By Daniel P. Sheridan
Firefighters are like musicians playing in a symphony--each firefighter knows his role in the fire as a musician knows his instrument. Sections like the strings are similar to an engine company, playing their part in the symphony. The chief, of course, plays the role of the conductor. Like in a symphony where the conductor knows exactly how each instrument is supposed to sound, the chief is expected to know each of the positions at a fire. A conductor would never play a viola at a concert, nor would a chief grab a tool and start forcing a door.
In my department, promotional exams are extremely competitive. Firefighters and officers spend hundreds, even thousands, of hours studying the volumes of material that is printed in our department. If you piled all the books, they would be as high as a child. I believe that I studied as much for my three promotional exams as I did in four years of college. The chief is expected to know everything about everything. Besides the “book knowledge,” I also now have 23 years of experience working in units in the Bronx and Harlem. Even with all that, I still feel that I have much to learn. When I was a probie firefighter, my lieutenant, who had 20 years in the department, told me that you are always learning.
So much has changed in the fire service since I started. When I came into the department, firefighters were still not using SCBA on a regular basis. We had no bunker gear, thermal imaging cameras, hydraulic forcible entry tools, or even a radio for every firefighter. The biggest change, though, is not the equipment but the fires themselves. I recently watched a video where a test was done to time how long a room will go into flashover. The first room was furnished with furniture from 25 years ago. The second room was furnished with modern furniture. A small fire was lit in both rooms. The modern room flashed in three minutes, whereas the older room took almost a half hour.
A captain once told me that a good chief not only knows what the books say but must also always know what is going to happen next at a fire. Unfortunately, sometimes we measure a chief by his high score on an exam. I am finding that so much of what I do today is based on experience. I am now working in a part of the city that I never worked in before. I cut my teeth in the fire department on tenement buildings and fire resistive, high-rise multiple dwellings. Today my response district includes high-rise office buildings and loft buildings. I respond every day to numerous automatic fire alarms, which can wear you down and force you into complacency. As the chief, I am still expected to have all the answers all the time at every incident. Delegation is a great tool; I use it all the time, but ultimately, I must make the decisions.
As a chief I am finding that I am totally different from what I was as a company officer. Many times I would be the quarterback on the sidelines or the back-seat driver and curse the chief who kept us at an alarm for 20 minutes when in my mind I knew that the incident was nonsense. We all want to be available for the next one, the next big fire, not tied up at some nonsense. Well, I have become that chief I used to criticize. I am surprised at how patient and thorough I have become. I am now relying on my book knowledge; my experience; and, most of all, my gut feeling. I may not be an expert in converted loft buildings, but I do know a lot about how fire travels and behaves.
Recently, we had a call for a reported fire in a seven-story loft building in downtown New York City. While responding, the dispatching office notified me that it had received a call for a second source of a fire at the same location. When responding, there are certain things that raise my antennae: first, a second source; second, when a caller reports fire, not smoke, or even an odor of smoke. I know that when two different people report that there is a fire, something is burning. On arrival, smoke was pushing out from a small opening between the two buildings. Some of the firefighters were saying it was steam because it was a whitish color. It was an extremely cold night the temperature was near zero degrees with the wind-chill factor. I was getting out of my car and caught a whiff of the smoke I knew that it was not steam. The firefighters all went into action, Truck firefighters were going to their respective positions; roof firefighters were climbing the aerial ladders; outside vent firefighters were going up the rear fire escapes. The inside teams of the trucks were making their way up to the fire floor and floors above. The engine firefighters all stood by the back step waiting for the order to stretch a hoseline. I was in front of the building, where I should be, running all the scenarios in my mind. I finally got a report from one of the firefighters. He reported that we had a rubbish fire on the rear fire escape. Normally, a report like this would send everyone into low gear, but I wasn’t satisfied. (It is funny how two people can look at the same thing and see two totally different things. To a firefighter with a few years in the department, it was just a rubbish fire. I saw extension to occupied buildings. That is the job of the chief, to see the whole picture).
