Article and photos by Greg Havel
“Complacency” is a topic that has received much attention over the years, since it is a factor in so many incidents that do not go well. It’s also a factor addressed in many NIOSH firefighter fatality reports. “Complacency” can be defined as “satisfaction with a perception of a situation that is not based on reality”.
One example of complacency is when EMS is dispatched to a location to which we frequently respond and which usually results in calming the patient and no transport. On a given day, however, we respond to this address and are confronted with a major medical emergency for which we are not mentally prepared.
Another example is a dispatch for a motor vehicle incident at a busy intersection to which we respond anticipating a two-car fender-bender. On our arrival, we are confronted with a leaking fuel delivery truck that has collided with a school bus with 40 kindergarten students on board. This incident includes both hazardous materials involvement and a potential mass casualty incident for which we are not mentally prepared.
Lt. Andrew Fredericks of the FDNY (who died in the line of duty at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001) once said “The garbage man doesn’t get excited when he turns the corner and sees trash, and you shouldn’t get excited when you turn the corner and see fire. You should expect fire on every run.”
“Hubris” is another topic that negatively affects incident outcomes. A simple definition of “hubris” is “self-confidence beyond the level of competence.” This means that our perception of our skills and abilities is not based on reality.
If I believe that I have the skills and abilities to perform a task under difficult conditions and have not been trained in performance of the tasks to the point that I can maintain situational awareness while working, that is hubris. These types of incidents often have negative outcomes, including injury or fatality to the emergency responders, or the responders becoming additional victims or patients.
The incidents with negative outcomes in which hubris was a factor include technical rescue (water, trench, high-angle, confined space), highway incidents, hazardous materials, interior structural firefighting, and structural collapse response. These are the “high risk, low frequency” incidents about which Gordon Graham has been warning us for decades. These are especially hazardous to us when we perceive them to have an urgency that leaves us with no discretionary time in which to plan and make decisions.
If we combine complacency and hubris during an incident response, we will be operating in an extremely high-risk environment to which we will be reacting rather than acting in a way that will reduce the severity of the incident before it grows beyond our real capabilities. For example, firefighters responding to an older neighborhood of single-family dwellings framed of full-dimension sawn lumber may not anticipate that today’s address has been extensively remodeled with lightweight manufactured I-joists and trusses. This can result in disaster.
Photo 1 shows the floor in a house after the carpet and pad were stripped off. This house was originally built in the 1940s, was remodeled in the 1970s, and was being remodeled again a few years ago. At the top of the photo, the hardwood tongue-and-groove floorboards are visible. At the center of the photo, the tongue-and-groove subfloor boards are visible. At the bottom of the photo, plywood subfloor is visible.
Photo 2 shows the underside of this same area of the floor, viewed from the basement. At the upper left, the full-dimension 2×10 floor joists are visible, supporting the 1×6 tongue-and-groove subfloor boards. Diagonally from lower left to upper right, the new doubled girder joist is visible; this was installed to carry the weight of the materials used to close an unneeded stairway opening. At the lower right, the plywood subfloor is visible, supported by I-joists and sheet-metal joist hangers.
Without some knowledge of the history and construction of this building, complacency and hubris will tell responders that they know how to work in a house that was built in the 1940s, without knowing of the earlier remodeling; and they will be surprised when the lightweight construction has already burned through on arrival and drops them into the basement through the burned-out lightweight flooring and supports.
The best counter to the combination of complacency and hubris is education and training backed by experience. This experience can be obtained during a career of incident responses, supplemented by simulations and tabletop exercises.
We must remember to remain flexible in our thinking, since no book of regulations or procedures can cover every instance. Emergency situations change rapidly, just as rapidly changing the options available to us and the plans we are making.
We should know ourselves, our coworkers, our workplaces, and our tools so well that we can say one of the following, between the setting of the parking brake and our feet hitting the pavement:
- “We can do that! Here’s our plan.”
- “We can do that with help! Here’s our plan.”
- “We cannot (will not) do that.”
Firefighters must be physically fit, with training and education supported by experience, and guided by operational procedures with in-built risk analysis that are used regularly. This will enable use to recognize our personal abilities and capabilities, as well as those of our coworkers and of the organizations for whom we work. It will also help us identify the special requirements of the places to which we are dispatched to work. Since one of our primary goals should be to return from each response or shift with all our people uninjured, we must work within the limits of our abilities, with tools that we know well how to use. More training and education help us to expand these limits.
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Gregory Havel is a member of the Town of Burlington (WI) Fire Department; retired deputy chief and training officer; and a 35-year veteran of the fire service. He is a Wisconsin-certified fire instructor II, fire officer II, and fire inspector; an adjunct instructor in fire service programs at Gateway Technical College; and safety director for Scherrer Construction Co., Inc. Havel has a bachelor’s degree from St. Norbert College; has more than 35 years of experience in facilities management and building construction; and has presented classes at FDIC.
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