Fire EMS, Firefighter Training, Firefighting

Don’t Bet Your Life: The Sin of Complacency

By Robert Stumpf

Do you look forward to Sundays, glued to the tube, hoping your teams will cover the spread? Recently, while listening to a fellow firefighter describe the point spread of a given National Football League (NFL) game, I started to wonder about another type of gambling; one that hit close to home for me as I had found myself playing the odds at work.

A career in the fire service is predicated by risk-taking; you cannot do the job without taking some chances. With training, education, and experience, those risks are calculated and weighed for their potential benefit before we blindly rush in to “do our duty.” But how much of what we do every day contributes to our becoming complacent about our job?

Think about your last response. Was it an active alarm? A motor vehicle accident? A civilian with chest pain? How did it go?

Too often, we respond on the so-called “routine” so many times that we get stuck in a rut. All of us have been there, when the third or fourth call to a building musters feelings of discontent, and we look at making the run as a burden that gets in the way of our plans. Our guys sometimes joke that our motto should be a variation of the cops’ mantra, “To Protect and Serve,” only ours is “To Protect and Reset” because of the large number of activated false alarms from the university we protect. It is sometimes difficult to be motivated to don your personal protective equipment when you are responding to the same student housing building that you’ve been to three times today.

I work for two different fire departments in two very different capacities. I am a battalion chief/training officer for a municipal fire department, and a part-time firefighter for a township fire department. Balancing my time between both jobs provides me the opportunity to take an active role in progressive change in my role as an administrator and while maintaining a “boots on the ground” approach to continuing to learn the job as a tail-end firefighter. As the training officer, I am constantly preaching to the membership on the importance of safety, self rescue, survival skills, and being properly equipped on the fireground. I have pleaded with firefighters on a number of occasions to make the $5 investment in a pair of wire cutters, to carry some extra webbing and a carabiner, and to treat each call as if it is the next “big one.”

Three months ago, I lost my Gerber Multi Tool that I carry in my turnouts on a run to an apartment building just off the campus that our department protects. The initial dispatch certainly sounded like the real deal: “Caller is in a basement apartment and is trapped by smoke in the hallway.”

In the end, it turned out to be steam from a burst water heater. When trying to prop open a window to vent the steam, I left my pliers behind. Then, a month ago, I broke my right-angle flashlight during a training exercise. During this same exercise, I borrowed the carabiner I carry with my webbing to demonstrate securing an anchor for a window bailout. Individually, these seemingly innocuous events probably wouldn’t amount to much, but during my last shift with the township department, it occurred to me—I had become the very thing against which I have preached.

As a tail-end firefighter who is responsible for entering into limited visibility and high-risk environments, I had seen fit to not equip myself with wire cutters, carabiner, and a working flashlight. When I lost the pliers, I recalled thinking I needed to replace them, but three months down the road, I had done nothing. And when my light broke, I made a mental note to grab the backup I kept in my basement next the paint cans on the shelf. But again, here I was without a light in my turnouts. HOW DID I GET HERE?

After being the guy who preached against this very thing, how did I manage to fall into the same traps that others have? I have always railed against those whose “lack of dedication” or “professionalism” had allowed them to sleepwalk their way through the job I love so much. This hit me like a gut punch.

Then and there, standing on the apparatus floor, I made a conscious decision to not work another shift without coming to work properly equipped. The next evening, when I showed up for the night tour, I placed a new pair of wire cutters into my chest pocket of my coat and a pair of medic shears into my left pants pocket. I brought the Army surplus flashlight from the basement and the carabiner I had loaned to the training tower.

Satisfied with having addressed my equipment shortcomings, I started to wonder again how my complacency over the course of 3 months had taken root almost unnoticed. A call at 0300 hours would serve as the hint I was looking for. We were dispatched on a mutual-aid assist for tanker operations at a working fire just north of our district. With my newly placed tools, I set about mentally preparing myself for what I would be doing on arrival. What might have been a chance to “get some fire” in another department’s jurisdiction turned out to be a two-hour exercise in fill-and-dump operations. I stood watching our chauffer and asked myself out loud, “What behavior is this run reinforcing?” Two hours later, we were back at the station, and I realized that the nature of the alarms to which I had been responding and the lack of alarms altogether had manifested themselves in my being content with not carrying the appropriate tools in my turnouts. The lack of any response for which I had a need for any of those items created a mentality that justified not carrying them at all. It just isn’t that often that you are going to be tested.

