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Emergency response: Take a moment before pressing forward

Fire truck runs over obstacle that turns out to be sleeping college student


A college student spends hours drinking with friends. At the end of the night, instead of returning to her dorm, she wanders off by herself, ending up by a fire station. She walks up on the ramp and soon passes out leaning against the bay door. It is 1 a.m.

A short time later, an alarm comes into the station for a possible fire in one of the college dorms. The crew awakens from sleep, and the battalion chief takes the emergency response lead in raising the bay door and driving his vehicle down the ramp toward the incident.

But when the chief first rolls out of the bay, he feels his vehicle come up against something on the ground. He pauses a moment, then powers forward over the obstacle. Maybe somebody left some gear on the ramp. Now there is a fire to deal with.

When it comes to emergency response, most firefighters have to train themselves to pause, to think, to take a moment even when everyone else around them is simply reacting to an emergency response. (Photo/US Dept. of Defense)
When it comes to emergency response, most firefighters have to train themselves to pause, to think, to take a moment even when everyone else around them is simply reacting to an emergency response. (Photo/US Dept. of Defense)

Only when the crew returns to the station is it clear that the obstacle on the ramp was actually a person. At that point, the crew initiates CPR and other lifesaving measures, to no avail. One life was lost and many lives were devastated, just like that.

TRAGIC INCIDENTS NEVER REALLY END

This was an emergency response tragedy for all involved – certainly for the dead girl, her family, friends and university community. But it was also an emergency response tragedy for the battalion chief (who retired within six months of this event) his family, friends and co-workers. While the subsequent investigation exonerated the chief of responsibility for the girl’s death, the family intends to sue in civil court. For people close to this incident, it will never really end.

THE EMERGENCY RESPONSE PRINCIPLE

This terrible event may serve as a lesson and tragic reminder of a principle that firefighters sometimes forget. And that principle is this: No matter how much of an emergency it is, no matter how much of a hurry you are in or how urgent the circumstances are, there will always be times when it is in everyone’s best interests to allow yourself to stop, to reconsider, to take one moment before pressing forward with pure action.

This is not meant as a personal indictment against the firefighter in this story. My guess is that many if not most other firefighters would have done exactly what he did under the circumstances. His personal tragedy can possibly serve as grim reminder for all firefighters about what may be lost when it does not seem possible to take that moment to think, to consider before moving forward.

MODEL OF CALM

When I first came on the job, I worked with a company officer who was near retirement. He was highly respected by everyone on the job and I can honestly say that I never heard anyone say a bad word about the man.

This officer was experienced, knowledgeable and skilled. He was accepting and respectful toward others. But perhaps his greatest gift was his demeanor – he was a laid back, relaxed guy and nothing rattled him. He never hurried.

I was working with this officer once when we got a call for a possible explosion and fire at a chemical facility, with unknown injuries. I could feel my pulse racing before the dispatcher even finished talking. But I’ll never forget how this officer didn’t flinch. He stretched in his chair, put his feet down and slowly pulled himself to standing, and then purposefully ambled to the radio and then to the truck to respond. Everything about his demeanor said, “This is no big deal. No rush. We can handle this.” I could feel my blood pressure going down just being near him.

Some people are naturally more easygoing than others, but when it comes to emergency response, most firefighters have to train themselves to pause, to think, to take a moment even when everyone else around them is simply reacting to an emergency response.

Most of us are lucky. When that moment comes when we should hesitate and reconsider and we push on through anyway, there are usually no catastrophic outcomes. But in the business of life and death, sometimes there are.

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