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2013: How to keep firefighters safer this year

The economy and other disasters hit firefighters hard last year, yet there is strong evidence of a shift in culture toward safety

By Chief Billy Goldfeder
The Secret List

Looking back at 2012, I say, "goodbye." The last month or so has been insane. You look back on the year economically, good riddance. And then the murders of those brave firefighters in West Webster, N.Y., we try not to say it in our business, but, "What the hell is next?"

Yet, we are continuing to improve from a firefighter safety and survivability standpoint. I've always understood that we're never going to get down to zero LODDs; that's ridiculous, unless we stop responding to calls. But, zero certainly is a good target.

If you look at the West Webster firefighters who were gunned down, they did nothing wrong. They responded the same way any fire department anywhere would have responded. They were well prepared to fight that fire when they were sucker punched.

The same goes for other firefighters doing the right thing — such as directing traffic and a drunk slams through — there's only so much we can do.

Nationally, we absolutely have seen a culture change and anybody who says we haven't is blind. For example, 10 years ago we weren't even thinking about wearing our seatbelts; I certainly wasn't. And that's just one example.

Today it is rare that firefighters get ejected. Last month a ladder company in Queens, N.Y., crashed into a garbage truck and the firefighters up front survived. They were beat up, but they survived because they were seat belted in.

There's definitely more cautious thinking toward what we're doing and how we're doing it. Yet, we need to keep working and learn from what's happened.

The rules have changed
We're still struggling with the idea that not every fire has to be an aggressive interior attack. I get it. I've got as many beat up, dirty helmets as anybody. I love going in.

I also understand there are times we should and times we shouldn't.

The work the UL folks and others are doing with fire-behavior studies tells us that this is not your dad's fire anymore. And we need to understand that. Some still watch fire videos from 20 years ago and apply those rules; and that's not the case.

The stuff inside today's buildings (dwellings in particular) are burning at much higher energy levels and temperatures, flashover happens much quicker and there's a greater potential for flashover. Just look at your own home; try to find anything that is not manufactured with petro-chemical materials — TVs, carpeting and furnishings are all plastic based.

The UL studies are teaching us that when you see fire, you get water on it. No matter what, if you see fire, apply water. Read what UL is teaching us about fire in 2012 and beyond.

One key to keeping firefighters safe will be keeping officers educated. Volunteer departments in a lot of areas of the country rotate elected chiefs and officers on a regular basis. How do you keep up with their education and training if every two years you get a new chief, lieutenant, captain? It's a tough issue.

A simple test is to ask what qualifications, training and experience is required before anyone — a firefighter or an officer — rides in the front seat of an apparatus.

For any fire department, a great training standard or course would be one on riding in the front seat. Programs like Blue Card teach what to do in the first five minutes; that is lacking in many fire departments.

Size up saves lives
Sizing up is a big deal and better size up will play a big role in keeping firefighters safe in the coming year. Size up is three steps:

  • What do I have?
  • What do I want to do about it?
  • What are my resources?

You've got to be trained in and understand all three.

Anyone can look at a fire, but what does it mean? What does the smoke tell you, what kind of building do you have? Where is the fire, where was it and where is it going? Where are the occupants?

Next, determine what you want to do. What's the best way to stop this thing? There are many videos of buildings burning and people just messing around with it — do something. Get water on the fire and rescue the people. What's the plan?

You know what you want to do, but do you have the resources? You pull up to a 25- to 30-firefighter fire and want to perform all of the needed tasks — size up, establish water supply, force entry, stretch hand lines, vent, search and rescue — simultaneously. If you only have eight firefighters, you cannot do that.

That's one area where a lot of fire departments fall short — matching the incident to their resources. Realistically, you can't approach a fire that needs 20 people the same way with five people; you are going to get firefighters hurt or killed.

The officers' roles
You've got to size up your community. Size up on scene works best if you have already sized up the response area before the fire.

You should never pull up to, for example, Acme Dynamite and say, "Oh $&!%, I didn't realize we had a dynamite company in our community." A lot of fire departments don't know what they are protecting, and sadly, the outcomes are often predictable.

If your community has an at Acme Dynamite, have a plan in place starting with when the 911 call comes in that informs the dispatcher what the chiefs want on that alarm.

Many communities are sending the same thing to a 900-square-foot house in an area with hydrants as they are to a 10,000-sqaure-foot house in an area without hydrants. They are two completely different problems.

I've seen great fire chiefs with great ideas, but if good company officers don't exist, it won't get accomplished. On the other hand, there are poor chiefs out there with good company officers who can get a lot done and have a real impact on their areas.

It is critical that lieutenants and captains understand that even though the troops may not want to do it, they are going to go out to look at the community, its neighborhoods and buildings to start pre-planning.

If a typical combination fire department with five people and everybody else responding from home has an ambulance call, it is now down to three people on the engine. You have a totally different set of challenges operating with three versus with five.

Have a plan for when that changes or when people call off sick. You can't pretend to operate the same way. Knowing what you do based on available resources is part of planning from a tactical standpoint.

The chief's role
The fire chief has to do the same thing with a much bigger picture. The chief has to understand the community, have a plan to deliver a set number of firefighters on a set number of apparatus in a set amount of time.

It costs money to run a fire department and when companies are cut and personnel are reduced, the community pays — and so do the firefighters. A fire chief is responsible to give the community and elected officials choices. For example:

  • 30 firefighters on scene within 4 minutes 90 percent of the time costs $X
  • 20 firefighters on scene within 6 minutes 70 percent of the time costs $Y
  • 10 firefighters on scene within 10 minutes 60 percent of the time costs $Z

Explain this to the community and elected officials and let them know what the consequences of cuts will be.

It really is like an insurance policy — for this much this much money, the fire department can give you this much coverage; for less money, it can provide less coverage. It all depends on the level of risk the community and city hall is willing to accept.

In 2013, stay focused on understanding size up, both on scene as well as before the fire, make every day a training day, fully understanding what we realistically can and cannot do, focus on getting water on fire, focus on physical fitness and health, wear all your PPE, study fire and the equipment, follow orders and do not free lance.

Doing these things will go a long way to making 2013 a good year for those we serve and for those of us who serve.

Stay safe.

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