BY ALAN BRUNACINI
Last month we started a discussion about the challenge new firefighters have using education, training, and coaching to somehow overcome their lack of fireground experience. Fires are now burning hotter and faster. Modern lightweight buildings and contents are developing collapse and flashover conditions in times that make traditional fire service training doctrine dangerously obsolete—it is a challenge to keep informed on how the latest fire test done in a sophisticated laboratory by a group of very savvy fire scientists has shattered a century-old belief we all studied when we were beginning lad and lassie fire brats.
Another concern the young firefighters have is the experience drain that is now going on in our service. Between the economic times and the demonization of public workers, many old soldiers are hanging up their helmets simply to protect their pensions. The effect of this senior exit migration is that we now are promoting firefighters to be company officers and response chiefs who do not have a traditional amount of experience. These young folk are typically very capable and well-prepared (in the time they have had to prepare) and will perform in an excellent way; they must now just compress a lot of preparation in a short period to put enough lessons in their noggins to keep ahead of the old and new collapse/flashover demons.
A major learning/understanding/doing response I believe young firefighters/officers must develop is to refine their curiosity. They must build and continually expand their natural inclination to wonder about the operational and tactical world around them and then use any resource available to learn about that curiosity. To do that effectively, they must expand a full range of learning resources and develop the capability to effectively access and use those resources. In real simple terms, that means learn from everyone, every place, every time, and everything. The world is full of lessons that must be “mined”—they will not just land in your lap or run you down and hold you still until you learn them.
A long time ago, at the human assembly plant I came up short (literally) on looks and long on curiosity. The lack of handsome part prevented me from being the homecoming king (Wow! What a thought for a short/fat guy!), but the curiosity part caused me to both wonder a lot about the things around me and then to try to learn more about whatever I wondered about. I became a firefighter when I was 21 years old. We went through a very basic one-week recruit academy that involved mostly how to roll and unroll 2½-inch hose and how to consistently get the white part of the ladder (tip) up and the black part (butt) down.
Our boss was called “The Drillmaster.” This was an accurate job title for our guy because he had gone to the Devil’s Island/Alcatraz School of Personnel Management. Any recruit who dared to ask a question got to wear a hydrant wrench on a rope around his neck for the rest of the day. This effectively created a very keep-your-mouth-shut, “avoid-the-punisher” reaction among the recruits. I always had the strong suspicion that the plug wrench deal was mostly because he really didn’t know the answer to a lot of the questions (I kept that feeling to myself*).
* Just to show there is some eventual justice in the world, I later became his boss … I always kindly answered his questions.
After we “graduated,” he told us where we were assigned and gave us an inspirational send-off: He told us that none of us would ever amount to anything. I would later understand that that was a fairly common generational send-off older members gave to the new guys (all guys then).
My initial assignment was to be the “booter” on Engine 1, a busy two-piece company (pump and hose wagon) that responded in the downtown business district. I was very happy with my assignment, but my curiosity about the job exceeded the supply of local information support that was available to me at that time.
I explored where a curious young person would go to get a fire service education, and the smart money directed me to Oklahoma State University (OSU) School of Fire Protection. I applied for and received an educational leave of absence and was off to scenic Stillwater, Oklahoma. I became a proud graduate of that program in 1960 and have been “going to school” ever since.
The educational program at OSU in those days covered a full range of fire department courses and a complete overview of basic fire protection. The combination of both subjects provided for me the opportunity to connect manual fire suppression (i.e., “firefighting”) with a full range of fire protection responses that together describe a complete fire protection system. As a very young beginning firefighter, I thought of fire protection as only the physical act of applying water on the fire with fire streams.
The OSU courses took us through a very practical description of the standard pieces and parts of the overall fire protection system. We studied the content and intent of the standard fire and building codes. We began to understand how the planning and design of a new building had to reflect compliance in the blueprints that form a technical picture of the building. A critical part of the design had to match the building’s size, arrangement, and intended use.
Included in the design were requirements for things like standard exits, corridors, alarm systems, standpipes, separation of floors/fire areas, and automatic sprinkler systems. When the building is complete and inspected, a certificate of occupancy (“birth certificate”) is granted, and that place is then routinely inspected to be certain it continues to comply with the codes. How the building is managed and maintained will have a major effect on its safety and how we relate to that place in a day-to-day (or night-to-night) way.
We spent a ton of time talking about sprinkler systems, looking at sprinkler systems, studying blueprints of sprinkler systems, and working with sprinkler systems in a sprinkler lab. I became so conditioned to sprinkler systems so that to this day when I walk into a building, I instinctively look up to see if the place is sprinklered. (I became so neurotic about sprinklers that I installed them in my house, with the pipe exposed so I could be sure they are always there.)
My early exposure to the details, dynamics, and effectiveness of sprinkler protection has created a lifelong awareness (read curiosity) that the only standard way to protect a place from fire is to build in automatic protection. Along with all the other standard fire prevention and fire protection features, sprinklers become the most critical form of automatic protection that will simply ensure that the building will not burn down. Being able to look at the complete fire protection system caused me to realize that manual fire suppression is the last stop in the system. A fire occurs because some (or all) of the protection/prevention system failed and now we are really last, not first, responders.
As I got to go to fires, I was able to apply what I had learned at OSU in the street to actual fire situations. The education I received created an expanded frame of reference for my curiosity. I had more raw materials to deal with the situations I encountered, and that information made me more effective. This is the place in the essay where the old guy tells the kids, “Get in school and stay in school; listen to the teachers and not the wise guys.”
Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the quarterly fire service magazine BSHIFTER.com and the Blue Card hazard zone training and certification system. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.