BY BOBBY HALTON
I was driving home a few days ago with a good friend and fellow firefighter when we passed a firehouse with the apparatus bay door busted out—from the inside. We looked at each other, sighed, and said nothing; those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. If you have been working on the job for less than a month or two and you have not seen it yet or had it happen, hang on—it will. It is what most of us would call a “stupid” mistake, a dumb move, the kind of mistake we should be able to catch, prevent, and avoid. These types of mistakes are costly in terms of money and inconvenience but also in terms of precious time; sometimes, they can cost lives.
It usually goes down this way: We leave a compartment door open while we are cleaning or checking our tools; then, in our haste and excitement when we get a run, we forget to close it, and if we don’t tear it off when we leave the bay, we toss a $5,000 hydraulic tool down the street. Either situation is hard to explain to the chief and can prevent us from doing what we are needed to do.
I think we can fix this. I have had an idea for a few years, but it has not been widely accepted, maybe because it is too simple. I had almost given up, but maybe its time has come. I recently read where there is growing use of the solution in almost every other highly complex industry, so maybe now is our time also.
The answer was found in the early 1930s, during the first days of aviation. Some really smart Army pilots discovered that often when trying to fly, especially new aircraft, they would forget or overlook simple things like putting the flaps up or lowering the landing gear. Mistakes in airplanes can result in very bad things happening to the people inside those planes. So the early flyboys figured out how to minimize simple or routine mistakes. It seems so obvious that we should have been doing it years ago, but we can’t know everything. I didn’t know this solution existed until a few years ago when my son decided to become a naval aviator.
The short story is, the fire service has long struggled with simple, routine mistakes like not wearing seat belts, which is bad if the rig stops unexpectedly, and like driving through apparatus bay doors because the dispatcher said the words, “multiple reports of a working structure fire.” My personal all-time best was driving four blocks in the wrong direction because I thought my driver knew where he was going and he thought I did.
So about four years ago, my son gave me some sage advice, and I realized that my children are all smarter than I and probably have been from birth. I was in Texas visiting with my flyboy son and his fellow Navy aviators in training, and I was lamenting that the fire service was struggling with these unfortunately common problems—problems surrounding driving and responding to emergencies while seconds mattered and emotions were high. I told the young warriors that I thought we would always have this problem because, well, what we do is high-risk, dangerous stuff.
As I looked over my beer at five blank stares, the young man sitting next to my son said, “Sir, we are Navy combat pilots. We do dangerous stuff, and we might have a solution to your problem. When we launch an aircraft, there are two rules we never break: The first one, given to us by Admiral Rickover, is, Do it the same way every time, no shortcuts, no exceptions. Second, do all your checklists before launching. So if you want to stop the normal predictable, stupid accidents you are describing, make checklists and develop a launch sequence.”
Now I was being lectured by a 20-something who had never crawled down a hot, smoky hallway, and I was not about to take it on the chin from this pretty boy “aviator,” so I chimed in, “But you don’t get it: In my line of work, firefighting, seconds matter, and lives hang in the balance.” More blank stares. “Sir,” he said, “we are rescue helicopter and combat pilots.” Unimpressed, I continued, “What if one of you went down and you were hurt or in the water?” He replied, “Sir, the good admiral taught us to do it the same way every time, always do your checklists, and no one gets hurt. Break either rule, and bad things happen.”
He said, “Sir, here is the deal: You don’t write long ‘everything’ lists—just the deadly or mission-ending ones. Say you wanted to launch a fire truck. Here is a possible checklist that should be written, a DO-CONFIRM list:
1 Officer: All emergency equipment (lights, siren, brakes) working? Driver confirms.
2 Driver: Address verified and route selected? Officer confirms.
3 Officer: All compartment doors closed and station door open? Driver confirms.
4 Driver: Everyone seat belted and all cabin tools secure? All confirm.”
He finished, “Now you can launch your fire truck.”
I was convinced, but I did say we can’t use the word “launch” with fire trucks. So now I am wondering, where else can we use checklists to make the things that are truly predictable safer and reduce the “stupid” mistakes that can inhibit our ability to do what we are needed to do (and hopefully someday stop having to pay for fire station apparatus bay doors over and over and over again)?
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