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The Butcher's Bill
by Tom LaBelle
Sponsored by Globe

The Birds and Bees of Firefighter Safety


AP Photo/Alexander Fox
Smoke billows from the Charleston warehouse on the night of the fire.
It is impossible to begin this article without mentioning the tragic loss of nine firefighters from Charleston, South Carolina, last month. 

As the months pass, we will each have opportunities to reach conclusions from the information that is slowly and accurately gathered from this terrible loss. Although this article has nothing to do with that specific incident, it has everything to do with the continued tragedies we face. 

Every time we have a loss of life of a fellow firefighter in my home state of New York, I ask myself what role we might have played in preventing that death and what we can do to help ensure we don't keep losing people for the same reasons. It is with those thoughts that each of these articles are written, and to those gentleman from Charleston that this particular effort is dedicated.

It often seems that regardless or in spite of our efforts to bring about change in safety mentalities, both strategically and tactically, we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes. For although each death and injury carries its own unique sets of tragedy for family and friends alike, the reasons for these deaths and injuries are often the same, recognizable and therefore capable of being stopped in the future.

The airline industry discovered several years back that many of its pilots and support crew had an institutionalized view of the pilot, elevating him — back then all commercial pilots were male — to a godlike position. His strategies were never questioned, even when team members saw problems from their vantage point. During emergencies, this lack of communication/information and team effort led to several tragedies. 

Eventually the recognition that the crew each brought talent — resources — to the event that the team leader could utilize led to the development of two important practices: Crew Resource Management and Near Miss Reporting.  In 2002, a joint effort by the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the United States Fire Administration and others brought the concepts of Crew Resource Management and Near Miss Reporting from the airline industry to the fire service. 

Swarming insects
In last month's issue of National Geographic, there is an interesting article on animals and insects that swarm. This seemingly thoughtless activity allows various creatures to deal with threats to their very existence. It requires a level of team effort unparalleled in the human world and recognition of strategic goals being of paramount importance without the need for individual teams to focus beyond their task. 

At the same time, each creature within the swarm has an opportunity to inform the rest of the group about threats to its ability to perform its tasks or how it thinks the task is best performed. There is no pride in ownership of a tactical goal, and if another is chosen, the same efforts are given to that new direction. 


AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli 

If there is an immediate threat to the group, the swarm conveys the message almost instantaneously. Reaction is swift and of an appropriate level based on the threat, and the entire team works to mitigate the situation, recognizing that the highest strategy is to continue to exist to the next day. No creature heroically performs any specific activity, simply the task that is assigned to them based on their role in the swarm or their location in relationship to the threat.

Now, don't think I’m crazy — although many argue that I am — but I for one see a great deal of similarity between the swarm and CRM. I also believe that if we look closely at the positives of this natural process we can see how it can aid in the safety of crews and limit tragedy. It also may make it easier for some to recognize what CRM is and what it certainly is not. CRM is intended to bring the resources of all crew members to bear on decision making, but never to create democracy on the fireground.

The safety found in CRM is that it recognizes that each member of a team has the ability to recognize both problems and solutions. With that realization comes the ability to use the crew not only to accomplish tasks but also to inform the team leader or command of impediments to task completion or immediate life safety issues

Clearly the acceptance of Near Miss reporting has outpaced that of CRM. Although any thoughts I bring on the why is clearly conjecture, I do believe that commanders, team leaders and firefighters often misunderstand CRM. There is often a concern that lack of experience on the part of the firefighter makes their input less than valuable. There is simultaneously often a belief by firefighters that anything they recognize as an issue needs immediate action. 

Generation gap
This difficulty in the acceptance of CRM is more than likely caused by a clash of generational styles. Many of today's fire service leaders were trained under the belief that there is no reason to speak until spoken to. Even then, they consider that it's only at some specific point in your career in which your experience or time served gives your input value. At the same time, we have an increasing number of "Gen Xers" who are used to the concepts of giving equally weighted value to all opinions and insight.

Many of this generation are also achieving roles of leadership. However, in this position it can be the case that they take CRM to its extreme, and be overloaded by information and opinion and never establish strategic goals. There, of course, must be a happy medium to achieving the benefits of CRM, without overloading the information system.

Not unlike the swarm mentality of bees, information is shared, but the individual bringing it to the group does not hold any pride of ownership. If the swarm takes another action, it joins the group in this new goal. Often fire personnel will offer their opinion and then be offended if it is not recognized as brilliance, and immediately utilized. At the same time, the swarm accepts input from all individuals; it never denies the input of information.

Within the swarm, each group has a well-defined task and the rest of the swarm relies on that group to accomplish its particular task — sound familiar? If there is a problem accomplishing the task, then information is transmitted and the swarm reacts accordingly. Each crew member should be communicating within the group to ensure that the team leader has the information they need to accomplish the task.

None of this is to suggest, of course, that we should act like bees or caribou. But we can look at the swarm process in nature to see how we can increase the use of all team members to gather information to achieve situational awareness at the emergency scene. 

Each member must feel able to convey such information and each leader to receive it. With an open mind, we can start to achieve a greater acceptance of CRM in the firehouse.

If you're a new firefighter, ask questions and learn at drills, academies and on the street. If you feel that you have an insight, share it.  If you're a line officer, listen up — no one will make you look better than your team, if you listen to them. We must learn to utilize our teams to their fullest extent, on and off the fireground, if we are to truly see the dangerous we face.

Related articles:

 National Geographic: Swarm Theory

 Speaking up about safety

 Young fire chiefs come of age

 IAFC's Crew Resource Management manual

About the author

Sponsored by Globe

Tom LaBelle serves as an assistant chief with the Wynantskill (N.Y.) Fire Department where he is responsible for training. He has been employed by the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs since 1995. Prior to joining NYSAFC, Asst. Chief LaBelle served as the legislative director for the New York State Assembly's Sub Committee on Fire Protection Services. He provides support for career and volunteer departments from the nations largest to smallest. He currently sits as a voting member on the NFPA 1720 committee. He is a certified fire instructor and fire officer. Chief LaBelle can be reached via email at Tom.Labelle@FireRescue1.com.



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