Why are the history lessons for everyone except us?

Firefighters must learn from all sources and situations, now including COVID-19


It's a new world since the coronavirus came to town.

For all of us, it is the safety and security of helping to do all we can to not catch it – and not spread it. Additionally, it’s about being in the business of helping people who are having a bad day, doing what we have done for hundreds of years – helping! – regardless of the risk.

Once again, the firefighters are who society can count on no matter what. Regardless of your problem, we will be there and do everything we can to make “it” go away, make you or your loved ones feel or do better. Name it and we'll handle it. Always. 

As firefighters and fire officers, we know about bad stuff because we see bad stuff. (Photo/MCT)
As firefighters and fire officers, we know about bad stuff because we see bad stuff. (Photo/MCT)

For me, the greatest personal stress is being isolated from my six grandkids. I know it's the right thing to do, and thank goodness for facetime, but damn, this isn't easy for a Poppie who spends every waking minute focused on those six knuckleheads. 

Following the FDNY

Like you, I've been watching the news from a bunch of sources, from the people who were blowing it off just a few weeks ago to a few people who took it seriously from the start. And when I say the start, I don't mean a few weeks ago. For example, the FDNY issued a general information document on JANUARY 17, which is entitled "CORONAVIRUS OUTBREAK-CHINA," and it pretty much predicted what we are all dealing with now.

I, for one, pay attention when the FDNY speaks. I don't mean some one-year “veteran” firefighter posting on social media claiming that SCBAs are stupid. I am talking about the chiefs, the officers, the brass and the medical leadership. It cannot be argued that they do more EMS, fire and rescue than anyone in North America. They have also endured more of anything than any of department and certainly know more than anyone about terrorism response. 

Generally, I have always followed the FDNY to see how they are doing things. Now understand, that doesn't mean copying whatever they do, as that's rarely possible for most departments. Few have the company staffing, the officer training/leadership and other infrastructure of the FDNY. They can turnout 30 or so firefighters for a dwelling fire in like 3-4 minutes. Few can do that. However, there is much we can still learn by paying attention to those who know what they are doing, based upon research, training, experience and lessons learned.

Practicing what we preach

We are a bit slow to learn in our business. For example, it isn't rare to find out that a firefighter or retired firefighter died in a home because it didn't have working smoke alarms. The unfortunate part is that throughout their entire paid or volunteer career, they probably preached about smoke alarms to the public. We preach it, but then when it comes to us … that’s a different story.

A firefighter didn't feel good at work so he went to lay down. That sentence often starts the article when we find out a firefighter died or is in critical condition because of a heart problem. But we blow things off and treat ourselves different than we would treat a loved one or a patient. We generally say, "YOU NEED TO GO TO THE HOSPITAL" because we have seen what happens to "other" patients when they ignore our advice –our advice learned from our experiences making runs.

Under IAFC President Chief Gary Ludwig and the IAFC's 2020 Initiative, "If You Don't Feel Well, Don't Make it Your Farewell," the IAFC is urging firefighters to never ignore medical warning signs – the same stuff we tell the public every day. 

Failing to learn the lessons

And now we are dealing with COVID-19. Some fire departments are taking it very seriously by isolating crews to their own quarters, limiting public exposure to necessary runs, and managing food/meals. (Many departments or crews now use local restaurants to feed the members, taking care of empty bellies while supporting local businesses –things like that.)

Others are acting "routine,” ignoring recent history. Apparently this virus is deadly – because people are dying! No fake news. It just doesn't “feel” that serious, and besides, as one internet brain surgeon posted when questioning how real this is, “Have you actually seen someone die from COVID-19?!" That reminds me of the time when I was a little kid, and my Mom said to me, "Kids are starving in the world so finish all your food" to which I replied in a very smart-ass tone, "Name one" to which my Dad replied by knocking me off my chair. Deservedly.

As firefighters and fire officers, we know about bad stuff because we see bad stuff. We also understand how history can and does teach us lessons. Unfortunately, we have a little bit of a history of failing to teach those lessons and pass them on so the new generation of firefighters doesn’t have to re-learn them.

Example: If you say "Hackensack" or "Waldbaums" to my generation, we know what that means. We have a responsibility to make sure those following us understand that as well. If you say "Charleston" to the generation after mine, that has meaning. Today’s graduates MUST understand what Charleston means as well as Hackensack and Waldbaums. Yarnell Hill, West, Kingman, Texas City, Mann Gulch and many, many more. 

Paying attention

History doesn't have to be defined "years old" for us to learn. It can be days, weeks or months old, but when the evidence is clear, we really need to pay attention.

While we have a proud tradition and responsibility to take care of those in need, it is important that we pay attention to history so we minimize us unnecessarily becoming another history lesson for those following in our boot steps. Be it washing, cleaning, deconing, masking, social isolating, fire behavior- or truss roof-understanding, HISTORY allows us to be outstanding firefighters and allows us to become old firefighters. All we have to do is pay attention, read and listen to those who have been there and done that. 

Editor’s Note: What do you see as the fire service’s biggest hurdle in learning from our mistakes? Share in the comments below.

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