By Raul A. Angulo
Have you ever asked a police officer what type of hand gun he carries for a side arm? A cop will tell you more than you want to know about the make, model, caliber, magazine capacity, and pistol grip. Have you ever asked a firefighter what type of nozzles the department carries on its engines? I am sad to report that many don’t know. (If you’re reading this magazine, you’re not one of them.) I have heard more than one firefighter give answers like such as “1¾-inch and 2½-inch nozzles”; “The ones the fire department buys”; and, “When I came in, we used to have brass and chrome nozzles; now we have lightweight nozzles.” These answers are partially correct. I’ve also asked firefighters to name at least three gun manufacturers; everyone was able to answer Colt, Smith & Wesson, Springfield, Remington, Glock, or Beretta. Then I asked them to name the top three nozzle manufacturers. Very few could answer Akron, Elkhart, and Task Force Tips. Why is that? It’s the elite, expert firefighters who can name the make, model, tip pressure, and gallonage of the nozzles carried on their apparatus.
Pathway to Expertise
The fire service attracts a specific type of individual. We are public service-oriented people who thrive on helping others in times of extreme crisis and chaos. Only select individuals will be allowed to do this, so they had better be good at what they’re supposed to do. Whenever there is a documentary on any of our military’s Special Forces, firefighters become glued to the TV. Why is that? Because we enjoy watching experts do what they do. We relate to that. But how expert and elite are we really? When the people of our community have a devastating event, they don’t call the Navy Seals; they call their fire department, because we’re their experts. So how do we get to expert? With an enthusiastic attitude and a commitment to training. How much are you willing to invest in yourself to become the best you can be?
Let’s start with competence. Be an expert at the basic Firefighter I and II skills. All fire departments have very good entry-level training programs. Mastering Firefighter I and II skills usually takes place within the first two years of your career. In addition, fire departments pack the training calendar with annually required training in the areas of emergency medical services, hazmat, and technical rescue. Repetitive training in the basic skills is also required to prevent skill degradation and maintain efficiency. That leaves very little time for anything else.
Though most fire departments have great firefighter training programs, very few have excellent officer development courses. After the promotion process, many company officers are “self-taught” and learn how to be an officer in the school of hard knocks. This is invaluable experience, but it also wastes a lot of time–sometimes years! Because required annual training is repetitive, it becomes boring. It takes a dedicated and creative company officer to keep the crew engaged and take them to the next level of expertise. That is easier said than done. How many times have you announced a company drill only to hear, “We already know how to do that, Lieutenant? That’s why the #1 question national instructors get is, “Can you give us some ideas on what to drill on for drill night?” Drills You’re Not Going to Find in the Books answers that question, but first let’s take inventory on where you’re at and what you’re up against.
Dreading the Company Drill
What type of atmosphere do you create for a company drill? Is it conducive to learning? Or is it dreaded? If your crew dreads drilling, let’s look at some potential reasons. Do you enjoy making your crew look stupid? Now, no one is going to admit this, but it’s all about perception. If your crew perceives you enjoy making them look stupid, especially in front of the battalion chief, then that’s how it is. Some officers like to show off (especially in front of the battalion chief). They use a drill as an opportunity to demonstrate how smart they are–at the crew’s expense. These are huge negatives and obstacles to getting to the next level of expertise.
Firefighters also fear exposure—showing that they don’t know something they should know or that have no knowledge on a specific subject. Firefighters don’t like to look stupid or dumb in front of their peers. And when it comes to performance, they hate to be teased. It’s all about saving face.
Training and company drills should always be viewed as an opportunity to learn something new and a chance to raise the level of expertise. Who doesn’t want to be good at what they do? So, this should be a positive. That’s the reason drilling should not be punitive or used as a form of discipline. This associates drilling with a negative. Hazing is a form of teasing and is prohibited in many fire departments, so keep that association away from drilling and training as well; it’s another negative. Use common sense. If an engine or a ladder evolution was performed “unsatisfactorily” during the annual company evaluations with the battalion chief, you need to that firefighter go back and practice that evolution until he makes the required times without errors. That is a good type of discipline, not punitive discipline.
Help your crew understand the difference. For example, if an engine company messes up when charging a standpipe and advancing an attack line to the fifth floor on an actual incident or at a battalion evaluation, take that company out and run that evolution over and over until they get it right. I wouldn’t have a problem with that. That is a reasonable expectation. But if that same company were out of uniform and playing ping pong at 0900 hours when the fire chief suddenly dropped by the station, you wouldn’t take them out and a run a standpipe evolution. That situation reflects more poorly on the company officer’s leadership style and organizational skills than it does on the crew. Then, of course, there are crews that are just plain lazy; however, again, that reflects more poorly on the officer’s style of leadership and organizational skills than on the crew.
