We Are Not SEALs

Why some military comparisons are mostly swagger

By Bill Carey
1 December 2022

Over the years I have seen many individuals and organizations in the fire service compare our training and intent (see: mission) to that of the military, especially special forces and particularly the Navy SEALs (Sea Air Land). I could understand the relationship when the focus was on leadership but on the whole, as a firefighter and editor I could never buy into the zero-dark-thirty elite comparisons. As the parent of a daughter in the Navy assigned to an aircraft carrier and responding to casualties (fires and flooding) it is even harder to agree with those comparisons. When we look at our fatality data it makes us hypocritical.

For as long as the United States Fire Administration (USFA) has been recording on-duty deaths there are only three years where Stress/Overexertion were not the leading cause of death. Those causes were Collapse in 2001 (due to the 11 September terrorist attacks) and Exposure (COVID-19) in 2020 and 2021.

(United States Fire Administration 2001)
(United States Fire Administration 2020)
(United States Fire Administration 2021)

As has been written and said repeatedly, our biggest threat, our greatest enemy is our poor or unknown health. If you look particularly online the majority of our bravado is pointed at a often reclusive enemy instead of this clear and constant danger.

If you find military leadership the sustenance for positive morale then that is good, as long as it is holistic in its use. All parts of the body of you and your department should be positively influenced to be better whether it is examining tactics, creating public support or ensuring you have healthy personnel. Having firefighters able to don their complete PPE and be on air in 12 seconds or less is of little value to Mrs. Smith if your firefighters are scared to go to the doctor.

Several years ago my current employer had sent out a survey regarding firefighter health for one of their many fire service projects. A surprising result was the large number of firefighters who stated that they would not tell their department or quit fighting fire if they were diagnosed with a medical condition where fighting fire would be extremely detrimental to their health. The majority would selfishly turn a blind eye.

Scared to live, scared to die

That is not just a one-off from a survey. In 2022 two NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program non-traumatic line of duty death reports detailed how records showed the victims were aware of their poor health and kept the information from their departments. Information that could have led to reversing the course of a condition and eventually returning to duty. There are also many reports over the years of departments that do not have annual, mandatory or voluntary physical examinations, medical clearance for fit-testing or even a basic initial physical examination to join a department.

“The Chief encouraged the Candidate to report his urgent care visit and medication change to the appropriate training academy staff. There is no indication the Candidate reported his visit nor medication change to academy staff.”
Career Firefighter Candidate Dies from Heat Stroke while Performing Firefighter Essential Function Course – Alabama (NIOSH F2020-03)

“The SGT was being treated for his cardiovascular conditions, but it is unclear if the physician was familiar with the physical demands of firefighting.
46-Year-Old Sergeant Suffers Fatal Cardiac Event at Station – Michigan (NIOSH F2021-02)

“Unfortunately, the FF-P did not tell the provider, an orthopedic specialist, about the
chest pain that he had experienced,”
42-Year-Career Firefighter-Paramedic Died at Home after Leaving Work Following Transient Chest Pain – Missouri (NIOSH F2020-05)

Ignoring our health, individually and collectively, while purporting a ready at a moments notice to descend on the enemy and do battle posture is just like being the fat weekend paintball warrior.

Playing soldier

The fire service is full of good and bad military comparisons. Information on small unit effectiveness shows comparable lessons between non-commissioned officers and senior firefighters and highlights how to create positive change and buy-in. Others look at leadership traits in popular officers and translate their skills into tools for the company officer or new chief officer. Some are written or presented by veterans of our armed forces and some are written by firefighters who read a book about a battle somewhere. No matter who the author or presenter is the lessons are duds when they fail to look at our actual state of personal readiness.

“But for all those failures are countless other successes, and with the high regard the fire service holds for our brothers and sisters in uniform, it would seem an easy fit for us to try and duplicate what they offer.  But it isn’t.  The simplest explanation and that while we love what the military does on television and in the movies, we don’t want to put in the work that it takes to make those Hollywood moments happen.”

