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Standing down for all of “THEM”

What it means to talk about safety and survival in an inherently unsafe profession



By Billy Goldfeder

I started writing about firefighter safety many years ago, but really, it’s about survival – the survival of those who call us for help that they needed 10 minutes ago and our ability to survive helping them. That is not to say that we should not take risks – this is a risky job. If you’re looking for a job with assured safety, consider pottery.

When the safety movement started about 20-30 years ago, it was because many of those who have gone before you/me/us died because they didn’t know what they didn’t know. We didn’t have the information, knowledge, technology or science we have today. Incidents such as the Waldbaum’s fire in New York City, the Hackensack Ford fire in New Jersey and many other fires that took firefighters’ lives would almost assuredly not have the same outcome today. We have evolved to some extent, and we are arguably better prepared than those before us – because of their sacrifice and because we took time to learn from those tragedies.

Fireground survival … and search ... and rescue are not mutually exclusive propositions. They require risk/benefit analysis, sometimes within split seconds. And what one firefighter, fire company or fire department can accomplish given their experience, training and resources may differ from another firefighter, company or department just a few miles away … or thousands of miles away. As we know, if you’ve seen one fire department, you’ve only seen one fire department. It doesn’t make one better or worse, just different – and most firefighters or company officers cannot affect experience and resources, just training. Training for them.

The goal is to have everyone go home with our willingness to sacrifice ourselves for those who need us at that moment. The civilians who need us when trapped. And the firefighters who need us when we get jammed up. “THEM” is anyone who needs us at that moment. We have and must always do whatever we need to do for “THEM” – civilians and our own.

Sometimes we cannot help them – and we hate that. Sometimes we cannot “get in there” no matter how badly we want to. Sometimes at your rank, you are ordered by a higher rank to back down. Sometimes it impacts us for a little while, sometimes for a lifetime. It is in our DNA to help whomever, whenever, so when we can’t, it’s usually a bad day for both them and us. When we cannot get that civilian out but gave it our all. When we cannot get our own out but gave it our all. Be it civilians trapped in fire on Main Street America or the Worcester firefighters trapped in the Cold Storage and Warehouse in 1999, when Division Chief Mike McNamee made the excruciating but correct decision to not allow any more firefighters in the building. He did it for them.

This is some real-world no-BS stuff. It is when everything you have done (training at every rank and position) up until that moment comes into play. And not just you. You are not alone when it comes to “them” – it’s you, your company officer, your crew, the IC, everyone, in making those split-second decisions. All of them ... for them.

And that’s where this year’s Firefighter Safety Stand Down comes into play. The Safety Stand Down is a collaborative program embraced by more than 20 national and international fire and emergency service organizations, and sponsored by the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA).

The theme of Safety Stand Down 2024 focuses on the non-optional role training plays in every fire department’s success. Fire chiefs in coordination with staff chiefs and training officers are encouraged to suspend non-emergency activity for the week of June 16-22, allowing all shifts to focus on back-to-basics training activities. Each day has its own theme:

  • Monday: Building the Foundation of a Training Program
  • Tuesday: Assessing the Needs of the Community and Department
  • Wednesday: Safety During Training
  • Thursday: Physical and Behavioral/Mental Health Considerations
  • Friday: The 12 Foundations of Fire Department Training

And go beyond your department; engage with the agencies with which you regularly respond to fires and emergencies. Yep, they are also “them.” We have to be Top Gun pilot-level experts at doing the basics, as a large percentage of the bad stuff often leads back to failing at the basics.

June 16-22 is for every rank, from the first-arriving company officer who must have the skills, training, ability and experience to (within seconds) know what to do for them – the civilians and the crew – to the chief who arrives moments later and is faced with go/no-go decisions. “Them” means every single person involved, from the civilians trying to evacuate to the firefighters who will do anything to get those people out. The chief sees and is responsible for all of them, and those decisions can’t be made when the gold bugles don’t attend regular training on what they are expected to do at fire. Not stretching lines or pulling ceilings, but command and control. The best coaches coach at training. They do it for them.

This is a high-risk and sometimes unsafe profession. Sometimes we do everything right, and the outcome is still bad. Stand Down week – and regular non-Stand Down week – training allows us to minimize doing what we regret later on.

We have an opportunity to do some re-focusing on the basics every day, but with Safety Stand Down week, so much work has been done for us. All we have to do is check it out, plug it in, and plan to do it. And what about those who hate training or will give 100 reasons to NOT train and NOT participate in the Stand Down? It’s not up to them when it comes to the other them.

Video: ‘Every skill has a shelf life’

Safety Stand Down 2024 prioritizes back-to-basics fire training. The SSD crew shares tips for how departments can maximize this year’s training event, June 16-22.

FireRescue1 contributors and board members share their top back-to-basics training

Chief Billy Goldfeder, EFO, a firefighter since 1973, serves as deputy fire chief of the Loveland-Symmes (Ohio) Fire Department. He also serves as Lexipol’s senior fire advisor and is a member of the Fire Chief/FireRescue1 Editorial Advisory Board. Goldfeder is a member of the Board of Directors for several organizations: the IAFC, the September 11th Families Association and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF). He also provides expert review assistance to the CDC NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program. Goldfeder is the recipient of numerous operational and administrative awards, appointments and recognitions. He has served on several NFPA and IAFC committees, has authored numerous articles and books, and presented several sessions at industry events. Chief Goldfeder co-hosts the website