The Easy Solution

By Dave LeBlanc

Originally published 5 August 2018.

The easy solution would be to stop fighting fires. The pain and anguish that is experienced following a line of duty death could all be put to rest. The easy way out would be to just stop going inside. Just spray water from the yard and let the houses burn to the ground. That would be easier, but the bottom line is that we didn’t sign up for the easy way. We signed up to do a job, and that job involves risk. We signed up to protect our fellow man and “to stand between them and unrestrained fire”, as Chris Brennan would say. This job, that oath, comes with the risk that we may be injured or killed. Certainly that’s not an option anybody would choose. Most aren’t trying to be heroes. They are simply trying to do a job and complete a mission that they signed up for.

Every day we should be focused on trying to do the job better because our safety doesn’t come from saying “safety first”. Safety comes from being proficient, skilled, and from knowing the buildings we operate in. It comes from understanding how fire behaves. Competence breeds confidence, and rather than wringing our hands over the risk we face, and the possible negative outcomes, we should double down and train harder.

“Leadership Philosophy: Understand where we have been; focus on the present and plan for the future. Everything has a triangle which encompasses three major points. Discipline, Competence and Trust comprise the first triangle.”

Lions of Kandahar: The Story of a Fight Against All Odds by Rusty Bradley

If we want to create a mindset of safety, we will never do it by saying safety first. There is no context with that statement. Safety doesn’t come from avoiding risk. The only thing that avoiding risk does is transfer the problem to someone else. Avoiding risk sets us up for failure by not allowing us to prepare both mentally and physically for the challenges we will face. Those that preach a risk-adverse mentality, where we come first and our victims come second, fail to understand that all that does is make us timid, weak firefighters who will ultimately be less effective.

Those advocating this risk avoidance mentality subscribe to a fallacy that they will be ready to do the job when they have to. In other words, “I can operate in this risk-adverse, zero entry mentality but when I have to put it on the line because there is a victim trapped, I will suddenly be able to become a super firefighter and push down a hot hallway and make a grab.”

“There are three different components here. There is the perception of yourself, the perception others have of you, and then there’s the way you really are. If those three aspects are out of alignment anywhere, you have a problem.”

The Trident: The Forging and Reforging of a Navy SEAL Leader by Jason Redman

Training builds a foundation and repetition builds confidence. To expect that you can go to fire after fire, without experiencing risk, not unnecessary risk, but the routine risk that is a part of what we do, and become proficient is unreasonable. Proficiency comes from doing the job. Proficiency comes from training. Proficiency comes from experience. If we constantly operate in a risk- adverse, zero risk mindset then when the time comes for us to put it on the line, we will either freeze or flee. No matter which, we will not be able to be effective or efficient. We will be tentative, and being tentative is more likely to cause us injury or death than actually meeting the challenges of the job.

“But the satisfaction and pride that are earned through truly optimal experiences come from being challenged, working hard, and putting your training to the test in service of a goal you care about.”

The Ranger Way: Living the Code On and Off the Battlefield by Kris Paronto

Realistic policies create a mindset that is reinforced by training, repetition and experience. All of these together create safer, more effective firefighters. A clear goal or mission should be the basis of your policy and that policy needs to reflect the urgency of saving lives. Simply put, lives are saved by searching wherever and whenever we can. We search regardless of bystander reports, or assumptions made based on occupancy or building status. We search, we win. It’s that simple.

Departments must be realistic when they set policy. Policy needs to be based on staffing, experience, and the resources of that department. It doesn’t do any good to develop policies or procedures based on the five man engine companies when the normal response is a three man company. Policy should also reflect the proper mindset, essentially the commander’s intent, so that company officers and chief officers clearly understand the purpose of the policy and its goal.

There is an old adage, “as the first line goes, so the fire goes.” If we don’t give our company officers the tools, guidance, and mindset to start off on the right foot, then we are relying only on the officers’ experience and training to get the job done. Unfortunately, so much of the focus of the fire service these days seems to be based in fear. We are teaching, training, and focusing on the worst case scenario. While it is important to understand the risks, it is also important to focus on the rewards.

Imagine any other profession training their people based on all the negative outcomes. How successful can we expect our people to be if they are constantly reminded of all the bad that can happen?

The military comparison to the fire service is overused and often difficult to make. The jobs are incredibly different. There are aspects, however, that can be looked at and adapted. For example, the military accepts that there will be casualties. They train to avoid them, and focus on reducing risk, but the mission comes first.

For a closer comparison, we can look at the forest service, which has an outlook similar to the military. In a recent line of duty death investigation the following statement was made, “There is no zero risk option. Embracing and recognizing that our firefighters work in an inherently risky environment becomes important when we start contemplating the belief that we can get to a point where all risks are reduced to zero. This goal is simply not feasible. The Lolo National Forest (Lolo NF) alone has experienced three tree-strike fatalities within the last year. This is not because of a lack of due diligence; rather it stems from the fact that there are no zero-risk options.”

Instead, the fire service is tearing itself apart trying to put firefighter safety first, eliminating risk by condemning proven tactics like vertical ventilation, wringing our hands over VES until we add an “I” to it, and renaming tactics to promote a safer fire attack. Through much of this, our focus has shifted away from our stated purpose, “to protect lives and property” because we are so focused on putting our safety first.

If we are serious about safety, then we need to stop talking about it. We need to stop kidding ourselves by thinking we can eliminate all risk. Sit down, shut up, and start training. Develop policies that focus on doing the job, and then train like your life depends on it to meet the goals of those policies, because that is where safety comes from. It comes from confident, capable firefighters that will know not only their job and capabilities, but also those of their crew. Saying “safety first” only produces tentative firefighters that are so concerned about injury that they lose the ability to function and focus on the mission.

“The far object of a training system is to prepare the combat officer mentally so that he can cope with the unusual and unexpected as if it were the altogether normal and give him poise in a situation where all else is in disequilibrium.”

Men Against Fire, S.L.A Marshall

We need to stop forgetting, read ignoring, the experience that has been paid for in blood for the last hundred years. Have fires changed? Sure. So have tactics. Many lessons learned were taught in the school of hard knocks, not in the laboratory. That is not to knock research. It is critically important, but not to the exclusion of what experience has shown us. The pendulum cannot swing too far in either direction. There must be a balance between safety and the mission, factoring in research and experience.

” I am not here for me, I am here for we, and we are here for them,” because there is no easy solution.

Photograph courtesy of Unsplash.

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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