Are we committing ourselves to an ideal that we know we cannot live up to?
By Dave LeBlanc
Originally published 15 January 2011
The ongoing debate has been the search of buildings. Often the debate has referred to instances where departments have searched “known” vacant buildings and discovered a victim. As always there are many sides to this issue.
The debate is really a symptom of the bigger issue; The issue of firefighters being killed and what risks are acceptable to take.
There has developed a philosophy of putting firefighter’s lives ahead of everyone else when it comes to the dangers we face and the risks we take. It is discussed in the 16 Life Safety Initiatives; it is the main tenet of “Everyone Goes Home.” This may be considered heresy but not everyone will go home. The question is though, are we committing ourselves to an ideal that we know we cannot live up to?
This week saw the passing of Major Richard Winters. He commanded Company “E”, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, during World War II. Easy Company, made famous by their war record and subsequent mini series on HBO, was a tight knit community of soldiers. Their bonds were formed in their training and carried them through the war. These Taccoa men were indeed brothers.
Imagine the difficulty Major Winters and the men of Easy would have faced if their first principal was self before mission? If every day at Camp Toccoa they were told, “Everyone Goes Home.” It is unlikely they would have been as successful as a combat unit.
Like their job was about combat, our job is about saving lives. You can forget all the other stuff for a second, because that should be the first thing listed in everyone’s ‘mission statement.’ To save lives we must put ourselves at risk. Saving lives involves searching buildings that are on fire. It involves entering an IDLH atmosphere and subjecting yourself to physical and mental stresses that in their own right could kill you.
Since when does “Everyone Go Home”?
The spirit of the message makes sense, but it a message we cannot follow to the letter, unless we leave the trucks in the building and don’t respond. Then everyone should be safer.
These are not the words of Wyatt Earp or Doc Holiday. This is not advocating reckless endangerment of firemen. This job is absolutely about saving lives and to do that involves us risking ours. That being said the “Everyone Goes Home” mantra has led us to places that are in conflict with our core mission. Instead of being King Arthur’s Sir Lancelot, chosen to protect the kingdom, castle and throne, we are becoming a self serving entity. We are putting ourselves above those we are sworn to protect.
Every day we read about departments being questioned about their tactics and every day we read that vacant buildings are unoccupied, so there is no need to search them.
Every day we read that we must all come home and we are well on our way to a world where you will have to justify going in to search, not the other way around.
If we want to focus on being as safe as we can be in the job of unknown risks and hazards, then we need to learn from every fire. We need to learn from the fires that went right and we need to learn from the fires that went wrong. We need to read and study and LEARN from every Line of Duty Death report and every Near Miss Report. We need to study these documents and apply the lessons that fit, because not all the lessons apply to every department.
When was the last time you had a fire and everything went right? The next question is more difficult. When was the last time that after a fire you had an honest an open critique at any level (company, shift, or department) to review what went right and what went wrong?
That one action, a post incident critique, can do more to prevent injuries and mistakes than most training sessions. Others have written about “curbside critiques”, and their message is clear. After the heat of the battle, when it is all still fresh in your mind, when you body is still sore and you are bone tired, that is when the lessons sink in. It doesn’t take hours, a PowerPoint or a conference room. It takes some folks that are interested in being the best at this job they can be and the openness and willingness for peer and self examination.
Before we write our job description and change the culture which is the Fire Service, consider the following; in 2009 there were 445,400 total fires reported to United States Fire Administration. In these 445,400 fires there were 90 firefighter fatalities and 78,150 firefighter injuries. Roughly one third of the fatalities (30) and about half of the injuries (32,205) happened on the fireground.
While one death may be one too many, one could argue that one death in 14,867 is not worth changing the mission for.
Photo courtesy U.S. Army
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