Tactical Safety: A High Level of Risk

By Ray McCormack

Why do fire departments resist change? It’s the million dollar question the fire service grapples with every day and, like the free money giveaway at the Mint, it’s best done tomorrow. Change is one thing, but recognition for the need to change is another and, of course, implementation is still another resister.

While departments vary and many have special circumstances, tactical norms don’t change. Fire attack needs to be efficient and effective and your apparatus needs to reflect that. What happens is many who are in charge lead a system where vertical integration of ideas is prohibited or prohibitive. This systemic communications breakdown keeps many new ideas at bay. To question or deviate from the current platform is something that should be entertained, not smothered.

While some aspects of what we do will never radically change, not every change should be considered radical, either. Often what is considered so different is only that way due to a narrow knowledge window. When you have leaders who do not have the broad knowledge required or, worse, don’t see the need for such, you typically won’t see much change.

When a district is examined for the type of stretches that would be required due to building height, construction, and placement and a problem is recognized but ignored, we have an issue. To ignore a fire attack problem with an affordable or free solution option while having the necessary authority to change it is a breach of public trust and a leadership failure.

The fire service is the problem solver, but not with itself. No, instead issues are just ignored and rationalized in the “now is not a good time to take that on” category. We have so many excuses to pick from so it’s easier to do that. If we change,  it may require us to retrain our people. We can’t afford that! The excuses, such as “We haven’t had an issue so far,” go on and the risk-reward bell never sounds on these issues because that is our worst tradition. Our future platform of operational failures is built on today’s excuses. You see most LODDs start way before arrival on the fireground.

Risk a lot to save a lot doesn’t apply here; however, risk little to save a lot does.  People in charge of fire engines and firefighters need to examine their world minus the rosy glasses and spend a bit more time truly understanding the community in which they work. The way to do this is not by having firehouse visits and attending community events, but by analyzing the buildings where we operate and our capabilities when they are on fire.

The soft skills that are so highly valued by so many today typically result in soft accomplishments. Leaders who can brush away fireground operational interests need to be seen as extreme risk takers–not of their life, but of yours. When the people in charge, supposedly our best and brightest, don’t get it, maybe we deserve the results for allowing such a disconnect to exist, but the community never does. Maybe fires are down or your call volume trends you in another direction, but either way you are increasing operational risk by not analyzing our business and acting on those findings. Not sure what to do after a result is found? Talk to someone, lay off the excuses, do some research, do the work involved, find the fix to the problem. It’s typically right in front of your nose. 

Dedicated community fireground analysis, with an eye toward improved service delivery on the fireground, should mean everything to a department and those in it. For those who only think about firefighters going home as some operational benchmark, try and expand your interest to include the community so they can go home to something, too. Hand wringing and hoping things don’t go bad is a really tight rope to walk. If tactical safety for your people is important, then tomorrow find something better to do than wait on the giveaway line.

Keep Fire in Your Life

RAY McCORMACK is a 30-year veteran and a lieutenant with FDNY. He is the publisher and editor of Urban Firefighter Magazine. He delivered the keynote address at FDIC in 2009 and he is on the Editorial Board of Fire Engineering Magazine. For more on Urban Firefighter, visit http://www.fireengineering.com/urbanfirefighter.html.



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