Buddy to Boss Syndrome
Much has been written on this subject. It’s natural to want to be liked by others; but if you are a supervisor, they already don’t like you (in a friendly way). The buddy-to-boss syndrome boils down to this: You used to be one of the guys, maybe even the leader. The camaraderie was strong and seemed invincible. But now you’ve been promoted. You are no longer one of the guys. Trust me, they already know this. The only one having trouble figuring this out is you! The thing to remember is that you are going to be held accountable for the performance of your crew. When something serious happens and you get called on the carpet in front of the chief, you’ll be cured. When you get back to the station, you’ll figure out which one you want to be.
Capturing the Expertise
Fire Department of New York Deputy Chief (Ret.) Vincent Dunn used to say, “There’s no silver bullet” and “There’s nothing new under the sun,” meaning that there’s not just one way to do something and that throughout the history of the fire service, every idea has been tried in one form or another. Fire has been around since caveman days and human dwellings have historically taken the shape of a box. So in its simplest form, firefighting is applying water onto a burning box. Look at an aerial picture of any city on Google Earth. What do you see? Rows and stacks of boxes! There are only so many ways to get water into, and smoke out of, a box. Occupants are either protected in place or exit the box through the doors, windows, basement, and tunnels; over bridges; or being airlifted off the roof. How many ways can you make a rescue?
Take, for example, a senior crew of four firefighters, each with 30 years on the job. If they all retired at once, that’s 120 years of experience walking out the door. Unless you capture it, it’s gone. Senior members know the tricks of the trade. They’ve been exposed to many ways of applying water on the burning boxes and getting the smoke and people out of them. Often, the reason they never passed on this information is because no one ever bothered to ask.
The majority of the boxes (buildings) in every American city are still 20th century structures. In my opinion, the old strategy and tactic books are still relevant because the buildings they refer to are still standing! Therefore, if you want to know how the “old guys” used to fight fire, it is important to read the old books. To truly comprehend modern firefighting, a student of fire should have knowledge of the old tactics to understand how they have evolved over the years. The problem is, many of these texts, which are more than 50 years old, are out of print; so the information is not readily accessible to new firefighters. You have to hunt for it, but it’s still there. I have 37 years in the fire service. Drills You’re Not Going to Find in the Books is my attempt at sharing tricks of the trade that I’ve learned and experimented with over the years. (I retired June 2015.)
Does Practice Make Perfect?
Practice makes for perfection only when the task is practiced correctly. A procedure done incorrectly will never become right simply because it’s practiced. Perfection doesn’t consist of doing extraordinary things but in doing ordinary things extraordinarily well. And you can’t engineer your way out of bad behavior either. The time to correct errors is during the drill. It is practically impossible to correct mistakes on the fireground. Fewer errors will occur on the fireground if we had spent the time drilling on the procedures beforehand.
Set your crew expectations for riding assignments and responsibilities for EMS and cardio-pulmonary resuscitation calls. These calls can go deteriorate if you develop your action plan on the fly. Have a solid fire attack plan for initial company operations involving
· a house fire,
· an apartment fire,
· a commercial fire,
· a hazardous materials response, and
· a multiple casualty incident.
The initial actions in the above categories need to be set up the right way for the rest of the incident to be managed effectively. Get it right. Practice as you play. Your life depends on it.
What to Drill On
If you want to identify training needs or deficiencies in fireground operations, just open a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health report on a line-of-duty death. Read case studies on major fires involving firefighter injuries and deaths. Read the firefighter close call websites, and study the plethora of videos on YouTube. All these sources of information are indicators pointing to the causes of firefighter injuries or deaths. They are gauges, tracking behavioral trends and consequences within the fire service. If we agree that most fire departments have excellent training programs for Firefighter I and II certifications, then the problems are being encountered outside of Firefighter I and II skill levels. For example, a firefighter who falls through the first floor into a burning basement. Provided the firefighter is not injured, are we teaching ways a firefighter can self-extricate from a basement? I have a drill called The Wall that teaches numerous ways a firefighter can climb up a seven-foot wall to a window using a variety of single tools like a halligan, a pike pole, a section of hose, an axe, or a carabiner with webbing. These techniques can be single skills or done in conjunction with a partner.
In the same scenario, how can a single firefighter assist in the rescue from the exterior? By shoving a roof ladder down into the window of the basement. If there isn’t a window, how quickly can the firefighter make one?
Other drills challenges include the following: How do you call for help when you lose the microphone to your portable radio? How do you call for help when you’re pinned under a structure? How do you secure a jumper to a bridge? How do you know if you’re on the right radio channel and, if not, how do you get there in zero visibility?
In a post 9/11 world, there are no more “normal” emergencies. Anything imaginable can happen, and it’s not always going to be in a major American city. It can be in your town with its limited resources. You can’t hesitate and wonder how New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Seattle would handle it. You have to make the decision. And whatever action you take, it’s must be your expert call.