pack out. I position my tools like I like them depending on what rig and what role. Then I move into the actual rig check mandated by my department. It’s little things that let us be speedy and efficient when it matters.

So now that we’ve gotten to the station, evaluated who we’re working with and readied ourselves for the role we’re going to be fulfilling that day. We should probably make sure everything is working right. I know of very few departments that everything on every rig is working 100% correctly, 100% of the time. So what is it about your rig today? Is there that one particular cabinet that sticks, or pops open, all the time? Did the off-going shift report that the PPV fan was running rough or was difficult to start? Maybe the truck guys were saying that the K-12 was idling rough. Maybe we need to take a look at that and try and fix it, or replace it with another, before we really need it. If you’re driving that day is this the rig with the really touchy brakes? Or the one that the fuel gauge doesn’t work on? Better talk to the other Engineer and see how many runs they did or check the hand-written fuel log to see if you need fuel right of the get go. Most places have some form of check out sheet that you fill in the little boxes and make sure everything is there. But that’s to good enough most of the time. Make sure you size-up everything that you need to do your job. Speaking of doing your job…

Keeping it real again…we all know of people on our job who are less than ideal. Maybe you need to develop contingency plans, at least in your own head, for some different scenarios related to the people you are working with. Maybe before you go up to the front door with the line you need to check and make sure the guy that has a little extra hard time getting the rig into pump actually has it in pump. Maybe before you head up to the building with your tools you need to check and make sure the guy that always has the “mask problem” has everything in working order. And maybe you need to go up to your buddy the you trust the most and say, “Listen. We’ve got longer on the job than most these kids have been alive. Let’s keep an eye on ’em together today.”

It is definitely true that size-up begins long before the tones go off, but it doesn’t always have to do with brining buildings, vehicle extrications or complicated medical calls either. Start making a conscious effort to look around at the small stuff on a daily basis and sweat it. Keep in mind, there’s a whole lot of people who don’t and you’re entrusting your safety to them.

Stay safe!




To Go or Not to Go; The Argument Over Survivability Profiling

Survivability profiling. Just by typing those two words on the screen I’ve started an argument. It’s one of the hottest and most controversial topics in the fire service recently. The title image is from Captain Stephen Marsar’s article on this topic that appeared in the July issue of Fire Engineering. His article can be found here. Captain Marsar, while not exactly the founding father of this movement, certainly gave it some momentum with an award winning thesis paper at the National Fire Academy, his recent articles in Fire Engineering as well as an appearance on Christopher Naum’s weekly podcast, Taking It to the Streets, where he discussed this idea and talked about his research into it. Captain Marsar began the profiling ball rolling while he was enrolled in the Executive Fire Officer program at the National Fire Academy. His project thesis, Can They Be Saved? Utilizing Civilian Survivability Profiling to Enhance Size-Up and Reduce Firefighter Fatalities in the Fire Department, City of New York, can be found here and if you have yet to read it I suggest that you do so, along with the Engineering articles. You can also listen to the podcast here. Once you navigate to that page look on the right-hand side for the BlogTalk Radio box. There is a listing of archived shows there, just click on the title to listen.

I have read Captain Marsar’s paper and articles and I listened to the podcast just the other night. So I am familiar with his research and the basis of his argument, but I don’t know if I completely understand it. I think on the most basic level I’ve got a grasp of it but there are a couple stumbling blocks that I just can’t wrap my head around. This post is not going to be about bashing Captain Marsar or trying to tear his research apart. I simply would like to talk about this topic and use the research that Captain Marsar himself supplied. Hopefully this will spur some comments and we can get a dialogue about this topic going.

