‘Put your pants back on’: Proper PPE use is critical to survival
Other firefighters died so you could live – so wear your damn gear already!
We've all seen pictures of firefighters undressed. Undressed as in not wearing their stuff – or not wearing it as designed. No eye protection, no gloves (or using extrication gloves at fires), wearing rubber pull-up boots, SCBA straps hanging down, stuff like that.
These members are pretending that they are operating in the so-called “good old days,” just like the fuzzy video they watched last night. Youthful firefighters who can barely grow facial hair pretending to be OGs.
Instead of us arguing about that, let me introduce you to some of the folks who caused our job to change, including a hero who impacted the way I operate – a man whose horrific line-of-duty death changed his entire fire department.
Then after reading about him, do what you want. If you function in a weak-leadership company or department, you can probably wear your bottomless PJs to a fire and no one would care. If you are in a strong-leadership department or company, you know what is accepted and what isn't.
Do you know Joe?
Joe Tynan was a firefighter in Brookline, Massachusetts, working overtime in 1982. Responding on a run, Joe was standing on the right-hand side of the apparatus as it rolled out of the bay door. As the truck turned left, the centrifugal force made Joe fall onto the apron of the station, and he sustained a severe head injury.
The crewmembers in the station ran to Joe, but he didn’t respond. For the next 20 years, Joe functioned at the level of a 3-year-old and was blind. He died in 2002. His death – and an attorney – forced change. Because of Joe, there's a good chance you won't fall off the side of an apparatus.
How about Sandy?
On Sept. 28, 1982, Prince George's County (Maryland) Firefighter Sandy Lee mounted a ladder truck to head to a call. As they turned out on a run, Sandy's three-quarter-inch boot fell (this was before bunker pants) from the jump seat onto the concrete ramp in front of the firehouse. In a split second, in reaching for the boot, Sandy fell from the apparatus. Her screams went unheard as she was struck by the rear wheels of the truck. She was dragged more than 30 feet across the front ramp and sustained severe damage to her body – and she was conscious the entire time.
Because of Sandy and her life-altering critical injuries, including losing a leg, odds are you won't have to experience falling out of an apparatus, getting run over by your own rig and feeling your own organs shatter within you.
Meet Christopher, James and John
On March 28, 1994, three FDNY firefighters became trapped in a stairwell as they searched for residents reportedly trapped in a SoHo apartment building. Firefighter James Young, 31, was burned and died at the scene.
Firefighter Christopher J. Seidenburg, 25, and Capt. John J. Drennan, 49, a 26-year veteran, were rescued by other firefighters and transported to a burn unit with third- and fourth-degree burns. Seidenburg died the next day. Captain Drennan lived for 40 horrific days.
The men had worn long coats and rubber pull-up boots, as that was the gear at that time in NYC.
A little more about this fatal fire: Unknown to the first-arriving companies, the fire had been burning in the apartment for over an hour, creating a ventilation-limited fire. Modern upgrades to the building had occurred since it was built in the late-1800s. Well before the fire, the fire apartments had several updates, including energy-efficient windows, extra thermal insulation, and new doors. It was tight.
The fire began on the first floor and as it grew, the fire blew out a door on the first floor and moved along the ceiling to the stairway and up to the second floor. The three firefighters were caught in that hallway when the fire flashed over.
Captain Drennan lived through 10 skin graft operations, repeated infections, liver and kidney failures, and other problems that he almost outlasted. Despite the many lengthy operations to apply grafts of skin from Captain Drennan’s chest, abdomen and scalp to the burned areas of his body (his back and both sides from head to toe and his upper extremities), the grafts were unable to establish much healthy new tissue. He gave his life.
Left behind was his wife, Vina Drennan. You may know her name. Until retirement, she was a powerful force related to firefighter and civilian fire safety. She served for many years on the board of directors of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.
The fire was caused by an occupant of the first-floor apartment, leaving a plastic trash bag on top of the gas-fired kitchen range. The bag was ignited by heat from the pilot light. From then on, Vina's mission was fire prevention education and firefighter survivability.
Their sacrifices lead to our survivability
Vina was awarded $2 million by the city. Why? She sued, arguing that the FDNY failed to provide her husband with adequate protective gear – equipment that NYC firefighters began using soon after this fire. Some departments had switched to bunker gear in the early 70s. Some had not. For example, the Chicago Fire Department switched in 2006.
Use of the protective bunker gear has led to an approximately 70% reduction in firefighter burn injuries. It took three firefighters burning to death to cause action and find funding make the switch in NYC. That was their sacrifice. That's why we are issued bunker gear in 2023.
Families of the three firefighters also sued the building’s landlord and a company that had illegally stored furniture in a hallway, impeding the firefighters’ movements. The landlord and the flooring company agreed to pay a total of $4 million to the firefighters’ families.
Think of this fire the next time someone you know decides to not wear their PPE. Understand that the horrible deaths of these firefighters forced a significant change. That's often how we change in our business – something really bad happens so we change. Sometimes something really bad has to happen a bunch of times for us to change. In this case, three of your brothers burned to death and that is what finally forced change.
Look, you as a chief will run your fireground the way you want to. Tough command. Weak command. No command. You own it. And of course, some firefighters will try to get away with whatever they can. And the more they get away with stuff, the more likely they will keep doing it. "Hell, I didn't get shocked the first time I stuck my finger in a socket.” It’s a very human reaction. Normalization of deviance at work.
Put your pants back on. Put the damn seatbelt on. Have no exposed skin or clothing. Size it up. Flow water. Wear your mask. Search for victims.
There are thousands of firefighters who have died, and individually or collectively we've all learned a lot from what their sacrifice. Take their lessons and apply them (personally or as an officer who requires it) so those who are gone can rest in peace knowing their suffering led to them taking care of us. Amen.
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