By Michael Furci
A few months ago, I was the “first-in” engine operator at an apartment fire. Normally, I would be on the back of the engine, but our operator was off. Although I’d much rather be on the back of the engine so I can go inside, being an operator once in a while keeps me sharp in those skills and offers a perspective at working fires I don’t get from the inside.
Luckily for the residents, the fire in question occurred in the afternoon. They smelled the fire in time to get out, and they called 911. However, despite a quick dispatch and response, the kitchen area and part of the attached living room were badly damaged. Moreover, the bedroom that was venting itself out a half-opened window started to show signs of flashover while the initial crew was making its attack. Despite errors made by subsequent company members that could have been disastrous in different circumstances, the fire was knocked down fairly quickly, residents were evacuated, and no one was seriously hurt.
As I viewed the scene from the outside and talked with different companies while changing out their air bottles, it became apparent that our department needs to raise the bar on how we do business. Unfortunately, mistakes are made; we all make them. However, all too frequently, there are some decisions made and actions taken on the fireground that are inexcusable and a direct result of a lack of controllable factors like training or a bad attitude such as complacency.
Report to the Safety Committee
I wrote a letter to the Safety Committee to cultivate some awareness of the issues that occurred at this fire. I wrote a formal letter because a few individuals had repeatedly attempted to discuss some of these issues that arose between firefighters and company officers, but they did not inspire change. Many of the firefighters and officers on my shift read the report before I gave a copy to our chief and submitted it to the committee. A summary of the contents of my report follows.
First attack line. I was the pump operator for P-1 at an apartment fire where P-l was first in. It was 3:00 p.m. When P-1 arrived at the rear of the structure (A side), smoke was showing from the B side second-story bedroom window and the A side second-story balcony door of the same apartment. As I put P-1 into pump gear, Lt. