Will you get caught? A question to firefighters who dismiss safety messages

When you get away with operating in an unsafe manner without a seminal moment, you feel invincible - but you're not


This article originally appeared in the FireRescue1 Digital Edition, "Dirty Helmet Syndrome: Are you afflicted?" Download your copy here

In our profession, you hear of people with tinnitus all the time. It can come from the air horn, sirens, equipment we use, fire scenes, apparatus, or a host of other causes. If you're not familiar with tinnitus, it's defined simply as constant ringing or buzzing in the ears. It disrupts your concentration, makes it difficult to sleep, and is linked to post-traumatic stress and depression. 

I, unfortunately, have a different kind of tinnitus. It's not ringing in the ears or buzzing; it's someone's voice constantly saying the same statement repeatedly. So, is it tinnitus as it is defined medically? No. But the way constant buzzing or ringing in the ears is described, it's almost identical to how I feel when I hear this voice all day, every day. 

Looking back, I don't really know how it started. Well, actually, I guess I do. I was young, cocky and arrogant, like some firefighters when they start this profession. I thought I had it all figured out. I thought I knew the job inside and out. I trained very little, just enough to meet the minimum requirements to be a firefighter. I didn't take classes off duty, go to any fire conferences, or read any trade publications or websites because I thought I could just figure out what needed to be done in a difficult situation on an emergency. I thought I was invincible, unstoppable, unbreakable, and that I didn't need to follow safety standards or learn new practices that could keep me safe and healthy for the long haul of a career that can beat you down every day. 

Smoke fills the air and fire trucks respond as a fire sweeps through the Sofa Super Store furniture warehouse in Charleston,S.C. on June 18, 2007. Nine firefighters died in the blaze when a roof collapsed making it the nation’s single deadliestdisaster for firefighters since 9/11. 
Smoke fills the air and fire trucks respond as a fire sweeps through the Sofa Super Store furniture warehouse in Charleston,S.C. on June 18, 2007. Nine firefighters died in the blaze when a roof collapsed making it the nation’s single deadliestdisaster for firefighters since 9/11.  (AP Photo/Alexander Fox)

Why did I do this? I wanted to be the "cool" and "badass" firefighter who pushed the limits and didn't listen to authority. I wanted to take chances so I could feel that adrenaline rush that many of us in this profession crave. Sound familiar?

The problem with all of this is that it led me down a road where I didn't realize fast enough that I needed to make a U-turn. 

Griffin stands at the pump panel on June 18, 2007. Assistant Engineer Michael “Frenchie” French was with Ladder 5 at right.
Griffin stands at the pump panel on June 18, 2007. Assistant Engineer Michael “Frenchie” French was with Ladder 5 at right. (Photo/Firefighter Fatality Investigative Report 2007)

You see, the difference between you and me is one day and one incident. I got caught. You've just been lucky enough not to get caught. What do I mean by this? You may have not worn your SCBA in a fire, not worn your traffic vest on a car wreck, not worn your gloves on an EMS call, or not worn your seatbelt in an apparatus, but up to this point, you've gotten away with it. There hasn't been a consequence for your actions because either no one has corrected the behavior, or you haven't had a seminal moment to wake you up so you can realize the little details in this profession matter. 

I see firefighters across the country who want to show how tough they are by not following best practices and taking chances that I took. It disappoints me because they don't realize how lucky they've been up to this point. The problem is, when so many firefighters get away with operating in this manner without a seminal moment, they think it will never happen to them as well. 

Here's an example. I was in a rapid-intervention team class, and a RIT instructor made a comment that he could never get lost in a fire. Yes, a RIT instructor said this. I almost fell out of my chair because this is someone who is not only teaching our younger generation but also influencing them with their words and their actions on a fireground. This was someone who had probably been to very few fires in their entire career but wanted to make a statement like this. I'm not saying he's a bad person, just someone without a sense of reality to the seriousness of this job. Sometimes luck is on their side. However, when it's not and they do get caught, now we have a different situation. If they do survive, we now have someone who is upset, suffering from post-traumatic stress, and probably having difficulty coming to work. 

What makes this so frustrating is that, in many cases, it's preventable. 

Before you get all worked up because you're thinking I'm being insensitive, take a breath. I CAN say all of this. Why? Because I have lived it, and I continue to live it every day of my life. I'm not some firefighter who has been on the job a few years, started a YouTube channel, a few social media accounts, etc., and preaches how they think it should be done when they have very little job-related or real-world experience under their belt. No, I've got some experience - and one major seminal incident to back up my point here. 

Here are some words of advice for you. Choose wisely who you listen to and follow, as so many people in our profession claim to be experts. I don't profess to be an expert, although I am, unfortunately, an expert in how my friend Assistant Engineer Michael "Frenchie" French sounded when he was yelling, "Engineer 11, charge the line" - his last words before he died in a furniture store in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 18, 2007. 

Why does that make me an expert of what we're discussing today? I am Engineer 11, and I couldn't give my friend Frenchie water fast enough because I thought nothing like this would ever happen to me. I didn't train myself hard enough to ensure that I could troubleshoot as a pump operator. I thought I would just figure it out. But I didn't. 

So, please, wake up and take this job seriously because the day you don't, you will get caught. 

Now, do you think being a "badass" who doesn't know the job or train hard enough is still cool? You think I'm proud of this? You think I like talking about this incident over and over again so people will wake up and realize that they need to do what is right every day? No, I do not. But I don't have a choice now. I must keep doing it because firefighters still don't get it. Why? Because they just haven't been caught - yet. 

Don't feel sorry for me. Feel sorry for yourself because if you don't do something about this, you're going to be the next one who's caught. Remember, I pay for it every second of every day of my life. I am Engineer 11 and I will be that until the day that I die. I will hear my friend Frenchie yelling to me, "Engineer 11, charge the line" repeatedly forever. 

If you don't get it after this, maybe you should go do something else where people's lives aren't on the line. Because if you don't, you'll eventually be Engineer 11. And trust me, you do not want that.

Charleston Fire Department trucks make their way to Pinecrest Baptist Church, in Charleston, S.C., following the public memorial service at the North Charleston Coliseum, on Friday, June 22, 2007, for a private ceremony to pay their final respects to Capt. Billy Hutchinson. 
Charleston Fire Department trucks make their way to Pinecrest Baptist Church, in Charleston, S.C., following the public memorial service at the North Charleston Coliseum, on Friday, June 22, 2007, for a private ceremony to pay their final respects to Capt. Billy Hutchinson.  (AP Photo/Brett Flashnick)

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