Three Things You Can Do So You Won’t Die on Duty

By John "Skip" Coleman

I don’t want to seem insensitive; I am positive that the individuals who penned the “16 Life Safety Initiatives” did so with only the best intentions in mind. The intended end result of their efforts is the same as mine: to stop firefighters from dying on the job (and off). But come on! I know firefighters. My father was a firefighter. I grew up around firefighters. My dad played in the department's softball league, and we went to the games when I was a kid. We went to fire department picnics, on camping vacations, to shift parties and cookouts, and so on with the families of other fire department members with whom my dad worked. I wore the badge myself.

Firefighters have a hard time relating to “fluff." Read the 16 Life Safety Initiatives and then envision a bunch of “B” shifters (or, more likely, volunteer firefighters congregating at the fire hall after a day of driving a truck, bailing hay, or standing eight hours at a punch-press), sitting in the recliners in the TV room trying to “digest” the actual meaning of all those words--words like “Define and advocate," “Enhance the personal and organizational accountability," “Focus greater attention on the integration of risk management with incident management at all levels, including strategic, tactical, and planning responsibilities.”  I’d bet most of them have no clue what the latter phrase even means--nor should they!

My point in the page that follows is simple. If you want to teach your kids not to play with fire or lighters, you don’t say: “In order to avoid the consequences of the epidermis coming in contact with direct flame impingement…” You tell them down and dirty: “Don’t ever play with fire ‘cause it will hurt you!”

'Nuff said. I have developed what I like to call my “Three Things You Can Do So You Won’t Die on Duty”:

1. Drive your response vehicle like your children are in it with you (and by the way, always use your seat belt). More than 25 percent of our annual fatalities are directly related to vehicular accidents in which we are involved while responding to or returning from incidents. Report after report tells us that driving fast only gets us there a few seconds faster. I get it! If my kids are inside my house, I want you there as fast a possible. But if you get in an accident, you may not get there. Also, if you’re riding and the driver is driving like a maniac, yell at him or her to slow down. Wear your seat belt. Lead and live by example: I know you buckle your kids in--buckle yourself in!
2. At fires, have a way to monitor the environment you are in-- specifically heat buildup, changes in smoke conditions, and the stability of what you are crawling on--continuously!  My dad knew when it was getting too hot. I knew when it was getting too hot. My ears started to burn. I didn’t wear a hood. We didn’t use them, nor were they required when I crawled down halls. Again, I get it! We have to wear hoods now, and that’s a good thing. But have a way of continually monitoring the environment you and your crew are crawling in. I recently wrote a series of blogs at about this topic and pretty much learned that, for the most part, firefighters and officers are crawling into burning buildings and pretty much are not paying attention to the environment they are in. That’s probably one reason that we are occasionally getting caught in flashovers and otherwise getting burned.
Do something! Find some piece of skin to expose. Don’t wear the gauntlet on one sleeve of your fire coat and occasionally stick your arm up, expose your wrist, and compare the current temperature to that of the last time you did it. I get it! If you do that and your skin on your wrist really burns, (a) don’t do that any more, and (2) back the heck out of there. Every fire clothing manufacturer will tell you that at the point you are “hot” in your bunker gear, you are close, very close to being in trouble! The environment is getting too hot for you, even in your bunker gear and probably within seconds you will become very unhappy and experience a great deal of pain.
Some of you may have thermal indicators on your thermal imaging cameras. Experience tells us that currently, imagers are about as reliable as a $3 watch. Use anything the department can give you to register heat, but also use and trust your senses.
I knew when fire was below me and attacking the structure that was holding up the floor on which I was crawling when my knees began to get hotter and hotter (I wore three-quarter pull-up boots.). I used to also bounce, using my weight to determine the sponginess of the assembly on which I was crawling. I tried to do it as I entered the structure as much as possible as when I was in the center of the room, to get a feeling of the floor.  
3. Start taking care of yourself. Start watching your diet, and exercise a little. Get out of the recliners and move around a little. About one-half of the annual fatalities are caused by “stress,” which can equate to heart attack and stroke.
Those who know me personally know that I am not the poster child for fitness--I had a heart attack at age 52. My nickname among the recruits of the class of 1984, when I was an instructor was “the Pillsbury dough boy,” not because I was sweet but because of the “rolls” at and around my waist. Although I looked “pudgy” almost my entire life and was never physically very strong, I could keep up with my crew members and believed that what I lacked in strength I made up for in endurance. 
As far as this one goes, don’t do as I do; do as I say! Exercise 30 minutes a day four or five days a week. Walk, jog, jump up and down. Most of you spend more time a day setting up the daily “prank” on the recruit than that. One last word: portion control. Eating is not a contest! There are no winners or losers at the dinner table. 
Just as the more formal 16 Life Safety Initiatives are a start, so are my three. Remember, when you want nuclear physicists or Rhodes scholars to relate to what you say, big words are great. When you want to get firefighters to do something, say it in easy, understandable short sentences using words to which they can relate. Be safe! 

John “Skip” Coleman retired as assistant chief from the Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue. He is a technical editor of Fire Engineering; a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board; and author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997), Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000), and Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer, Second Edition (Fire Engineering, 2008).

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