The terms strategy, tactics and tasks get bandied about quite a bit in the fire service. Although not everyone agrees on tactics and tasks, the overall strategic goals haven't changed too much in the past several hundred years. Certainly the order of priority has been shifted, particularly since World War II.
Over time, the value placed on individual human life has increased and with it, the strategic priority of life safety has moved above property conservation. And in the past 15 years, we've come to realize with greater clarity that the preservation of life applies to those with the confines of turnout gear, too.
Basic tactics Property conservation is still as relevant today, if not more so in these troubling economic times. The loss of a civilian's home or, worse yet, a place of employment can devastate a community. The strategic goals of preservation of life and property have served the fire service for so long — and yet we still seem to have problems understanding some very basic tactics to achieve those goals, specifically arriving on the scene in one piece.
An investigation into the collision of two fire trucks in St. Louis — shown in the FlashoverTV video with this article — is ongoing, so it's hard to comment on this specific case. Thankfully all were wearing seat belts and no serious injuries were suffered. But it's a fact that each year the lives of firefighters are endangered not by the perils of fire, not by motorists driving recklessly at the scene of a traffic accident, but at the hands of our comrades.
Too many are driving with abandon to a call, causing violent traffic incidents (I refuse to use the term accident.) Sometimes it's the driver of the apparatus, sometimes it's the person driving their personal vehicle, and yes sometimes it's the officer egging the driver on. But at the end of the day, the fault lays squarely on the shoulders of the firefighter behind the wheel.
Vicious circle The impact both physical and emotional is one I can, thankfully, only imagine. Responding at reckless speed, ignoring traffic control devices and standard operating procedure are simply guarantees that the traffic incident will occur. Sadly, it can be a vicious circle: new drivers learn from their mentors. If they see you driving the apparatus like you are in a time trial for the Indy 500, they are sure to imitate that when they drive.
In the end, what do we gain by reckless driving? If the call we're responding to is real, we've almost certainly delayed the response if the worst happens. This delayed response will increase the loss of property and danger to civilian lives, not forgetting those we've already endangered. What if the first responders involved in the traffic incident are killed?
Less focus These actions also cause the individuals continuing to respond to the scene, or who are already there, to have less focus on the incident they were called to in the first place. This is the fire service — even the guys we hate, we care about. If you are involved in an incident, the chief won't be paying as much attention to the initial call nor will the crews on scene. So congratulations — you've now endangered more people.
Let's not forget incidents involving fire trucks usually ruin some pretty expensive pieces of equipment. They cause firefighters to have to miss work, and can end up in lawsuits. Remember the saving lives and property thing? When we have a traffic incident, even if all the firefighters and civilians escape without injury, we still cost the taxpayers money. How is that any different than taking their property?
And finally, what about the person who caused the incident? A very good friend of mine, who has been in the fire service for more than 40 years, started his career with tragedy. He was driving a piece of apparatus to a reported structure fire, lights and sirens blaring, when he went through a stop sign. He collided with a family of four in a station wagon. He was and remains devastated to this day. He has an outstanding reputation for being a fire service leader in our state, but that record has one bloody blemish.
What will your legacy be? Do you control your own driving? Do you encourage or ensure others drive safely? Do you live up to the overarching strategy of the fire service to protect life and property?
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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