‘Back to center’: We must refocus our safety culture where it matters most
It’s time instructors and firefighters alike reassess their focus on recklessness vs. aggressiveness and fear vs. respect
I recall in the early 1980s sitting in a burning farmhouse wondering whether I was going to make it out alive. I remember people yelling at me to stand up, sit down, get out, move in further – an odd direction for the layperson, I am sure. Alas, I was no lay person per se. I was a firefighter-in-training. I was using the best full protective clothing we had at the time – a Scott 2215 SCBA (no positive pressure), three-quarter pull-up-boots (no bunker pants), and my trusty leather helmet (just the leather bowl, no cage, frame or harness). Yes, I was a fully clothed firefighter at an acquired structure burn following all the rules and learning what it would be like when the “real deal” happened.
More than a sterile academy burn building, these acquired structure burn opportunities were like gold at the time. This was the environment where I learned so much of what I know about fire behavior, structural integrity and my own capabilities. But I wasn’t learning on my own. I was learning under the watchful eye of professional instructors and through previous reviews of other training burns-gone-bad.
Here’s a snapshot of the things I learned in this environment:
- I learned the sense of feel. In the initial search to find the fire, in deep, smoky environments with near zero visibility, I learned to find where a fire was coming from, take my glove off and to put my hand up higher. I would feel where the heat was coming from (remember, there were no thermal imagers).
- I learned the value of listening. I shut my mouth, turned down any radios and listened – listened for crackling fire, the creaks of deteriorating structural members and the cries of trapped occupants.
- I learned to maintain a sense of calm. It is normal for drywall and insulation to be falling on me, but it can also be a sign. It wasn’t the end of the world or any reason to panic.
- I learned the value of our protective clothing – to pull up my collar and to pull down my helmet flaps (we did not have Nomex hoods), to pull up my boots and make sure my coat overlapped the boots.
- I learned that I needed to be aggressive, courageous and humble, but to never be reckless. Our lives and the citizens we were there to serve depended on us doing the right things at the right times, for the right reasons.
- I learned how to slow my breathing, buddy-breathe and focus – this was when I realized that my job was to solve this chaos, not to become part of the chaos.
Could I have learned these things in an academy burn building? Some of them, sure, but the value of these acquired structure burns can’t be overemphasized. Academies are very sterile and, yes, much safer environments – and this should be part of the mix. But acquired structures go a step further, providing real-world environments, unique floorplans, structural affects, and the psychologic value of the unknown.
Was I fearful? As a young volunteer recruit, sure I was, but I didn’t have a death wish and I wasn’t stupid. Through this real-world-training, my instructors taught me through repetitive, controlled experience to turn my fear into respect:
- Don’t fear the heat, respect it.
- Don’t fear the drywall falling, respect the environment.
- Don’t fear the creaking of deteriorating lumber sounds, respect the structure.
We got in our own way
What’s changed since the 1980s? For one, the evolution – some might call it revolution – of our safety culture.
In a recent FireRescue1 article, “It’s time to embrace a new culture – a culture of search and rescue,” Chief Daniel Folks questions whether our safety culture has made the service lose focus on what matters most on the fireground – by his argument, the victim. In the course of his reasoning, Chief Folks makes one simple yet profound proclamation that hits at the heart of my point here: “Stop making training easy.” It’s an important point and one that prompts consideration of how our enhanced safety culture has impacted training.
Consider this example: With respect to NFPA 1403: Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions, I don’t believe that the standard in and of itself has created a hands-off approach to acquired structure training. Rather, the approach is the product of the risk-adverse culture pushed by city managers and lawyers who employ a “just say no” approach to live-fire training. That culture trickles down to emergency managers and chiefs, especially those who have never had the opportunity to learn through the experiences themselves. Further, the verbiage within NFPA 1403 – plus the resultant regulations from health departments and paperwork requirements from administration, risk managers, lawyers/legal, planning boards, etc. – have led many departments (and some jurisdictions) to abandon acquired-structure live-fire training, citing more “urgent” battles to fight. What’s more, regulations cover everything from training staff positions to the asphalt roof tiles and asbestos-laden (or fear of asbestos) materials in the structure. The cost to mitigate these health hazards drives acquired structure burns right out of many departments’ reach.
I’m ALL IN on the framework of safety and our safety culture, but it seems somewhere along the path, we got in our own way. In the effort to improve training safety, we compromised our access to acquired structure live-fire training. The result is less experience in these real-world conditions. How does this impact our fireground safety and the safety of the citizens we are sworn to protect?
The pendulum swing
In many departments, I’ve seen a lack of leadership skills being taught to our instructors. I mean true leadership skills, providing instructors the guidance to ensure they we’re doing the right things. We have empowered some instructors to feel either ostracized or omnipotent. (This is NOT an indictment of all training academies, rather a reflection of what I’ve seen at some.)
At various points in modern fire service history, some training academies were considered punishment assignments, while at other times, they were considered elite assignments. When budgets were good, the training academy was the best of the best. When budgets are tight, training academies take serious hits. This feast-or-famine approach to training has led to tragic training outcomes time after time. We must find a way to ensure that training is a constant priority for all, not just a convenience for some.
We have got to bring ourselves “back to center.” I am in no way suggesting that we abandon our safety culture or enhanced risk reduction approaches. Far from it. I am suggesting that there are examples where the pendulum has swung too far, and that we are seeing this manifest in basic and critical-environment performance (or lack of performance) on our firegrounds. We need to ensure training assignments are indeed “elite” assignments within our departments, and that our instructors are empowered to use all opportunities at their disposal to provide real-world training opportunities to our folks.
Recklessness, aggressiveness, respect and fear
Aggressiveness can be great – when it is not reckless. Let’s be clear, aggressiveness and recklessness and everything in between can kill. Firefighters don’t get hurt and die simply because; there are many factors that we must weigh in the execution of our duties. We must understand that NOTHING we do deserves a reckless response, and not everything we do should be treated like a house fire. Again, not everything we do is an emergency and not everything we do deserves an aggressive response.
We must use a risk-benefit analysis to determine the level of aggressiveness that’s prudent and reasonable to execute the mission at hand. If you’ve been in the fire service more than a minute, then you know that risk-benefit analysis might dictate unpopular decisions about whether we go or don’t go – decisions that others will argue that we should have done differently.
How do we determine what that risk-benefit analysis looks like? It begins with a healthy RESPECT for the things we FEAR. There are some among us who will have to come to grips with the fact that one of the things they fear is an appropriate level of aggressiveness.
Recklessness, aggressiveness, respect and fear – things we experience, things we learn, things we demonstrate, and sometimes things we overcome. Whether you’re able to utilize acquired structures, academy grounds, an e-learning platform or virtual reality tool, it is important that we teach firefighters to respect their fears, and provide them the tools to overcome those fears.
Just as important (maybe more so), it is our responsibility to recognize and immediately correct recklessness. Do it NOW. The reckless behaviors and activities that you and I both see nearly every day have no place on our scenes. It is incumbent upon each of us to correct those activities when they occur. Do the right thing – be aggressively competent, not recklessly incompetent! Your life may just depend on it!