When Did It Become Okay to Say ‘No’?

A blanket safety policy does no good when it comes to people trapped

By Dave LeBlanc

Originally published on 24 September 2010

By now many of you have read about the tragic death of an eight year old boy in Niagara Falls, New York.  The young boy was playing in a vacant building with two other boys; the eight year old was killed when he became trapped after the house caught fire.

What is at issue here is not the actions of the Niagara Falls Fire Department.  For the news account it appears as though there was no chance for them to get to the child until it was too late.  What is at issue is the running debate within the Fire Service about vacant buildings and interior operations.  There are many that believe that there is no need to search a vacant building, in fact they believe we should not even go inside these structures.

These people would have you believe that most of the hundred plus Line of Duty Deaths are a direct result of the Fire Departments operating with “wild abandon” and searching every building for victims.  That these Departments have no risk management model and are just doing things “the way we always have.”

Yet by this story we can see that not all vacant buildings are vacant.  With some minor changes in the details this could be a scenario where the first engine arrives and has no indication there is anyone inside.  They would “assume” the building is vacant, and by the standards of some they would operate from the outside so no one gets hurt.  One problem, there was someone inside.  An eight year old boy was inside playing with his friends and the house caught fire and he was killed.  How does that fit in to the “vacant buildings are vacant” thought process?

Now this is not a judgment of the NFFD.  There are not enough details in the news account to determine what they knew or found on arrival.  The little information provided did indicate that the fire was in an advanced state on arrival.

So the naysayers will say it is just one instance, one case where a vacant building wasn’t vacant.  But six months ago it was a “vacant” car dealership in California and last winter it was a “vacant” warehouse in Massachusetts.

Our charge, our basic mission statement is quite simple, to save lives and property.  Now certainly there has not been a building made that is worth the life of one fireman.  However, firemen are supposed to risk their lives to save lives.  That is a basic mission requirement.  It is certainly something the Public expects from us.

What seems to be causing the debate is when do we search?  For some reason there is a shift from allowing Officers to base their tactics on a good size up to generalizations about what our tactics should be based on preconceived notions of what we will find in certain buildings.  Why are we taking those decisions away from today’s Officers?  Are they less capable from the Officers of yesterday?

An old Chief once said, “every situation is a situation.”  It used to cause chuckles as everyone thought it was a Norm Crosby type of statement.  However, when you think about it, there is a lot of truth in that statement.  Sure, we should risk a lot to save a lot (aka a life), and risk a little to save a little (aka a building).  But those decisions need to be made by the Officers that are on scene.  Their tactics and actions need to be based on the conditions found, their experience and training.  If the Fire Service continues on its current path of generalizations about what is and isn’t occupied, it will remove this critical decision making ability from those Officers that are destined to respond to these situations.

So the next time someone says it is just a vacant building, think about young Patrick Collura and how he died last Friday in a vacant building that was on fire.

WVIB – “Family of young fire victim speaks out.”
Firefighter Nation – New York Boy Dies in Abandoned House Fire

Photo courtesy Unsplash

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Published by Data Not Drama

Data Not Drama is writings that provide a point of critical thought about firefighter fatality data and education, line of duty deaths, and risk. The main focus is to encourage less risk aversion and better knowledge on the subject of firefighter fatalities in firefighters, fire departments, and fire service organizations.

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