August Roundtable Replies: How Not to Get Killed Fighting Fires

This month, John "Skip" Coleman asked Fire Engineering readers: In your opinion, what is the one best thing an individual firefighter can do to keep from getting killed on the job? The question got the following responses. Read Skip's response to this month's Roundtable question HERE and add your comments below.

Deputy Chief Thomas Dunne
Fire Department of New York

Response: For many years now, almost half of our fatalities have been cardiac-related.  By now we’ve been pounded with this same message many times, but you just can’t overemphasize the importance of “heart health” in our line of work.

When you are not on the fireground your life style, diet, and physical activity should all be generally geared for the reality that at some point you will be placed under a great deal of physical and psychological stress.  You don’t have to be a fanatic--just eat well, stay physically active, and, whether it’s a job requirement or not, have a regular medical exam.

As far as actual activity at a fire operation, I believe that size-up (by everyone at the operation, not just the chief) is possibly the most vital skill to keep you alive.  Given the fire volume, construction, resources, etc., consider what goals you as an individual or as a department can realistically achieve. 

This size-up doesn’t have to be very time consuming.  Firefighters are highly motivated and adrenaline charged, but an ability to reel in our aggressive instincts for just a few seconds before acting allows us to more clearly see how our tactics might place ourselves, or other personnel, in unnecessary danger.

Richard C. Beaulieu
Private, Cranston (RI) Fire Department

Response: The absolute best weapon that a firefighter has that can prevent him or her from being killed on the job is the mind.  The best warriors are those who can beat their enemy intellectually before the battle even begins just as the best football players are the students of the game, the ones who take training and preparation as seriously as breathing.  The modern fire service is intertwined with so many intellectual subdivisions, ranging from EMS to technical rescue, that the discipline needed to be calm and controlled in any environment starts and ends with the ability to think clearly and use sound judgment and reason.

All of the emergencies that the modern fire service is called upon to mitigate involve a risk-benefit analysis done by every person on the scene from the lowest rank to the highest. In this, all members operating at an incident are dubbed individual safety officers and this requires a sharp mind by all responders.  Sharpening the mind is the only way to achieve true situational awareness.  This is not to say that a firefighter should immerse oneself so deeply in book theory that they approach a situation with tunnel vision and begin to allow theory to interfere with the risks that should be taken when the benefit is worthwhile.  A firefighter should strengthen the mind using book theory, training, department SOPs, conferences and seminars, trade publications, techniques and advice from peers and officers, and, finally, actual on-the-job experience.

Rick Bickmore
Training Officer, Moorestown (NJ) Fire Department

Response: More than anything else, to THINK, then DO, not the other way around, is critical. Today’s firefighters confront an array of fireground factors that simply didn’t exist 20 years ago, or, if they did, weren’t nearly as dangerous as they are today. Although a person’s physical ability and prowess is still THE most important element of firefighting, now more than ever we need firefighters to use their critical thinking and knowledge based skills to make better, more effective, safer decisions than ever before.

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