What every fire chief should remember

Reliving your first fire in vivid detail may save the life of a firefighter under your command

This is the second of four articles Chief Gaines submitted shortly before his untimely death in April. Chief Gaines may no longer be with us, but his wisdom about and passion for the fire service lives on.

By Glenn Gaines

When we took the oath to become firefighters we knew what we were getting into. Or did we?

Were we prepared for the horror, trauma, carnage, sadness and destruction we witnessed? Were our bodies prepared for the extremes of demand we placed on them time and time again?

Finally, did we fully comprehend the burden we were about to place on our love ones, for the missed anniversaries, soccer games and birthday parties? What about the fear and apprehension they felt when reports of firefighters injured on an incident they knew your company was due on?

For those hardened by many years out on the line, has the horror, destruction and pain lead to diminished emotions and the expected human responses?

I want you to take a mental trip back to the first major fire or volatile incident you responded to as a part of a first-in attack team.

Visualize how you felt. Remember that heavy hollow feeling in your chest. Recall the flight response that instantaneously surfaced in your consciousness.

I had no clue
I have often mentally traveled back to that first night out on the line — 3 a.m. and seeing the orange and red glow of fire in the distance as we raced to the scene.

I vividly remember hearing the high-pitched screech of a propane bottle venting next to the home as we arrived. I remember seeing a portion of the front porch collapse and the sparking electric lines down in the front yard draped over the homeowner's vehicle. 

That was my first introduction to critical cognitive thinking. That is, pondering the implications of what I was seeing.

To be honest, as a young stallion firefighter I did not have a clue. I just looked to the gray beards on my team in a feeble attempt to not fail in my maiden test as a firefighter.

I helped hump some hose and set two ground ladders. Later, I filled some bottles and washed up some of the equipment used — the usual routine.

Confidence to spare
I embarked on personal study, responded to hundreds of incidents, engaged in constant training and practice and listened to my mentors intently.

Over time, I began to understand the true nature of the relative danger, of incident management of combat operations. I fully understood the nature of the risk, and instantaneous jolt of an unexpected shift in incident development and conditions.

Learning and knowing how fires propagated and the effects of weather, building construction and how hazardous materials reacted to certain conditions, I got smarter.

I, along with most of you, developed the ability to complete an instantaneous risk assessment and draft a mental plan to safely manage the incident. I could see further, predicting how conditions might change and the steps needed to mitigate if not prevent them from occurring.

Yes, I got smarter. Maybe I was self-confident.  

I was so smart I let my guard down.

Undue risk
I became so self-confident that I allowed myself to relax a few of my defenses and safeguards. I disregarded the cues that so clearly had guided me toward proactive tactical and strategic decisions and orders to those under my command. I allowed a portion of the senses and concentration necessary to accurately assess what we were about to face to lay dormant.

What we are talking about is over confidence. I recently read the following quote regarding the subject. "Over confidence is when you think you are fooling everybody and everything, but you are not."

For me, I was fortunate, lucky and maybe blessed when I failed to do my job as a leader. No one was hurt; no one was killed due to my lapses.

I placed those under my command in a situation that had the real potential to cost them their lives or cause them serious injury.

Too many times we allow incident conditions to rule the day. Accordingly, we chase the incident rather than manage it. We send lines onto areas where the fire had already reached, placing firefighters in harm's way unnecessarily.

Eyes wide open
We simply cannot let our guard down, never. We cannot let it down at the station, on the training ground, on the rig responding to an incident or on the incident scene.

So I ask you that from this day forward not to forget the panic, the terror, the shock and alarm you felt on that first alarm. It was a perfect and accurate analysis of the true nature of the perils of this profession — one that we can become hardened to over time.

It is when we stow these emotions away into a place seldom visited that we venture into a setting where inaccurate, precarious or gaps in judgment occur.

I appeal to you not to let your guard down for the sake of your brothers and sisters, for the sake of those close to them and for the civilians entrusted into your care.

So carry on with the intensity this profession demands and with your eyes wide open.

About the author

Glenn A. Gaines was the Federal Emergency Management Agency's deputy U.S. Fire Administrator for the United States Fire Administration. He began his tenure in March 2009 and was responsible for managing USFA programs and training activities conducted at the National Emergency Training Center. Chief Gaines began his fire service career as a member of the Fairfax County (Va.) Fire and Rescue Department. He served in numerous capacities, including fire marshal, chief training officer, and chief of operations, culminating in his appointment as fire chief from August 1991 until December 1998. He was in charge of the nationally recognized Fairfax County Fire and Rescue urban search and rescue team that frequently deployed throughout the United States as well as internationally. Chief Gaines earned a degree in fire administration and has authored a fire service text, contributed to several other texts, and written numerous articles for several trade publications. He has served as a faculty member at the USFA's National Fire Academy, and was actively involved with organizations related to the professional development of the fire and emergency services.

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