Safety in the Abstract

Somewhere between the extremes lies the path we must follow

By Dave LeBlanc

Originally published 6 December 2010

There is an ongoing debate in the Fire Service, a debate which seems to have two camps. One camp is the safety camp; they feel that we are on a dangerous path, that we are suffering too many fatalities each year and that it will take a complete cultural overhaul for us to find safety in our profession. The other camp is the aggressive camp; they feel that the safety camp is going too far, that firefighting is inherently dangerous, and that a Line of Duty Death is a cost of doing business. This cost can be reduced but never eliminated.

The reality is that both camps have valid points, and like the Politics of late, moderation is key. Somewhere between the extremes lies the path we must follow.

Firefighters are responsible for saving lives and protecting property. The degree of risk we are exposed to should be directly proportional to the value of what we are trying to save. Risk a lot to save a lot, risk a little to save a little. The definition of a lot and a little seems to be where some of the issue lies.

No one will argue that saving a life is our number one priority. Some will argue that in some cases, those lives are not savable and therefore we should operate in a safer manner. There is also a question if property is “worth the risk.” The solution to both of these questions lies in training and size up. There is no a solution that will work “service wide”. Departments have to determine the level at which they are able to respond. They also have to ensure that once they determine that level, they are able to reach that level on a consistent basis with their apparatus, staffing, training and mutual aid. Departments must also determine if the level of service they provide is consistent with what the public expects from them. If it isn’t, then they must inform their Town managers and selectmen, or City Councilors and Mayor, that they will no longer be able to provide that level of service. Imagine this headline, “Fire Chief says Department is no longer able to save you if your house is on fire and you are trapped.”

The current trend of training is focused on safety. How much of this training focuses on the whole picture versus safety alone? We develop “new” techniques and procedures, all in the name of safety and making sure “everyone goes home.” But there is a distinct disconnect between “safety training” and other training. We are taught safety, but it is a message of safety not grounded to tactics and techniques. It is safety in the abstract. Knowing how to apply it, or where it is relevant, is often missing in the equation. We cannot teach safety as a standalone subject. Safety has to be incorporated in to every aspect of our training.

In his paper “Line of Duty Death in the American Fire Service: Components of a Better Outcome Training and Discipline” Mike Lombardo writes that if we practice our basic functions, stretching lines or venting roofs, over and over again we will become very proficient. His stated benefit to this is that our firefighters will be in better shape and the will be very good at the tasks they have trained on. The other benefit to Lombardo’s idea is that these actions become muscle memory. This frees up our brains for evaluating the situation before us. It allows us to multitask by reading conditions and performing the tasks needed to control the incident.

Lombardo also states that our training must mirror the fireground environment. If we fail to expose our members to realistic training, then how can we expect to them act accordingly when they are confronted with the situations we face on the fireground?

It is an unrealistic statement to say we will one day achieve a zero line of duty death total. And we do a disservice to firefighters Nationwide to teach this goal, knowing that it will end in failure. The only way we will achieve a zero Line of Duty Death total will be if we cease to exist as a service. We will no longer have Firefighter deaths, but the alternative is unacceptable, huge fire loss and countless civilian fatalities. To tell our firefighters that “everyone goes home” we are developing a culture of “we come first and be careful you might get hurt.” Firefighters are being inundated with a safety concerns from the very first day. They are being taught that “everyone goes home” and to accept anything less is a failure. However, is it possible that you could do everything the way you were trained, based on all the experience you have and that someone could still be killed? If we constantly inundate our firefighters with thoughts of risk and dying then we will develop firefighters that become tentative by nature. They will develop a “risk avoidance” tendency. Not that we shouldn’t expose them to the hazards and inform them of the consequences, but it needs to be in proportion with the rest of their training. We need to learn from all Line of Duty Deaths, but we need to learn the lessons that are applicable to us. We need to learn from the calls where no one gets hurts, no one gets killed, the fire goes out, yet we still didn’t do everything right. Those incidents contain a tremendous amount of value. The problem is that when we don’t follow procedures and “get away” with it, it re-enforces bad behavior. So we do it again and again and pretty soon the deviant behavior becomes the accepted behavior. We may continue on for years operating this way without a problem, and then circumstances will combine to create the situation the original policy was drafted for and someone gets hurt or killed.

“Military operations are inherently complex, often very dangerous, and usually exceptionally fluid and dynamic.”It is characterized by uncertainty, ambiguity, and friction” (Department of the Army, FM 100-14, 1998) “Regardless of the true probability of harm, research indicates that when potential harms are severe, people tend to overestimate the probability. And when potential harms are less severe, such as embarrassment, people tend to underestimate the probability” (Collaborative IRB Training Initiative, 2006, Module 2.4, Assessing Risk Objectively).”[1]

The above quote from an article about risk management in planning for the United States Army explains why some are advocating this cautious approach. The Fire Service is overestimating the probability of potential of harm from conducting interior operations like fire attack and victim search. Because of this overestimation, some are advocating that “known” vacant buildings should not be searched, or we should employ an additional set of guidelines and rules before we commit to search for victims. Yet these same individuals do not advocate not responding in our apparatus because we might be involved in an accident.

A good size up conducted by the first arriving officer is an essential part of every fire operation. Additionally the firefighters arriving should be conducting their own size up, based on their assignments. All of this information goes into deciding the tactics that will be taken to extinguish the fire. The decisions made at this critical point in time are made in seconds. Most of these decisions are made by the Officer comparing the information he gathers with information from previous experiences and training and then deciding a course of action. We need to go back to our basics, or as was written recently we should have never have left them, and train our people.

We must conduct our size up based on our resources and capabilities. This means knowing and operating within the bounds of your Department. We must ensure our goals are realistic to our environment. A department with 3 man companies and 2 and 1 due on the box cannot and will not be able to operate in the same manner as FDNY with 5 engine 2 trucks and the Rescue responding. This does not change our priorities; it does however impact how we go about it.

The Fire Service is on a path that we may not be able to deviate from before we have completely changed our purpose. The people that we protect expect a certain level of service from us. They may not expect us to die for them, but they certainly expect us to respond and help them on their worst day. They expect us to search for them if they are trapped. They expect us to extinguish their fire. They also expect us to be their plumber, electrician, nurse, veterinarian and any other of the hundreds of skills we perform. They expect this regardless of our manpower, equipment, budget or training. Until recently, this was the commitment we made. We would respond we would put our lives in harms’ way to protect them, to save their property. It remains to be seen if this is a promise we can continue to keep. It remains to be seen if our focus on safety will eliminate our ability fight fire and save lives.

1. Risk Mitigation Through A Composite Risk Management Process: The U.S. Army Risk Assessment.
Organization Development Journal, Summer 2007 by VanVactor, Jerry D

Additional Resources
Line of Duty Death in the American Fire Service: Components of a Better Outcome Training and Discipline
Mike Lombardo

Photo courtesy Pixabay

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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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