‘It’s time to embrace a new culture – a culture of search and rescue’
Have we gotten so consumed by firefighter-centric safety culture that we lost focus on the civilians under our watch?
By Daniel Folks
In June 2019, I became the fire chief of the City of Hammond, Louisiana. Hammond is a small town located in Tangipahoa Parish, east of Baton Rouge and north of New Orleans. Our recorded population is about 20,000, however, daytime population sometimes approaches 80,000 people due to several factors – a major university, shopping, employment and entertainment, as well as being at the crossroads of two major interstate systems.
The Hammond Fire Department covers approximately 50 square miles, responding to over 5,700 calls for service out of six stations, and averaging between 40 and 60 working fires per year.
Like so many fire departments, Hammond was moving forward but facing a few challenges, too. One of those challenges was our attitude toward primary search and civilian rescue. We always practiced search and rescue, but our focus was skewed to say the least, and the inefficiencies kept becoming more evident.
In 2019, I promoted from captain to fire chief. I was not prepared for the position, but I think anyone jumping from company officer to fire chief would face challenges. Now it was my turn to make an impact on our department and community. My not being completely prepared was not a valid excuse for failing in this mission. I went to work and learned as much as I could from whomever I could. Every day I learn something new.
I started by compiling a list of resources I would want on the fire truck as a firefighter and company officer. That included improving attack packages, putting thermal cameras in the hands of company officers, and instituting a truck company. We also began offering professional development opportunities, including webinars, bringing in outside resources for training, and making sure our members were exposed to the education they needed to be successful.
We were checking all the boxes, or so I thought. Needless to say, I missed few.
The wake-up call
Weak links are exposed under stress, and in 2021, we were exposed. We missed two opportunities to rescue victims from fires. Firefighters put hands on the victims but failed to get them out. One member said, “It wasn’t a survivable space.” That disturbed me deeply. The culture in our organization was so quick to write off victims. The problem wasn’t the equipment, concepts or procedures. It was the mindset.
Our department was excellent at extinguishing fires. Our members could knock down a fire very quickly with limited resources – but that was about where it stopped. Primary searches were only called for if there was a report of victims. Ventilation was something we did to remove the smoke after the fire. We needed to put these tactics in place at every fire. We needed to expect victims at every fire.
It is engrained into our culture that firefighters are the most important individuals on the fireground. We get so busy worrying about our own safety that we deprioritize the civilians who have no protections from the hostile and toxic fire environment.
I could give my firefighters every tool available, but if I didn’t change this mindset, nothing would change at all.
The safety disconnect
In recent years, we have seen a huge push to promote firefighter safety. I understand that there are major issues that need to be addressed – cancer, mental health and physical fitness, to name just a few. These issues are difficult to navigate. But imagine training for an hour every shift in bunker gear. Would physical fitness be that big of an issue? How physically fit would we be if we dragged around a 200-pound mannequin in full PPE? What if we knew without a shadow of a doubt that we did everything in our power to save a life at every call? Would mental health be as big of an issue? If we, as officers, enforced wearing masks during overhaul and doing gross decontamination prior to doffing turnout gear, would cancer be as big of an issue? It seems we get complacent on the front end and then go to the extreme to solve the issue on the back end. Maybe we get so lost in the fray that we lose focus on what really matters. We forget why we are really here.
I remember in recruit school, we never worked out, but we did work in gear every day. At the end of school, we were in great shape. The disconnect came once we hit shift work. More emphasis was put on things that really had nothing to do with firefighting. I’m not saying these things were not important, but the emphasis was not on the high-risk tasks we need to perform at fires. Instead, we became experts at EMS, logging training hours, filling out preplanning forms and checking hydrants. Also, the stations were very clean, and trucks got washed every day.
Even before I was promoted to a company officer, I would lead trainings in the afternoons but only after all the required boxes had been checked. It was never mandatory for the entire shift. It was usually just my crew, and we were often scolded for having equipment “strung out all over the place” and going on EMS calls “hot and sweaty.” I was also told I was too aggressive. Let that sink in. My wanting to do the job and be prepared to save lives was “too aggressive.”
