FDIC 2012: Varone and Polenzani Teach Unique Firefighter Topics During Thursday Sessions

After a second emotional and celebratory opening ceremony, the start of Thursday class sessions at FDIC 2012 featured two unique subjects that broadened students’ overall perspective otheir profession.  


“Social media continues to be a major concern to fire departments. The cases we are seeing are showing no signs of abating,” announced Providence (RI) Deputy Chief (Ret.) Curt Varone.

“Many departments are using social media to speak directly to the public raising important policy questions. Firefighters and fire chiefs continue to struggle with the balance between personal privacy and free speech rights of the employee versus the right of the department to control misconduct.”

Varone cited several important First Amendment cases, some going as high up as the Supreme Court, such as San Diego vs. John Roe, which involved a San Diego, California, police officer who sued the department after being fired for making pornographic videos and selling them over the Internet, accusing the department of violating his First Amendment rights to free speech since he felt his conduct was unrelated to his job.

The case, after having rulings in favor of and against the officer (through multiple California courts) made its way to the Supreme Court, which quickly ruled in favor of the department, claiming that the termination was justified on the grounds that the officer’s conduct was detrimental to the department’s image and standards.

Varone continued, “A growing list of citizen advocates, many of whom have been injured by the improper release of incident scene photos and information by firefighters, are tired of lame excuses from firefighters and fire chiefs alike.”  

Varone provided five main rules that departments should follow when taking photos at fire and accident scenes, which follow:

  1. Clarify ownership of photo.
  2. Limit photo-taking to department cameras.
  3. Limit photo-taking purposes.
  4. Manage and archive all photos taken and establish a downloading procedure.
  5. Control the release and use of photos.

Varone concluded, “They are lobbying at the State and Federal levels to impose criminal sanctions against emergency personnel who improperly release photos or incident related information. What is clear is that either we in the fire service are fixing this problem internally, or someone outside the fire service is going to fix it for us!”


Franklin (TN) Fire Department Captain Joseph Polenzani conducted this class on a subject that seems to be an afterthought to many firefighters. However, considering that there are more than 300,000 fast food restaurants  in the United States, it is almost guaranteed that your department will be responding to a fire at one of these at some point.  

“Many departments spend a large percentage of their fire training hours focused on residential fires, which makes sense, since that’s where we do most of our work.  However, in the wake of tragedies like the Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse fire in 1999, Phoenix’s Southwest Supermarket fire in 2001, and the Charleston Sofa Superstore fire in 2007, we’ve become much more aware of the dangers associated with commercial structures,” said Polenzani. “Unfortunately, many fast food restaurants are a deadly mix of the two: They’re lightweight commercial buildings that are sized and designed to look like residential structures.”

 Polenzani continued, “With the average McDonald’s occupying about 4,000 square feet, it’s not unusual for more affluent communities to have entire neighborhoods full of homes that are 50-75 percent larger than the restaurant up the road. This disparity in size, coupled with the restaurant’s “homey” appearance, can often lead fire officers and incident commanders to approach these buildings with a residential mindset that is both inefficient and unsafe.” However, Polenzani became intrigued by the subject after an inservice class he taught revealed that students had no thoughts about dealing with an incident at the local McDonald’s. “It’s one of those things that we really don’t think about,” he said.

Polenzani cited a Valentine’s Day 2000 McDonald’s fire in Houston, Texas, which killed two firefighters, as a case study in forcible entry at these businesses.

He discussed ways to “see through” the building’s design and identify factors contributing to truss failure and collapse including heavy roof loads, fire in void spaces, restaurant-specific considerations for size-up, fire flow, offensive/defensive decisions, and forcible entry and egress.

Polenzani concluded, “Many fast food restaurants are dangerous examples of form NOT following function, as the buildings use roof parapets, facades, suspended ceilings, or other decorative features to match their chain’s image or theme. In this class, we discussed the effects of modern restaurant construction on fire spread and suppression, search, ventilation, and firefighter safety.”

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