By Mark J. Cotter
What follows is the first installment of "From The Jumpseat" - a series of articles discussing the science of firefighting from the standpoint of a working firefighter. My intent is to look at the big picture, but from below, to analyze organizational and strategic theories from the working end of a nozzle, tool, or rope; to address perennial fire service concerns (safety, accountability, command, training, preparation, etc) with the voice of one who suffers intimately when they are lacking; and look at the work we do, and the way we do it, in an instructional light.
Currently, I am a volunteer firefighter/EMT in a busy combination department where members can serve in virtually any role. Through the years, though, I have worked in a variety of big and small towns, allowing me to join a variety of different departments. Along the way, I worked as an emergency services consultant, instructor, and fire publication correspondent. I even did a two-year stint with a major urban fire department performing in-station training, consulting, and ridealongs. I have been an officer, and for several years held the rank of Chief of Department, and have served in many administrative, committee, and clerical roles.
I hope to provide warnings, introduce innovations, and, in general, help us all to better understand our role as firefighters. The intent is not to preach, but to teach and learn from a variety of incidents by taking the time to look and listen, question and investigate, and ultimately to cultivate a conversation between this writer and readers. Feel free to contact me at Fromthejumpseat@comcast.net with any comments, questions, suggestions, or concerns.
Forced To Freelance
Went to a mobile home fire in a non-hydranted area recently. We arrived third, behind our duty officer and a similarly staffed and equipped engine from another station. A standard trailer had heavy fire showing from three sides of the near end. I exited the apparauts, came around the engine, and saw the backs of the rest of my crew as they attempted to advance a third hoseline - and themselves - into the doorway of the involved structure.
As the second-in piece, with later units still several minutes away, and no orders to the contrary to my knowledge, I assumed we would be operating in a support mode for the first-in crew. Our pump operator was making a connection from our engine to the first-arriving engine, to share our tank water, and a tanker from a mutual aid company was en route. I took a pike pole and proceeded to ventilate the windows in the uninvolved end of the mobile home in advance of the interior crews, venting thick, dark smoke.
The entire operation was over in a few minutes, and we all proudly recounted our contributions to the effort at an informal "critique" on the scene. Like my engine mates who felt they needed to perform a primary search and provide a backup line, I judged that my ventilation efforts were the best thing for me to do at the time. What I learned, though, was that the incident commander (IC) had assigned our company to provide exposure protection to other nearby trailers. We eventually carried this task out, but our self-congratulatory debriefing probably should have been replaced by a reprimand for our undirected actions. Our excuses, if such a term ever applies to a failure to follow orders, were that I and some others had not heard the order; those that had heard it, but did not heed it, saw what they thought were more pressing needs to address; and, the IC who gave it did not see the need to reinforce it, or rescind it, as everything seemed to work out.
What we had all been practicing, I realized, was "freelancing". While our individual actions were not inherently wrong - they each contributed to the tactical objective of entering the structure, reaching the seat of the fire, and performing extinguishment - they illustrate the effects of inadequate command (and by that I do not necessarily mean an inadequate commander, but an ineffective system for managing an incident). When command is deficient, the actions performed by firefighters are, by definition, uncoordinated. That is not to say that a lack of command stops, or even slows, attempts at incident mitigation. Usually, it is quite the opposite. Firefighters are action-oriented people, and when they see something that needs doing, (or, for that matter, merely done better) they do it - be it ventilation, forcible entry, extinguishment, and so on. But, while roofs are cut, windows laddered, and hoselines stretched, they often occur in the wrong sequence, are duplicated by other companies, or are overlooked entirely, creating inefficiencies at least and hazards at most.
To eliminate freelancing, the IC should develop a plan, communicate it to those who must carry it out, and supervise (enforce) its performance. Curtailing the natural inclination of firefighters to "do something" is actually counterproductive. It is more efficient and effective to control this natural force, and redirect it in a safe manner.
SOPs or SOGs provide direction for everyone, from the person sitting in the jumpseat to the IC and even to those not yet on location. Such plans are also flexible, allowing ICs to modify specific assignments as situations dictate.
Still, even with the most thoughtful and comprehensive SOPs, there must be sufficient discipline, communication, and supervision so actions can be carried out only in the context of an incident action plan - whether it is based on an SOP, modified for present circumstances, or made up on the spot.
Lessons Learned From This Incident
- Have SOPs listing general assignments for personnel based upon their order of arrival, allowing everyone to at least prepare for their actions, but leaving the IC able to tweak plans as necessary, and then practice their implementation in training sessions.
- Company officers must communicate assignments to all company members. Again, SOPs, such as those listing the role of each member by seating position, are great, but an adequate communication system (in-cab speakers; radios for everybody; mandatory on-scene huddle) is still vital.
- Critiques can be valuable learning tools, but only if they move beyond mere bragging sessions.
Mark Cotter, a member of the fire service for more than 30 years, is a volunteer firefighter/EMT-B with the Salisbury (MD) Fire Department and is employed as an emergency department physician's assistant. Previously, he served with departments in New Jersey and Pennsylvania as an EMT-paramedic, an emergency services consultant, and fire chief. Cotter is author of the column "From the Jumpseat" on FireEngineering.com.