I may not know a whole lot about loft buildings, but I do know what structural smoke smells like, and I knew we had some wood burning. I ordered my driver to transmit a signal for a working fire. He has the same exact time on the job as I do. His reply to me was, “You sure, chief? How about we just say we are using two engines and two trucks?" My guts were twisting; against my better judgment, I said okay. “Tell dispatch we are using 2 and 2.” But I told him that we will still hold the other engine. (two and two connotes that we don’t have a serious or expanding situation). I know quite a few guys who, based on that “rubbish on the fire escape” report, would have stopped the search, released the other units, and kept only one engine and one truck. There was something in my gut that didn’t feel right here. I could not cite it from any book, but I knew that these loft buildings are too complicated and we need to be very thorough.
It turned out that our rubbish fire wasn’t really a rubbish fire on the fire escape but a fire in a shaft between two buildings. When the captain of the truck company got to the spot where the fire was, he gave me a more thorough report. Based on this information, I ordered a hoseline stretched and told my driver to now transmit the signal for a working fire. I now had a much bigger problem: There was a fire in a shaft, and there were now two buildings to worry about. The division chief arrived immediately; his station is literally up the street, and I am sure he was listening to the transmissions from the incident. On his arrival, I gave him a CANS report (conditions, actions, needs). I informed him about my concerns about the fire being in the shaft between two buildings and that when the squad or rescue arrive, they should check out exposure 4 (D) thoroughly. An important factor in any shaft fire, whether it be enclosed or not, is that you need to check six sides of the fire. Very soon after the division chief arrived, I received another report that fire had now dropped down and we now had fire extending to the floors below. I ordered another hoseline to be stretched. The chief ordered me to supervise the operations in the fire building.
The second battalion chief arrived; he was ordered to supervise the operations in the exposure 4 (D) building. Things were now going pretty smoothly. The engine companies both had water on the fire, and it was darkening down. I noticed after the fire was knocked down in the shaft that the exposure 4 (D) building had windows on the shaft and they were covered by steel shutters. These buildings are probably 150 years old. While we were in the process of finishing up knocking down the fire in the shaft and starting to overhaul, I heard the radio jump to life with an urgent message: “We have fire on the fourth floor in the exposure! We need a hoseline now!” Luckily, the chief heeded my advice and had companies staged in the exposure. The sprinkler head activated and kept the fire in check while the line was stretched. Because of the cold and the high winds that night, the fire had turned to blowtorch proportions. If the sprinkler hadn’t activated, we probably would have had a serious fire on the fourth floor of a loft building. Disaster averted.
The lesson learned here is to always go with your instincts. I have always learned more from my mistakes than from the times when everything had gone totally smooth. As a chief I feel that it is time to draw on all those experiences and mistakes that I made and to never repeat them. For me as a firefighter, an officer, and now as a chief, I never want to make the same mistake twice. As the saying goes, “It is great to learn from our mistakes, but it is even better to learn from others’ mistakes.” A friend with whom I worked as a firefighter and who is now a chief had a “food on the stove” and used “2 and 2.” Very normal, and all of us would have done that, but the fire ultimately went to six alarms and burned the roof off a large apartment house. As they were in the process of taking up, a roof firefighter radioed to his officer that there was a good smoke condition on the top floor. When they opened the wall, the fire had already entered the cockloft.
is the most unique profession in the world. We have to constantly make life-threatening decisions in seconds. It is like the third baseman who gets that screaming line drive hit at him. There is no time to think; you just have to react. Trust your gut. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t right. This fire was not so much a “great job” (what I mean when I say that is when the guys come out of a fire after putting out a few rooms of fire) but an important incident because of what could have been. Had I listened to some of the firefighters at various stages of the operation and had not insisted on being very thorough, we would have had a major fire in two loft buildings. You are the chief; like the conductor of a symphony, it is your operation. Make it go the way you see it and not how other people think they see it.
DANIEL SHERIDAN is a 24-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York and captain of Engine Company 46. He is a national instructor II and an instructor at the Rockland County (NY) Fire Academy. Sheridan founded Mutual Aid Americas, which works with fire departments in Latin America.