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In the fire service, it’s all in the details

Every little thing counts, whether related to equipment, operations, or communication

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Female firefighter in protective gear and oxygen mask

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From the outset of firefighter training, we lay a foundation that teaches new recruits to focus on details. Attention to detail is one of the things that keeps firefighters safe, improves efficiency, and makes fires go out (and stay out).

We teach our newest members to be on time and ready to perform the job. We require them to keep their uniforms sharp and their turnout gear well maintained. We train them to put things away in a particular manner and to be consistent. They learn to stand in formation and how to march. The expectations we place on them might seem like overkill or even unnecessary, but everything has a purpose.

Why do they train to march? We don’t march on the fireground. Why stand in formation? Most departments today don’t conduct a formal roll call with company lineups. Why do we teach them that early is on time and on time is late?

The answer to all those questions is twofold: details and discipline.

Fighting wars, fighting fires

Colonial soldiers were trained to march and handle arms because they had to be. In that time, wars were fought person-to-person and on open battlefields. Soldiers needed to be regimented in their movements and in their firing orders. As in so many things, success was driven by details and discipline.

While today’s wars are not fought in the same manner, members of our armed forces are still taught how to march in formation and handle weapons ceremonially. This teaches discipline and attention to detail, and that attention to detail transcends the service and its operations.

Similarly, we train new firefighters to pay attention to detail. This foundation of seemingly minor details conditions the member to look at everything with the same attention to detail. As they progress through their careers, this focus on detail will lead to efficiency, effectiveness, and, most importantly, safety.

Avoiding complacency

Details lead to discipline. In this job, it’s far too easy to become complacent. Discipline prevents that and keeps us on the straight and narrow. It’s important to emphasize that this isn’t about discipline in a punitive sense. It’s about self-discipline and self-accountability. Mr. and Mrs. Smith might not care if your boots are polished or if your belt buckle is straight. They expect you to be a professional and to take your job and their lives seriously. They want you to show up quickly and provide the help they need. If you aren’t disciplined enough to focus on the job, you are failing them and your fellow firefighters.

At the same time, discipline and focus are rooted in little things like belt buckles and boots. All firefighters should begin each shift with an equipment check regardless of rank or position. This check is detail-oriented, and the focus is to verify that all equipment is operating and is in good order.

Inspecting your equipment

Your PPE is your last line of defense on the fireground. It’s expected to last for at least ten years and provide protection from heat, moisture and certain chemicals. You should be looking at it every time you show up at the firehouse. Imagine how many times that zipper must go up and down or how often the stitching on your sleeves is stretched. Consider how much wear and tear the vapor barrier must endure to keep you safe from steam burns. Your wristlets are made of elastic that can wear out over time, leaving you at risk for injuries. These are all minor details, but they matter in a big way.

Your SCBA is likely the most essential piece of personal equipment. It’s sophisticated and contains many parts that could fail. As durable as these things are, your attention to detail is required each shift to ensure it works properly. This isn’t just a cursory check to make sure it’s there. You should be checking it for readiness and to monitor wear and tear. Your air cylinder should be full, and the PASS device should function as designed. Check your face piece for cracks and crazing. These are details that might be overlooked and lead to face-piece failure, which could be fatal.

The SCBA check should include the seat-back mounting bracket assembly. You don’t want to show up at a fire and be unable to get out of your seat because the bracket is out of adjustment or the release mechanism has failed.

Apparatus checks might be conducted by the engineer or handled as a company effort. Regardless of who’s responsible for the rig, all company members should be checking equipment, hose loads and appliances. Doing this reinforces your knowledge of equipment operation and ensures added layers of accountability. This should not be a quest to find a deficiency or for a “gotcha moment” on the previous shift. If you see something amiss, correct it.

Don’t forget to check your radio. Today’s radio systems can be complicated, with multiple channel banks and talk groups. Is your radio set up correctly for you? Is your battery fully charged? Is there damage to the radio itself? A cracked radio could allow water intrusion, rendering the radio useless and leaving you without a way communicate on the fireground.

The daily check should be detail-oriented enough to catch things like dirt and corrosion. Metal tools need to be maintained and protected to prevent rust. The high-tech stuff needs attention, too. A dirty lens could render your thermal imager useless in a fire, and you definitely don’t want to discover a problem while searching for a trapped child. Sawblades and chains need to be inspected for sharpness and proper installation. Don’t let someone else’s complacency lead to your mission failure.

Everything in its place

But equipment checks aren’t just about finding broken or dirty stuff. Consider the importance of equipment locations. If someone uses a tool and puts it back in the wrong place, precious time could be wasted on the fireground, and in this business, time equals lost life and property. If the irons are supposed to be in the second compartment on the officer’s side of the rig, that’s where they should be. If you have a better idea for equipment stowage, route that idea through your chain of command. In a healthy and professional environment, those requests should be considered and approved if appropriate.

