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How paying attention can save your life

These rules place the burden back on you, the firefighter and officer as an individual, which is where safety begins

Author’s note: As I was reviewing the past several articles I’ve written I realized that this is my 50th article for FireRescue1. So to Mike McEvoy who forwarded my name to them, to Globe for the sponsorship and dedication to safety and to Jamie Thompson, my editor (who I’ve clearly added years to his life), a big THANK YOU.

Over the previous two articles, we’ve been discussing the “Rules of Engagement Project” of the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ Safety, Health and Survival Section. We’re now going to review the final five items of a firefighter’s personal rules of engagement. I highly encourage everyone to read the entire document and share it with your department.

I had a great conversation the other day with a longtime friend and experienced firefighter and officer. He was decrying the lack of personal responsibility that many of us feel is pervasive in the fire service. This is seen in many ways, and likely has many causes, and covers many generations of firefighters.

Sometimes it shows up as the assumption that all fires are the same and you don’t need to know your craft. Sometimes it’s seen as those who hoard the knowledge they’ve earned. There are many ways it exists and it’s dangerous in many forms. These rules place the burden back on you, the firefighter and officer as an individual, which is where safety always begins.

6) Go In Together, Stay Together, Come Out Together:
Now, this seems pretty simple depending on where you’re from. But in many departments (career and volunteer) with sub-par staffing, the chances of team members changing based on bottle usage increases. Staying with your team in and out of the building can be difficult, there’s no denying it, but it’s part of your job.

All too often the separation doesn’t occur because of a single firefighter being lost. It’s because someone saw a task that looked like more fun than what they were assigned to.

  • This sort of “Tactical Masturbation” may feel good but it’s terribly unproductive. You put yourself and others at risk and often foul up the action plans altogether
  • This sort of freelancing is both selfish and unsafe.

There are lots of artificial ways to maintain team continuity; tag systems that keep a team together; Standard Operating Procedures that require not only that teams are created but also that they rehab together and return to staging. A good, strong understanding of incident command and a commander(s) who use it all are very helpful.

But at the end of the day it requires us as individuals to ensure that we stay with the team and that our team stays with us — and to raise concern when we feel it’s not happening. When teaching search and rescue I always remind more seasoned members that they can only search to the comfort level of the least experienced member on the team.

It’s also worthy of mention that the only real way to make a safe transition from an interior attack to an exterior attack is after a roll call of the teams. If you’re away fooling around then we’ve got to take the time to find you and the fire continues to get ahead of us. And if we have a missing firefighter for real, and you’re just off checking out the building, then you may cost that other firefighter their life.

Drilling into members’ heads that team continuity must occur from arrival to returning to station happens on the drill grounds long before the fireground.

7) Maintain Continuous Awareness of Your Air Supply, Situation, Location and Fire Conditions:
It’s easy to get tunnel vision, I think even more so in a team as you can often assume that somebody else is paying attention to indicators of problems. The issue is that when something is a problem, it’s not just a problem for the one member who notices it (or doesn’t notice it until it’s too late), it’s a problem for the whole team and sometimes for everyone on the fireground.

When it comes to air supply, clearly if you’re low it’s of greatest importance to you, but it means the team needs to focus on you at that point. And everyone’s consumption rate is different enough that we need to pay attention to our own air. It’s fairly “easy” to find out during air consumption drills how quickly you drain a bottle, and to get people in the habit of checking their air supplies.

Also, always keep in mind that you want your team leader/officer thinking about your safety. If they know that you’re paying attention to your immediate surroundings, they can take a slightly larger view and your team will be more effective (life safety first and property conservation second) with its task. If they have to be looking at your SCBA or are nervous that you aren’t, the team gets sidetracked quickly.

There are lots of great articles on giving radio reports, everything from PAR to CAN and many inbetween. But if you teach that members need to keep aware of the things that they will need for a unit report, they are forced (again with repetition through drill) to begin thinking/monitoring those very things.

If I, as a firefighter, know that my captain is going to give a report to Operations and he’s going to ask me for my air supply level — and it happens at every drill where we wear SCBA — after a while I’ll just start to pay attention to my level. If the officer is asking frequently what we see, hear and feel, then we’ll start to pay attention.