Ok, I am going to try and break down Captain Marsar’s argument to the most basic level and go from there. Essentially, Cap argues that due to the growth of the fire and the byproducts that are being given off by todays materials most victims have already succumbed to toxic smoke or non-survivable burn injuries by the time we are ready to initiate an attack and search. This is really what the graphic above is all about. That by the time we are actually on scene and ready to go and get someone the available oxygen inside the structure has dropped to dangerous or lethal levels, the carbon monoxide levels are elevated to dangerous or lethal levels, the cyanide levels are elevated to dangerous or lethal levels and the heat given off by the burning of todays “hotter” fuels has caused severe or lethal insult to a victim’s body and airway. Given those facts, he argues, we should begin to change our thought process when arriving at structure fires with a known or possible life-threat. Instead, we should probably slow down, attack the fire and then make a rescue or removal when it is safer for us. In part, Captain Marsar uses the deaths of 32 FDNY firefighters over a 19 year span to make this point. In the incidents that these 32 brothers were killed not a single civilian fatality occurred. So, to paraphrase him, “what are we killing ourselves for?” This is one of the areas I can’t quite wrap my brain around. That I have found so far he doesn’t list the causes of deaths of these 32 firefighters, during which phase of the operation they died or if any civilians were rescued during these same incidents. I just kind of don’t get that part of the argument. The rest of the argument, while I don’t entirely agree with, I understand. More toxic smoke + “hotter” fires + no protective equipment = civilian fatality. Makes sense, at least on the surface.

Here’s my number one argument against that line of thinking; until you can show me on the timeline above exactly where the victim took their last breath and their heart stopped beating, I think we should operate as we have. In other words, if you can pull out statistics that show that all civilian fatalities that occur inside  burning buildings happen from 0 – 10-ish minutes, as the timeline implies, then I will subscribe to this theory. Until you can do that, not gonna happen. Being a medic I completely understand the physiologic arguments presented. But we all know every fire is different, we all know the conditions are constantly changing and that we really don’t know even while we’re inside the building what those conditions are from room to room or floor to floor. So, in my mind at least, I don’t know how you can make a blanket statement regarding survivability based on those factors alone. My second argument, and it’s one I have used in other discussions, is the synopsis’ of the events that lead to firefighters being awarded the Firehouse Magazine Courage and Valor Awards. If the accounts of many of those incidents for which brothers and sisters received awards for rescuing or at least removing someone from a structure are to be believed, then almost all of them should never have even been attempted. Phrases like, “high heat”, “zero visibility”, “dense smoke” and “at great personal risk” abound in those accounts yet many successful rescues resulted.  I’m not a scientist, doctor or Executive Fire Officer but that’s how my brain looks at it.Now here’s the part where I am actually going to side with Captain Marsar in a way. I think many people in the fire service right now are jumping his proverbial defecation without having a full understanding of what he is saying (because they haven’t actually read what he has written or heard him speak on it) or because they have forgotten something. At least in my little pea-brain I kind of think we already do this “survivability profiling” thing; we call it size-up.

This was brought up on the podcast the other night both in the chat room that happens while the show is going on and by someone who called in to talk to Captain Marsar. The person said that they thought maybe the reason so many people were up in arms over this is basically because of the title itself. Something about “survivability profiling” just doesn’t sit well with people. But if you change the term and call it size-up suddenly everyone’s on board. We would all sit back and say that reading smoke and fire conditions upon our arrival is critical to making a decision as to what mode we will be operating in (offensive, defensive, transitional) and which tactical objective is most important at that moment, life safety or fire suppression. Doesn’t seem so hard to swallow when you think of it that way does it? Captain Marsar even acknowledged that point on the podcast but believes that the “science” needs to be employed as well to further assist in the decision making process. Me personally, I dunno. Given tenable conditions or even extreme conditions with very good and reliable information, I still think we need to get in and give those people every possible chance.

Ok, so if I role up on both the houses below on separate shifts and am being told by someone in the street that there’s some trapped in both buildings, which one am I going to go into? Which would you go into?

See? We didn’t need “survivability profiling” to come up with those answers. It’s part of what we have already been trained to do and what experience has taught us.

Bottom photo courtesy Bill Bennett and Traditions Training Blog

Until next time,

Be Safe!

Hallway Sledge