Personnel size-up before the tones drop
Company officers should take account of our members’ abilities, physicality and mental health every shift
When was the last time we took an accurate account of our members? If we are engaged fire officers and truly into the job, then we should be taking account of our members’ abilities, physicality and mental health – every shift.
The reason for this is rooted in a simple question: Are we prepared to adapt our standard operating procedures (SOPs) based on the staffing on our rig?
Abilities: Ready for what’s ahead
Not all members are created equal. While it would be amazing to have absolute rock stars every single day – those firefighters who are passionate and selfless – we all know that simply isn’t reality, and we have to accept that reality.
As fire officers, part of knowing our people includes knowing their motivations for work. Similarly, we should know their knowledge, skills and abilities as they relate to their assignment for the day. In my organization, I don’t have dedicated crewmembers assigned to the rig; instead, members rotate between the medic unit (ALS ambulance) and the engine. It’s therefore up to me as the company officer to verify their training and skill level.
So, where do we start with their training? We begin with setting expectations. We should also have a basic plan for our community risk. Do we need a plan for every conceivable emergency we may face? Not necessarily, but we should definitely have a basic framework for a standard residential structure fire with entrapment.
Our plan for fires is “smoothbore to the door.” This expectation allows the nozzle firefighter to deploy the appropriate line to the Alpha-side front door. That plan can be changed as necessary based on fire conditions. A second plan for the day is for a motor vehicle crash with entrapment in which the nozzle firefighter knows exactly what tool to grab – in this case the spreaders – so they can begin extrication operations after the vehicle is stabilized.
Given this simple plan, which can be expanded based on incident complexities, we then have a framework of abilities to evaluate. Can the firefighter deploy a preconnected attack line to a target in 60 seconds? Can the firefighter mask up to make entry in 30 seconds? Furthermore, can the firefighter perform a single-person inward-swinging forcible entry with a Halligan? Is the firefighter familiar with the rescue tools?
These simple questions lead to quick drills that can be performed at the company level so that all our members are equipped with basic abilities – and this sets our company up for success when the tones drop
Physicality: Strong to respond
On the heels of abilities, not every firefighter is made equally when it comes to strength. While we must maintain a physical fitness standard, we still see out-of-shape firefighters all too often, plus far too many firefighters who are injured. How many people on your duty roster have had back injuries, shoulder issues or reconstructed knees?
As our industry ages, especially in rural America where we are facing a lack of volunteerism, we must consider the actual physical abilities of our members. It is unrealistic to expect a 58-year-old firefighter to perform at the same levels as an 18-year-old, although the 58-year-old likely has some great shortcuts and knows how to work efficiently compared to the 18-year-old.
We must monitor our members for injury and illness. If someone reports to work feeling slightly under the weather, that must resonate with us as company officers to be aware and keep close watch on working incidents.
Are your members properly hydrated for extended scenes in the hot summer months? Are your members equipped for cold weather operations with warm gear? Will your members need rehab sooner? This poises us to better understand our members’ weaknesses and also to understand where we as officers may have to take up more slack.
Remember, we often ride as working bosses, so if our members aren’t 100%, we must make up that difference on the fireground by either requesting more resources or stepping in more for task level actions.
Mental health: Ready to go
There have been significant strides in access to mental health resources for the first responder community – a testament to those who serve and empathetically share their experiences. While we must monitor mental health to reduce the risk of suicide, we also must simply be good human beings and know what is going on in our members’ lives. Are our firefighters mentally prepared for work?
Too often our firefighters are not mentally checked in. In some cases, there may be external factors or influence inhibiting a firefighter’s ability to focus. Perhaps the firefighter has a new child at home or is dealing with financial or relationship issues. It is understandable that their attention may be focused elsewhere than on the job. As officers, we must step in and give a shoulder to lean on or resources to help so that our firefighters can be mission-focused.
On the other hand, perhaps a firefighter is more concerned about the recliner and Netflix series than training. We can also help to create a culture of training and have a fire-first mentality before the TV by leaning into training and surveying one’s abilities.
If you are a company officer, you should take daily stock in your people who are responding with you. We are a highly trained team of individuals, and each brings our own strengths and weaknesses. It is our responsibility as leaders and officers to identify weak points in abilities and then train our personnel to a level to perform at the incidents to which we respond. If our members are sick, injured or have issues with the physical nature of the job, then we must recognize that and adjust our plans accordingly. Through training we can identify how to move efficiently and how to strengthen and condition our physical fitness. Finally, we must ensure that our firefighters are mentally ready to work – a skill honed by knowing our people and their lives. When we do engage, we must have resources to give if our members need help, and be willing to give a shoulder to lean on when the times are tough. Through these relatively simple practices, we can build highly effective teams so that our fire companies are prepared and effective when it counts the most.