8) Constantly Monitor Fireground Communications for Critical Radio Reports:
As stated in number 7, good radio reports are a thing of beauty. But they take practice. In this day and age, even if everyone doesn’t have a radio, they all have the chance to give reports on the radio. Waiting for the call for members to give reports for the first time simply makes no sense.

So we start of with defining the information we want in the report, again from PAR to CAN, there are lots of variations — and they all work if you practice them.

If you know what you’re supposed to be transmitting you’ll know what to listen for in the reports of others. “Oohhs” and “Ahhs” are great for fireworks, but not firegrounds. We certainly can get an idea of what is going on inside (and what’s going to happen next) from the visible smoke or fire. But when teams are on the inside, the picture gets clearer.

How is the vent team doing? How is the search team doing. Are we making progress with the other tasks both inside and outside the building? All of these can be answered if we’re listening. It’s clearly not always easy, but again, if we have an entire team working well and safely, then listening becomes a lot easier.

9) You Are REQUIRED to Report Unsafe Practices or Conditions That Can Harm You. Stop Evaluate and Decide:
You have to; you just have to report the unsafe when it comes to you and those around you. As a good team leader, I WANT to hear from my crew if they see (or just feel) something that makes them uncomfortable. I’m a big believer that there is so much going on the fireground that sometimes our gut tells us something before our eyes/brains quantify the concern. SPEAK UP!

And realize this doesn’t mean command anarchy. It means when one of my team members points something out, we look at it, we evaluate the risk and then we decide if we continue as is, adapt and overcome, or simply tell operations that the task can’t be accomplished based on our evaluation.

10) You are REQUIRED to Abandon Your Position and Retreat Before Deteriorating Conditions Can Harm You:
Most scientists would argue that gravity is the strongest force there is. The entire idea of the built environment is that buildings use mass to defy gravity. And in newer buildings they use as little (light weight) mass as possible. When we show up, fire is trying to lower the mass and let gravity win.
I know some very strong, and strong-willed, firefighters. But none are stronger than gravity or the reaction that is fire. As the old saying goes, “If you think you’re keeping pace with the fire, it’s kicking your butt — you just don’t know it yet.” When we are losing, waiting for the last second is crazy; it is after all, the last second.

Once it is clear that the fire is winning, it’s time to back out. Understanding fire behavior and building construction will give you the ability to make informed decisions on what the real conditions are.

11) Declare A MAYDAY As Soon As You THINK You Are in Danger
The other day we had a small garage fire. I was on the second due engine and saw the head of smoke while en route. I was having a difficult time raising the IC; I knew he had a working fire and assumed he had his hands full. On my arrival we laid out supply line to ensure a second water source.

Now it turns out we didn’t need it, which is fine. And I certainly took some ribbing from some of the other officers/senior guys. And the baleful looks my crew gave me when we were repacking the line had me feeling sorry for them. But, it didn’t make me second-guess my decision. I would rather lay out the line, and then repack it then be in the wrong spot and have to backtrack because we had a supply problem.

The National Fire Academy has an outstanding program, “Calling the Mayday.” In it are defined four Mayday parameters:

  • A Fall — no matter what it is through
  • A Collapse — having something fall on a firefighter
  • A Lost or Trapped Firefighter — if a firefighter (including you) gets lost or trapped
  • Stuck — If a firefighter (including you) is stuck.

Pride, too, often stops not only individuals but also teams from calling the Mayday. The assumption that the parameters above will improve with just a few more moments of effort is not only foolish but too often deadly.

Delaying the Mayday for fear of personal embarrassment is simply suicide by pride. It’s always possible to announce that you are found, outside the building or better, and slow down the response. But when we come for a downed firefighter we do so at full speed. You can slow us down, but you can’t speed us up — don’t wait.

Next time, we’ll take a look at the Command side of the Rules of Engagement. Until then have a Merry Christmas and safe holidays. Take the time to enjoy your family and friends and remind yourself, they are the reason you stay safe!

Learn how to make your department a safer place in Tom LaBelle’s FireRescue1 column, ‘The Butcher’s Bill.’ LaBelle provides tips, advice and opinions that balance accomplishing strategic objectives with making sure every firefighter goes home.