“Marine, Airborne, Ranger, Firefighter: The Case for Effective Small Unit Leadership in the Fire Service” Adapt and Overcome Training, https://www.adaptovercometraining.com/sul

Despite the understanding of the need to be fit for the job, there are tons of fire service leadership articles about leading firefighters into battle and very few about making sure firefighters can continually pass the physical fitness assessments. Consider this past month, November. Out of its 30 days how many days did you report to work at your firehouse? Out of those days how many fires did you respond to? Now, out of those days how many of those fires were “working fires” where hoselines and ladders were used? The number declines but the number of days you worked does not. As the data and reports show, if you are at a poor or unknown level of health and fitness, you are at risk just for showing up.

Everyone isn’t a pilot or a SEAL but everyone is fit. It is required and they depend on each other.
(USS Harry S. Truman, U.S. Navy photo)

Addressing health and fitness requires buy-in through leading by example and not by posting some quote from someone in our special operations forces to a photo of one of your fires. The public may think you are locked and loaded but you are really playing soldier.

There are no 300-pound Marines

The current opposition to fitness is the same I have heard and read over 20 years in the fire service media business. On the career side it involves being punished for a pre-existing condition after being hired. On the volunteer side it involves being a volunteer. The career side’s position is credible but both sides are ignorant. If the tools, education and support are provided to attain a wellness benchmark and begin a path towards improvement why would you not take it? As Chief (ret.) John Salka stated in a Firehouse.com article being fit and healthy affects your survival on the fireground, the survival of those you work with and your quality of life to and through retirement.

“We should start allocating the same funding for physical fitness training and equipment as we do for forcible-entry simulators and flashover containers.”

“Health & Wellness: The State of Fitness in the Fire Service” Adam Zamzow, Firehouse.com https://www.firehouse.com/safety-health/health-fitness/article/12378054/the-state-of-fitness-in-the-fire-service-firehouse-magazine

“Pre-placement and annual medical evaluations, medical clearance for respirator use, and annual SCBA fit testing were not required by the fire department.”
“The fire department does not have a wellness/fitness program. Strength and aerobic equipment is not available at the fire station. An annual physical ability test is not required.”

Firefighter Trainee Dies From Hyperthermia After Live-Fire Training—Oklahoma (NIOSH F2008-24)

Mrs. Smith doesn’t want pretenders. (Photo courtesy of internet)

Why would you kid yourself thinking you are combat ready when you are not? The imagery of a fit, trained and properly equipped fighting force doesn’t match the fire service. Our fatality data and reports show that our foundation, being fit for work, is lacking the seriousness attention it deserves. If we don’t give it that attention and improve then we’ve rung the bell and didn’t know it. That does not imply that our recruit classes and academies should be run as some sort of Hell Week. We are well aware of our live fire training fatalities and other training fatalities that failed to protect the victims (see Firefighter Payton Morse and the New York State Fire Academy). The issue is would you be comfortable if your security, your rescuer was not fit to do the job? How much more uncomfortable would be be if you knew they didn’t care?

(Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy James Honea photo.)

Be careful when comparing ourselves to our armed forces. Whether it is developing strong leadership characteristics, a mind oriented towards rapid decision making skills or a philosophy and mission centered on others before self, the reality is that we may not be as good as we want to think we are. The social media, podcast and conference talk might be strong but what’s happening, or not happening, at home may paint a different picture.

Featured Photo: A member of U.S. Naval Special Warfare Task Unit Europe (NSWTU-E) conducts maritime Visit, Board, Search, and Seizure (VBSS) training alongside Croatian Zapovjedništvo Specialjalnih Snaga (ZSS) in Split, Croatia, April 14, 2022. For the Croatian ZSS, Joint Combined Exchange Training, or JCET with partner nations is not uncommon. The ZSS were founded in 2000 as the Special Operations Battalion and since then, its operators have participated in multiple operations, including stints in Afghanistan as part of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Patrik Orcutt)

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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