Leadership

Paul Strong: RIC for Real: Learning from Our Mistakes

By Paul Strong

For many of us, the fire service is a job; for many more, it’s a volunteer position. Either way, when it comes to a firefighter inside a burning building who is in need of help, it’s a responsibility. Funding, staffing, equipment–it doesn’t matter what the issues are when you have limited air (life) on your back and you can’t get out.  You may or may not have control over the “issues” in your department, but you do have control over at least one thing: personal accountability.

Rapid intervention should not be just another term.  If you are assigned to a rapid intervention company (RIC) on scene, then you are responsible. If you get deployed to rescue a firefighter, then you are accountable.  Why does it seem so easy to let our rapid intervention skills slide to the back burner more often than not?  There are many reasons that I can think of, but once I step back and look at the bigger picture, I call them excuses.  The bigger picture is a firefighter’s life being at stake in your presence while you are responsible and being held accountable for your actions (or inactions).  In 2010, the U.S. Fire Administration reported that 13 firefighters died while involved with interior operations at a structure fire. Although this is a relatively small number, it only takes one firefighter down to be too many.

It’s time for your organization to reengage (or engage) into rapid intervention preparedness.  Chief officers need to revisit their policies, training officers need to revisit their procedures, company officers need to revisit (or visit) their leadership abilities, and firefighters need to continually practice their craft.  Responding to alarms is reactive; being prepared is proactive. Even a well-prepared department will react to a firefighter death in the organization. The members will study the event itself, the policies and procedures surrounding the event, the training effort, approach, delivery models, and more (as we all should) to learn from the tragedy.  But I bet we can reduce the risk of losing a firefighter on scene if we become more proactive to rapid intervention preparedness.

Start with your policies.  When was the last update? Do they even exist? Are they well written or “over” written? Does everybody have a good working knowledge of the policies?  These are the foundation by which we will operate.  Policies will guide our actions on the training ground and on the alarm. Without this foundation people will start freelancing on scene. Since firefighters are “go-getters,” there will be many people working within an unorganized effort and this could be a problem.  Critical decision making during changing conditions is best served when there is a foundation of solid policies that have guided our training and experiences. 

The meaning and the intent of the word training have been reduced in my opinion. All too often our training consists of going through the motions to remain compliant.  Although there are a lot of routine things that can’t be spiced up in a training evolution, I still see too many missed opportunities to develop meaningful training.  Nothing beats realistic training. Since it’s not a good idea to drop a building on a firefighter for training purposes, we need to be creative. Develop evolutions based on realistic possibilities and build props if needed. Seek acquired structures to train in. Find that house or business that is boarded up or slated for demolition. Contact the owners and see what you can do. This will give your crews unfamiliar territory to train in, kind of like the next fire they go to.  It takes creativity to make your training meaningful and effort to make it come to life. It’s worth it. 

Leadership is also one of those elusive words that’s hard to define with certainty.  Becoming an effective fire service leader doesn’t have a clear beginning, and there is absolutely no end. An event doesn’t take place or a certificate earned that says “you’re now a leader.”  Developing effective leadership skills is a process that takes place consistently over time. Company officers must be effective leaders. These are the people who are choreographing the attempted rescue at the company level.  A company officer that is an effective leader will have a crew of leaders they have developed or are developing.  This crew will be proactively prepared for the RIC deployment and operate as a well-oiled machine. Rapid intervention can’t be approached with anything less than a well-choreographed crew of skilled people who operate as a well-oiled machine.  Wouldn’t you want that crew coming for you?

Complacency will kill firefighters, and so does living in the past about how good you are (or were).  Get out and practice your craft. You know who you are.  Stop. Right now you just envisioned someone else who has a weakness and needs to train more. Try a mirror because it’s you, me, and every member of the fire service.  We have all become complacent at times. We have all thought about the evolution we’ve done a thousand times and know we’re good at it. The reality may be that the last time you performed this evolution had been a long time ago and your skills are a little rusty. Is mediocrity good enough for rescuing a firefighter? I think not.  Be responsible for yourself, and take action to become better. If a firefighter is trapped in a burning building and your rapid intervention efforts aren’t successful, you will be your own worst critic about your preparedness and whether or not you could have been more effective.  This will be an emotional burden that will haunt the toughest firefighter.

Rapid intervention is about stepping up to the plate, holding yourself, your peers, and your subordinates accountable.  You owe it to your brothers and sisters to be proactive and keep your skills fine-tuned, and they owe it to you. It’s too easy to put this on the back burner because of the low frequency of the need for firefighter rescues. As stated previously, one firefighter in trouble is one too many. The fire service has a strength that doubles as a weakness–the team concept. There is no argument about how a team in the fire service can be very effective and successful. However, the weakness of the team is that it gives individuals the opportunity to hide their personal weaknesses under the team umbrella. Not all fire service members take advantage of this opportunity, but all fire service members have the opportunity to be honest about their weaknesses. Be honest with your skills and performance, because excellence is found in openness, not bravado.  Step back and evaluate your personal readiness, your crew readiness, and your organizational readiness for rapid intervention. Identify those weaknesses and work on them. Just the same, identify those strengths and capitalizes on them for the betterment of your department and its members. Being average is not good enough.

BIO

Paul Strong is a 23-year veteran of the fire service and a shift captain at the Valley Regional Fire Authority in King County, Washington. He is the creator and lead instructor of RIC for REAL, The Road to Fire Service Leadership, and Fire Ground Practices – First on Scene. He has lectured across the country on rapid intervention, tactics, and leadership and is the program developer for the original hands-on RIC for REAL training.