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Ways to prioritize firefighter safety

By Tom LaBelle

My previous two articles got some interesting responses via member comments and e-mail. I like getting feedback, good and bad — and it often provides ideas, also good and bad.

In these articles I’ve recognized folks who are doing an amazing job at the national level to provide resources that were unheard of just five years ago. These programs from folks like the IAFF, IAFC, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and others are a wealth that each of us can use individually or with our squads, companies and departments to help increase our safety.

At the end of the day, however, what I find truly amazing is the local guy. The firefighter, officer or chief who breaks with department tradition and starts to not just talk about firefighter safety but backs it up with action.

Each individual and each department has unique resources to bring to the table. Some have many more resources than others; that’s life.

Last month’s article discussed some “rules of engagement” for the fire service. We seem to be having a lot of problems applying and adhering to this term out in the field.

Little leeway?
“Rule” is a fairly old word — 13th century according to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary — but its meaning doesn’t seem to have changed much. The word is described as “a prescribed guide for conduct.” It seems very precise, and gives the impression that there is little leeway for people governed by rules to interpret them.

Yet with fire service rules of engagement, there is, in my humble opinion, often a great deal of leeway given. The rules seem often less a rule and more of a general suggestion.

The general rules of engagement are written in different ways, but these are the rules as I most often encounter them:

The exposure of firefighters to an elevated level of risk is acceptable only in situations where there is a realistic potential to save endangered lives.

No risk to the safety of firefighters is acceptable in situations where there is no possibility to save lives or property.

Firefighters shall not be committed to interior offensive firefighting operations in abandoned or derelict buildings that are known or reasonably believed to be unoccupied.

No building or property is worth the life of a firefighter.

The last two lines of this statement are really the only two that feel like a real rule to me. There’s simply not a lot of room for interpretation by the IC arriving at an abandoned or derelict building. By the way, make sure you know where they are — in this economy there maybe a lot more than you know in your district and they might not look abandoned from the outside.

The rule does accept elevated risk, but in calculated situations. Well, who’s doing the calculating? Unfortunately we all know some guys who couldn’t add two and two together with a calculator and the assistance of Mrs. Smith, their third grade math teacher.

Yet we often put those same folks in a position to make that calculation. Terms like potential, possibility and even reasonably give a great deal of leeway out in the street, and often make the rules much less of the standard than the term implies.

I for one want strong, experienced officers and IC in the street capable of making those calls and I’ve been very lucky to have them at my back. I recognize not everyone has that luxury.

Our goals
I often start a drill with the following: Our goal is to protect lives and property with the following priorities: our lives, their lives, their property, our property.

That means our lives come first, then the citizens lives come next. After all the lives are taken care of, we can worry about property. I’m willing to lose some of our property to protect the property of citizens; after all, they paid for it all to begin with anyway.

Changing the way people behave, true learning, takes a long time. Look at smoke detector use — a battle we are very much now winning but still have to fight for. The effort to change the hearts, minds and actions of the fire service will take a long time as well, but the effort must be maintained.

A great deal, if not all, rests on the local guys. They are the ones who must get the info, run the drills, and learn the calculations and the rules. But the change will come.

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.