So, what does any of this have to do with you? Our behaviors—good or bad—are the result of reinforcement, positive and negative. And what happens to us each shift provides the reinforcement for the behavior we exhibit on the next alarm. If the majority of your run load is active alarms, service calls, mutual-aid assists, and so on, then you start to exhibit behavior that demonstrates your expectations of those types of calls. For me, given that I work only fill-in shifts as a part-time firefighter, it had been several shifts since I had even made a run. I had come to expect that each shift would be much the same: Socializing, TV, maybe some training, and a full night’s rest. Why on Earth would I need to carry all that extraneous equipment when I wasn’t ever going to need it?

Think about the last run you made. What behaviors did it reinforce? Was it yet another false alarm, telling you once again that the coat, helmet, and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) are overkill? Was it an EMS assist where the medics showed up the same time you, and you managed to stand back or get the cot so your own shortcomings with patient care and assessment remain undiscovered? At any given time, it is possible (and quite natural) to let your guard down, to allow yourself to take the easy way out. Unfortunately, we work in a service that can be remarkably unforgiving.

In what type of community do you live and work? Do you know the average citizen’s expectations of its first responders? There are many taxpayers out there who, as long as they can drive by the firehouse and see a shiny red truck inside, feel all “warm and fuzzy” and otherwise don’t want to be bothered with the ins-and-outs of emergency response. This usually manifests itself in short staffing, uphill struggles for funding and equipment, and so on. Sound familiar?

Other communities expect the absolute highest level of protection that money can buy. These expectations usually manifest themselves in new trucks every few years, state-of-the-art training facilities, and enough firefighters on scene that they could put most fires out. If your community has those types of expectations of you as a first responder, odds are that your department is highly visible and you have the resources necessary to meet those expectations. These communities expect that firefighters are skilled in all aspects of technical rescue, firefighting, hazmat, and a host of other disciplines. But other communities’ expectations are much lower, and this is where complacency about the job is often allowed to take hold. If the public is apathetic with regards to the type and quality of the service provided, then chances are the providers will eventually feel the same way.

Even in the most progressive of departments, there are some issues that manage to slip through the cracks, that don’t keep up with their training, that aren’t diligent about fighting the battle against complacency. The most headstrong and dedicated firefighters sometimes find themselves bitten by the same bug. The odds being played are no different than the roll of the dice that some politicians are willing to make when they short-staff engines or close firehouses. More often than not, they will get away with it, no major catastrophe will occur, and there will be no public outcry. But when they do, the price is typically high, resulting in negative press for entire organization, and ill-will from the community.

Becoming complacent about the runs we make doesn’t make you a bad person or a poor firefighter. It is a natural and human reaction to a set of reinforcers that we come to expect not to have to do certain things, use specific equipment. If, over time, we get away with not wearing our SCBA, our seat belts, or our hoods, then we develop a rationale that tells us that nothing bad can come of it. Complacency can creep in, take root and, before you know it, you aren’t checking your pack at the start of the shift, your batteries in your light are dead, and maybe your hood is missing. Then, you quit reading the articles and the books, stop going to the fire schools, and start to see the tones dropping as a nuisance.

Think of any one of a dozen things you do every tour that you might skip because it’s sometimes inconvenient or time-consuming. Could you justify doing it to your family?  Can you imagine some chief officer telling your wife and kids you’d be here today if you had only checked your SCBA or replaced your batteries? It’s that serious! It can happen to anyone.

It happened to me, and I am no better than anyone doing this job, but thankfully I caught myself committing the sin of complacency. You have to fight everyday to keep it out. Make a commitment to yourself, to your community, and to your department to not be one of “those” guys. For every shift you work, for as long as you do this job, you will have to resist the urge to skip the truck/equipment check, put off the training drill, or replace the worn out bunker coat. It is a battle you have to fight; you have to rage against it every time you show up at the firehouse.

Choosing to engage in the fight against complacency will make you a better firefighter and a leader for others to follow. If you are going to bet on something, stick to the big game on Sunday; don’t play the odds with your job or your life.

Robert Stumpf is a 17-year member of the fire service, currently in Berthoud, Colorado.