Consider the importance of something that seems minor, like a hose adapter. One missing adapter could delay the establishment of a water supply, which could mean the difference between life and death.

Leadership details

Not everybody rides an engine or truck. Chiefs need to check their rigs, too. Are the pre-plans in order? Is the MDT functioning correctly? Do you have enough fuel for the shift? Chiefs have PPE and should be checking it just like everyone else. After all, we’re all firefighters, right?

Over time, deficiencies will be found. This is not always an indictment of the previous user or the quality of your maintenance program. Sometimes, things break, and it’s on you to discover and fix the problem, if possible.

A culture of alertness

My message here isn’t just about checking fire trucks and equipment. Attention to detail is a thread that winds its way through the tapestry of the fire service. A sharp eye is required of all of us as we work in our communities.

Details matter in everything we do. We learn to read smoke and understand the clues its color, intensity and velocity give us. Details like the color of the smoke can have even more information hidden in nuance. The same color of smoke can mean different things based on the size of the building, the contents and the weather. We need to pay attention to building size and air temperature. Cold temperatures can fool us into believing that a fire is smaller than it is. Larger buildings tend to scrub smoke and allow it to dissipate, sometimes masking intense fires within.

Firefighters should be attuned to the details and nuances of building features. The casual observer may be unable to tell an actual masonry wall from brick veneer, but this skill is fundamental for firefighters. Other detail-oriented construction cues are different colored bricks on an old building. This might give us a clue that it has been modified and that our egress is limited. Multiple electric meters or mailboxes could indicate a house has been broken up into apartments. How many windows are there? Are they uniform in size? Small windows are often found in bathrooms, while windows with higher sills may indicate a kitchen. In some cases, decorative windows can throw us a curve ball. A trained eye should be able to identify them quickly. It’s in the details.

Paying attention to seemingly minor changes can pay dividends in this job. It’s easy to drive down Main Street with blinders on, not noticing minor changes to buildings or occupancies. What was once a shoe store might become a jewelry store, and that might mean it’s been fortified against burglars. If it’s fortified for burglary, it’s fortified against us, too. That same building might sport a new peaked roof over the top of what was once a flat one. While that change might be noticeable to anyone, it’s a detail you should share with the next generation of firefighters in your department.

Situational awareness

Little details can give us big clues. Consider a strip mall in Anytown, USA. It has a pizza shop, a Chinese takeout restaurant, a dollar store, and a hair salon. You would not expect any of these to be occupied in the middle of the night, but imagine showing up for a building fire at 3 a.m. and discovering a few cars parked in the lot. Might that indicate that people are inside? It certainly wouldn’t be the first time workers had unauthorized sleeping quarters in a commercial building.

Speaking of Anytown, do you know where your district ends and the next one begins? This can be tricky in some areas, but it can be vital as it relates to legality and responsibility. Even if you have comprehensive mutual aid agreements with your neighbors, you should know whose territory you’re in. This is important as it applies to notifying other agencies like law enforcement and EMS.

Causation and accountability

Big things are modular. They’re made up of little things, and that’s why details are important. Missing a minor detail can create a cascading effect leading to calamity. Say an engineer smells engine coolant after returning from a call but doesn’t follow up. Hours later, the company is dispatched to a house fire with people trapped. They arrive on scene and get to work on the call they’ve trained for a thousand times. They advance their hoseline through the front door and begin a push into the smoky abyss. Outside, the engineer is establishing a water supply when he hears an alarm from the pump panel. The engine is overheating. The coolant he smelled earlier has entirely run out. He tells the incident commander that the rig is overheating and the crew needs to be pulled out. The incident commander orders the captain and crew to retreat from the building. The company has almost reached the fire room and is the only chance at survival for the trapped resident. The captain replies that they’re “getting it” and searching for the occupant, but the IC repeats the order to retreat immediately. Frustrated but aware that the order is in their best interest, the captain ensures members of the crew make their way out.

Outside, lines are being stretched from another engine, and a different company is assigned to continue the fire attack. Unfortunately, the fire has gained too much ground and has extended into the attic. Due to the conditions, crews cannot effect rescue of the trapped occupant. This is now a fatal fire. What started as a coolant leak has had a profound effect.

In the fire service, details matter. There’s a reason your department has a whole set of policies regarding inspecting your equipment, apparatus, technology, and so on. Every little thing counts, whether related to equipment, operations, or communication. Missed details can have dire consequences, so take the time to find and fix them before they catch up with you.

Greg Rogers is a content developer for Lexipol with over two decades of experience in fire and emergency services. He is a retired battalion chief from the Ridge Road Fire District in Greece, New York, where he developed and implemented programs that improved service delivery and firefighter safety. He is a certified fire instructor with experience in emergency vehicle operations, engine company operations, and building construction. In addition to his fire service experience, Rogers has a background in maritime search and rescue and law enforcement with the U.S. Coast Guard and Coast Guard Reserve. Rogers holds a degree in fire protection and has studied at the National Fire Academy as well as the U.S. Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Academy.