Fire EMS, Firefighting, Leadership

Fire Commentary: Why Do We Do This?

By Barry S. Daskal

The greatest discovery (of my generation) is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes of mind.- – William James; early American psychologist.

It’s 8 a.m., and I’m sitting in the crew compartment of my rig, the third-due engine at a gas leak. We are standing by waiting for orders and watching the second-due engine company operate. Their members get off the rig in full bunker gear, SCBA on their backs, ready to go. The incident commander orders that a 24-foot extension ladder be brought to the building. I watch as the three firefighters, all with a fair amount of experience, begin the process of removing the ladder; one removes the “skull saver” cap, and the other two begin unhooking the ladder and removing it from its bracket. During this simple evolution, two of the three firefighters lose their helmets. One firefighter holds onto the ladder and catches his helmet before both helmet and ladder fall to the floor. The other firefighter tries to maintain control of the ladder and keep his helmet on, but the helmet falls to the pavement. From where I was sitting, I was able to see each firefighter clearly. All three of them had their helmet chin straps secured around the back of the brim.

What have we become?

Life is cyclical, and the volunteer fire service is no exception. We have times of great prosperity and success, and times when we are against the ropes. Many volunteer agencies are in bad shape, facing greater budget constraints, increased training requirements, higher call volume (especially with EMS runs), and with fewer volunteers overall. The volunteers we do have often work more than one job to make ends meet. There are several problems over which we have control; however. One is the sense of complacency and malaise that has overtaken many organizations and individuals.

In my region, the volunteer fire service has generally been able to maintain a fairly strong personnel base that is still managing to keep up with fire protection call volume; however, EMS responses are far outpacing the available resources. It is not uncommon for EMS runs to go to second and third alerts, then mutual-aided to another agency that is often unable to respond as well. Although many volunteers find their time stretched thin, there is still a fine line between being unable to respond and being unwilling to respond, since EMS calls can take double or triple the time of a fire alarm (unless it is a working fire or other substantial emergency).

Please understand, this is not intended to be a negative article. It is meant to get you to think. What is the state of my organization? How can I improve it?

It’s often been said that firefighters, paid or volunteer, are our own worst enemies. It is not uncommon to hear the expression “hundreds of years of service unimpeded by progress.” Let’s look at some other issues that can help us to help ourselves..

Our equipment

A few months ago, I was teaching an advanced life support class at my county EMS academy when I overheard a group of brand new EMT basic students in another area discussing firefighting, a topic we generally don’t spend time on, since we like to keep our focus strictly on EMS. When I put my class on a break, I walked over and just listened.

A couple of two-year “veterans” were explaining to their classmates why they don’t wear their helmet chin straps, citing how they are “uncomfortable,” “not necessary,” and “they rely on their ratchet so they don’t need it.” And my favorite–they “just don’t like it.”

After a minute or two, I interjected. I attempted to explain to them the importance of wearing their chin straps. I explained that I knew many firefighters who have been saved from serious injury because they were wearing their chin straps, myself included; at one incident, a large chunk of ceiling fell on my head at a working fire. (I know only of one isolated incident where a chinstrap itself caused an injury to a firefighter; however, it is not known if the chinstrap was being worn in the proper manner). When these details made no impact, I tried the hard line: “If you don’t care about your health and safety, how about thinking of your brothers and sisters who are going to have to go in and get you, try and treat your burned and deformed head, and live with the nightmares and everything else surrounding your injury– or, God forbid, death? And your family, well, they won’t get your full benefits, because, after all, the department issued you the proper gear and taught you how to wear it, but you were negligent in not wearing it properly. If you’re really lucky and survive, you might face years of surgeries and health problems.” All I received in return for my efforts were blank stares.

A recent argument over drag rescue devices on a popular local Internet firefighting Web board that I moderate went something like this: A firefighter described the new drag rescue devices, which are now mandatory in newly manufactured bunker gear, and explained how they are designed to work. A few brothers posted that they had the new devices in their gear already, but had yet to drill on it.

An insightful brother then had this to say: “What kind of training do you want? Step 1, grab handle. Step 2, pull.” I was flabbergasted. I replied to this brother: “Why do so many fail to understand that ANY NEW TOOL (and this is a tool) needs to be practiced with and drilled with? Am I missing something? Are we that complacent? Lazy? Why is it that we can’t devote an hour or two on a new tool that’s meant to save our lives?”

Another brother, a volunteer as well as a paid firefighter, put it even more succinctly, “When something new is introduced to the brothers…it is to EVERYONE’S benefit to drill on the item and try to fail it. I say fail it because as firemen, we break things. We’re good at it. We’re clumsy, we work in the dark, in heat, when people panic. Equipment has to be tested and pushed to the limit.”