Changes often come very slow. We want them to be rapid, but they get delayed by other circumstances, many out of our control. The key is to stay the course. You will have objectors, resistors and recliner-snipers, sometimes from places you did not expect. But set a course and move forward one step at a time. We are still not where I feel we need to be, but the leadership of the department understands where we need to go.
We should show up to a fire expecting to find a victim. We should be aggressive, not reckless. This means training on this all the time. Training once a year on victim removal is not enough. Training once a year on victim rescue using portable ladders is not enough. We are not doing enough to truly prepare for victims. Removing a 100-pound hose mannequin does not prepare you to rescue an obese civilian trapped in the structure.
Stop making training easy. Training should be challenging and deliberate. Understand what it takes to remove a victim from a structure then practice it over and over. Change things up. Our goal should not be logging training hours to check boxes. Our goal should be to train until we are perfect. Amateurs practice until they get it right. Professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.
The new mindset
We need to search every fire. The incident commander should assign primary search no matter what. If it’s a light smoke condition, do a search! Even if the building is fully involved, the primary search team can do a 360 and check for victims in the yard or maybe find a searchable space to quickly handle vent-enter-isolate-search (VEIS).
Primary and secondary searches should be done even at a smoke investigation or fire alarm. Never pass up an opportunity to train in an unfamiliar environment. That one piece of knowledge or skill that you learned or passed up on learning could mean the difference between a successful and unsuccessful rescue of a child.
From the firefighter to the fire chief, we need to change the mindset and begin to bring the civilian back to the center of our focus. Combine all the task, tactics and strategies to focus on making sure we protect and save our civilians. Show up, select the appropriate extinguishment tactics, and make sure a search is done.
Let’s get water on the fire, a primary search started and the backup line protecting egress as quickly as staffing allows. We have PPE, our civilians do not. Two firefighters standing in the yard as RIT will not make an impact on the fireground, but a backup team with a hoseline protecting the attack team and search team will have an impact. I am not saying we don’t need RIT, but it should not be prioritized over civilian rescue, especially at a residential dwelling fire. Seconds matter for our unprotected civilians.
Lead by example
Chief officers are critical to the mindset shift as well, and we must lead by example. For example, my chief unit carries my PPE, including an SCBA and even a “can.” With a shift size of 17-20, there may be times that myself or my command staff has to go hands-on. They all are required to keep an SCBA ready to go. Imagine if one of us – the chief officers – pulled up to a burning building and just walked around waiting for the “real” firefighters to show up? How does that look to the public? We are all firefighters first.
My first engine usually has two personnel on it. If any of my chief officers, or myself, are there, we can make an impact on a fire very quickly. Command will be set up, the size-up will be communicated, and resources will be requested, but if we cannot get a hoseline in place quickly to protect our civilians, then what have we accomplished?
Commercial fires are completely different and require more staffing and resources. However, single-family and multi-family dwellings are where our people live. We need to act quickly and decisively to extinguish the fire and get firefighters inside for the search.
I remember when I went to get some pricing on PPE for our chief officers. The salesman, as innocent as he could be, asked if we really wanted the structural PPE. He asked that from experience. At some point, some officers decided they wanted to look good but not function on the fireground. I should never ask a firefighter to do something I am not willing to do myself. Now I’m not advocating that the chief be on the hoseline, but in small-town USA, we must be active and involved. I do not have a lot of resources to utilize on the fireground, which means sometimes, our white shirts have to get dirty.
‘They expect us to save them’
I want to bring the civilian back into focus as the most important person in our world. This doesn’t mean we become reckless; it means we learn to do our job faster and more efficient, and that will lead to us being safer.
It’s time to embrace a new culture – a culture of search and rescue. Let’s put the priority on getting the civilians out by using everything in our power to do so. Every task on the fireground should be geared toward buying the civilian time and getting them out.
As I continue to try to improve our organization, I challenge others to do the same. We must do better for the civilians who go to sleep every night under our watch. They expect us to come. They expect us to save them. They do not have anyone else to turn to. Take ownership and do everything in our power to save lives and protect property.
About the author
Daniel Folks is the fire chief of the City of Hammond (Louisiana) Fire Department. He has 23 years of full-time and volunteer fire experience. He is also a fire instructor with the Louisiana Fire and Emergency Training Academy.