Do fire officers really care about firefighter safety?

Those who stubbornly cling to outdated methods show contempt for firefighter safety

My wife and I own a restored 1938 Ford/Seagrave. On special occasions, we drive around our neighborhood or in a community parade.

One of those occasions was when our oldest son and his family stayed with us while he was on leave from the Navy.

Their entire family took turns for laps around the block on our antique truck. With our son at the wheel, I rode the tailboard with our three grandsons ages 15 to 18.

Restored 1938 Ford/Seagrave. (Photo/Robert Rielage)
Restored 1938 Ford/Seagrave. (Photo/Robert Rielage)

While this took place, I explained that when I returned from the Air Force roughly 40 years ago, I joined a fire department that had a 1948 Federal as one of its first-due engines.

I mentioned that at the time riding the tailboard was the standard way of getting firefighters to and from the scene.

I further explained that the Federal had its tank fill just above the middle of the tailboard, and as the engine turned right or left, water would splash out of the fill tank and soak us to the bone even when wearing a turnout coat and our ¾ rubber boots pulled all the way up on our legs.

This was particularly unpleasant in the freezing cold.

Each of the grandsons looked at me as if I were a space alien, and rightly so. Their amazement that such a daredevil feat was practiced at any time caused me to recall how foolish that practice does seem today, but how it was just a part of the job back then.

Three decades later

Shortly thereafter, an article appeared in the NFPA Journal entitled, “We Drove Like We Were Crazy.” It was a look back on firefighting some 30 years ago before the NFPA 1500 series of standards on firefighter safety became part of our culture.

The article featured vignettes from several prominent fire service members then and now – names such as Alan Brunacini, J. Gordon Routley, Ken Willette and Scott Kerwood.

The article spoke of the progress toward firefighter safety and the resultant change in the culture of our fire service in these three decades. It also addressed the dissidents who warned back then that NFPA 1500 would be the end of the American fire service as we knew it.

In more recent times, the NFPA, NIST, UL and others have conducted nearly continuous research on the dynamics of fire under varying conditions. They’ve looked at how interrupting those dynamics can greatly improve the safety for both firefighters and civilians in the hostile environment of a working fire.

My department had such a fire recently. It was a balmy day with a sustained 20 to 30 mph wind.

On arrival, the officer of the first engine with a crew of three did a 360-degree size-up, confirmed that all occupants were safely outside, radioed other incoming units that he suspected a wind-driven basement fire and started an approximately 20-second transitional attack at the basement walk-out in the rear of the structure.

Immediately, the fire conditions improved and the crew began an interior attack that quickly brought the fire under control. Our department’s public information office issued a news release on the fire roughly giving these details to the media.

Echoes of the past

Surprisingly, a company officer from a neighboring fire department took us to task on Facebook for the initial use of a transitional attack. He called it a ploy to reduce the number of firefighters assigned to an engine, and said the transitional attack would be “the (expletive) end of firefighting as we know it.”

Does that sound familiar?

Let’s get something clear from the outset – a transitional attack is one of many tactics that can and should be considered by company officers given such circumstances as the headway of the fire on arrival, the estimated time for other companies to mark on scene, and the structural integrity of the area involved in fire.

The comments of our neighboring fire officer on Facebook lead me to think how I would react if I were one his crewmembers.

Is the blood-and-guts approach to interior firefighting at every fire worth my life? Or would I want my officer to be knowledgeable enough to consider all the options available when deciding the initial strategy and tactics at a working fire?

The real question might be will it take another 30 years to make this fire research information available to all of us? And will it take 30 years to make it an integral part of our size-up, leading to a greater degree of firefighter safety on the emergency scene?

Or will we continue to read countless NIOSH reports on firefighter line-of-duty deaths that repeat and repeat the same scenarios that result in the death or serious injury of fire personnel?

The answer lies in whether our officers and chiefs are serious about their firefighters’ safety? Do they really care?

Stay safe.

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