Recently, another Fire Engineering author outlined the changes in the people volunteering for the fire service as well as those trying to stay active. Older members of the community are often unable to find the time to maintain their training requirements, meetings, special details, and so forth–and that doesn’t count actual calls. All of these are (or should be) secondary to family responsibilities. The younger members suffer from lack of mentors. In addition, many of the youths joining no longer have the mechanical aptitude to work with tools or equipment and sometimes don’t even have the common sense to understand the way the world works because of the times they are growing up in. Sometimes, we don’t make it any easier.

When I first started in the volunteer fire service, nothing was done for you. If you wanted to eat after drill periods, you had to buck-up, the department wasn’t buying. There was no “budget line” for it. If the garbage needed to be dumped, you had to do it. There was no janitor. If you lost a tool at a fire, there was no request form to fill out; you had to go shake a can (or boot) on Main Street to buy a replacement. This leads to younger members often not having the pride and ownership in their fire department. Many times, the attitude conveyed is not, “What can I do for my fire department?” but “What can my fire department do for me?”

Turning away potential members

Having served 12 years in his childhood hometown, a local volunteer firefighter purchased his first home, which was in another local community. After he settled in, he noticed the sign at his local firehouse that stated, “Volunteers Needed, EMS only.” His curiosity grew, so he went down on a Sunday morning to fill out an application. Without mentioning his previous experience, he asked about being a firefighter and was informed that the volunteer fire department was not accepting applications, but the volunteer ambulance corps was. He stated that he “wanted to be a firefighter as well as a medic”; he was told, “Our roster is full.” When he inquired about a waiting list, he was told, “We don’t do that out here.” Needless to say, another good firefighter was lost.

Why wouldn’t you take an application from that person to be a member of the department? I’m sure this doesn’t happen anywhere that often, but can any department in this day and age afford to be turning anyone away? With two working spouses, longer commutes, and higher demands being placed on individuals, every volunteer organization can use all the help it can get.

Another case involves a paid firefighter in a large metropolitan fire department looking to join his local volunteer fire department. As a former paramedic, he wanted to perform the EMS functions of the department as a fire-medic, not serve as a firefighter, since he didn’t want to risk injury or cause any union problems (the department had a firefighter status and a fire-medic status). The department gave him an ultimatum: Join as a firefighter, or your services won’t be required. Another potential member lost for no reason.

Mentoring the future generation

A very effective program that very few departments in my area take advantage of is a junior firefighter program. I’ve spoken to several volunteers in other areas, and many confirm they have some type of junior program, whether it is run through the department or the Boy Scout Explorers program.

Having been a lead instructor in a department-wide training program, I’ve had the privilege of teaching many dedicated and professional volunteers. In my present department, I had my second exposure to a junior firefighter program. On one occasion, I assisted with search and rescue training as well as SCBA emergency procedures, and I can honestly say that some of these young firefighters, male and female, were not only extremely competent but on par with fully sworn members of the department .They will be outstanding probationary firefighters when the time comes.

One program I believe is extremely important is establishing some type of “mentoring program.” As captain of my ladder company, this was the program I took the most pride in establishing. Each member of the company who served less than five years was paired with a senior member of the company, be it a former captain or senior firefighter.

I have found that some firefighters find themselves deficient in certain basic skills, whether it is SCBA emergency procedures, handline stretches and repacking the hosebed, or working with power tools. Many are embarrassed to ask such basic questions or procedures in a group-training environment. The predominant goal is to provide one-on-one instruction to those members.

An additional goal key to a volunteer organization was to provide a sounding board for these new and junior members and provide them with someone to pass down traditions about the company and the department; to establish an esprit de corps for our membership. In the time the program was in place while I held office, it received very positive feedback.

Another program which Fire Engineering has launched is a podcast on basic firefighting procedures, The Average Joe Firefighter program. The idea is to take advantage of technology and convey information to the “iPod generation” in a format they are used to. Every department can take advantage of this type of training with just a little bit of motivation and planning.

Where do we go from here?

This is a simple question with two basic answers; the choice is yours. We can focus on the positives and seek to build on them, or we can stay mired in the same patterns and self-destructive behaviors. I always look at the bright side. The best way to begin to improve our department is to focus on training. From there, we can begin to build a better future. Our departments deserve it, and our community, which is ultimately why we are here, deserves it.

Barry S. Daskal is a police officer/aircraft rescue firefighter with the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey Police Department at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. He is also a certified EMT-critical care and clinical lab instructor at the Nassau County (NY) EMS Academy. He has previously served as a police officer with the New York City Police Department (NYPD) and as a supervising fire alarm dispatcher with the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). He has been a volunteer firefighter since 1990 and has served as a captain and training officer. He is a member of the Wantagh Fire Department in Nassau County, New York. He is also the host of the Fire Engineering‘s Average Joe Firefighter podcast.

Subjects: volunteer fire service issues, mentoring program, firefighter training