February 28, 2019 | View as webpage
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Being able to react to the unexpected with a controlled, aggressive approach requires having the right people in the right places and training for the unexpected.

In this briefing, Captain Casey Dasher with the Winter Haven (Florida) Fire Department describes how his team quickly set up an incident command, gathered intelligence, executed a rescue, and used appropriate tools and technology to save lives when a plane crashed into an occupied residence in their response district.

Part of knowing you can rely on those responding firefighters to keep a cool head and methodically work any call is hiring the right people for the job. Also in this briefing, Linda Willing details how to dive into a candidate's character in the interview, to hire right from the start.

Chief Marc Bashoor
Executive Editor, Fire Chief, FireRescue1

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In this issue:

By Marc Bashoor

What happened: On Saturday, Feb. 23, a single-engine plane with an instructor and student pilot on board took off from the Winter Haven (Florida) Regional Airport. Shortly after takeoff, the plane crashed into a house in Winter Haven.

Three kids were in the front yard, while three other people were in the house. A 17-year-old girl was in the bedroom the plane crashed into, and became trapped between the aircraft and the walls of her room. A brother in the room next door attempted to pull her out, but was unable to.

The 64-year-old pilot died in the wreckage, while the adult student walked away with superficial injuries.

Winter Haven firefighters arrived to find the airplane sticking out of the residence's roof, and quickly went to work on rescue operations. Amazingly, while firefighters were conducting the confined and difficult rescue of the 17-year-old, the plane was leaking fuel but did not catch fire. After the 17-year-old was brought out an adjacent window, firefighters began filling the area with firefighting foam product to reduce the vapor volatility.

Other than the singular fatality, it appears all injuries were minor and patients will be released from the hospital.

3 takeaways on the Winter Haven plane crash

I spoke with Winter Haven FD's Training and Safety Capt. Casey Dasher, and other first responders who were on the scene. They noted the combined public safety team on scene worked seamlessly to manage this incident. Here are the top takeaways.

1. Early comprehensive incident command was critical

Time was clearly of the essence to avert a secondary tragedy. With the plane sticking nose down and leaking fuel into the home, and the viable victim trapped in between the plane and the wall, an imminently explosive environment had to be managed.

Having command, safety and operations set up quickly was important to help remove the unprotected citizens, family members and law enforcement officers who were valiantly trying to rescue the trapped female, Dasher noted.

The responding firefighters' use of available technology, including iPads, was critical in the early stages to research the plane's tail number, to find the plane schematic and to identify fuel valve shut offs (which were found, but damaged). The plane was one out of approximately 23 of this type of amphibious twin-engine ever made. There are only eight or nine left in existence. Dispatch quickly called the FAA, and when the representative arrived, he noted he had inspected this very plane two weeks prior.

2. Mitigating fuel volatility avoids further complications

Firefighters used electric fans to limit CO output while creating a ventilation current which lessened the potential for explosive limits to be reached. Crews further used foam, however, rescue was necessary before foam could be liberally used. Understanding the fuel volatility and early need for foam application limited further on-scene complications.

Dasher reported the extrication was rapid. The girl was wedged between two wall studs. Firefighters broke through the drywall and kicked out the studs before pulling the victim through a window.

3. Train for the unexpected

A quick response with fully staffed units provided ample crew members to initiate this rescue quickly under extremely difficult conditions. Winter Haven FD had two engines on scene rapidly, staffed with seven personnel, followed by a tower ladder with three additional firefighters within minutes.

This is another reminder that crews need to constantly expect the unexpected, and be prepared to combine firefighting, hazardous materials management and rescue skills at a moment's notice.

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By Linda F. Willing

When I told a colleague I was preparing a presentation on building character in the 21st-century fire service, he replied, "The best way to build character in the fire service is to hire people of character and teach them to be firefighters."

This approach – hiring the people you want and teaching them to be firefighters – was the common practice a few decades ago. Before formal education programs, standards and certifications, most people came to the fire service because they knew someone who was a firefighter and had that person's endorsement for entering the service. In many cases, these connections involved family relationships.

The logic was: Joe is a good guy. We know Joe and trust him. Therefore, his brother/cousin/son/Army buddy must also be a good guy whom we can trust and work with. And likely in the majority of cases, this logic held true.

Of course, there were problems with this system as well. Fire departments tended to be closed groups with little access for anyone who might be new or different. Homogenous groups tended to foster homogenous skill sets and ideas. Fire departments did not do a good job representing their service communities in their members. And there was little attention to establishing consistent standards of skill and education.

Qualifications for being a firefighter

Things have changed in the past 40 years. Now, potential firefighter candidates go through a long list of tests and certification checks before even being considered for inclusion. Aspiring firefighters can go to school on their own to get necessary certifications and build an impressive resume of qualifications for the job. Advances in technology mean that much of the hiring process can take place virtually, without even meeting face-to-face with a candidate or getting to know that person at all.

There are certainly advantages to the newer way of hiring, especially in a time when some fire departments receive thousands of applications for just a few positions. But I fear something might be getting lost in the process as well.

If hiring people of character is a priority, how can we measure or assess character in the hiring process? How can existing systems be used or adapted to include attention to character along with other qualifications?

Measuring character through interview questions

Many hiring processes currently include aspects that go to character, although sometimes in a negative way. For example, screenings such as polygraphs and psychological assessments tend to be designed to weed out undesirable candidates, rather than highlight those who excel. Background checks are often designed the same way with a disqualifying checklist as the basis. Even personal references are often only seen as neutral at best.

So what could a fire department hiring process do to get at deeper aspects of character that might affect someone's suitability and success as a firefighter? A couple possibilities exist.

First, look at candidates' individual histories or stories. What obstacles have they overcome? What commitments have they made in their personal and professional lives? What have they achieved? What do they aspire to?

When looking at each person's story, it is important to listen beyond a checklist. Some fire departments, such as in Bridgeport, Connecticut, recognize that one mistake in the past, if handled well by the candidate, can actually be character building, rather than disqualifying. Their second chances program allows for people with issues from the past to explain their side of the story before a peer review committee and be on probation for a year if accepted for employment.

When developing job interview questions, try to dig deeper than the standard format. Questions should always be cleared with the HR/legal team to avoid unconscious bias, but that doesn't mean you can't talk about important things in a job interview.

Instead of asking about strengths and weaknesses, ask, "If you could do over one decision in your life, what would you do differently?"'

Instead of asking what they are most proud of in their lives, ask, "What do you want your legacy to be after a full career?"

There are many ways to design interview questions that evoke honest and thoughtful consideration rather than stock responses.

Shaping the fire service culture and values

Ultimately, considering character in hiring requires a commitment to understanding each person as an individual. Some organizations might say that they don't have time for that, but what could be more important than choosing the people that will be part of the department for decades, and who will shape the culture and values of the organization in years to come?


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Got a leadership tip or incident you’d like to discuss with me? Send me an email at marc.bashoor@firerescue1.com

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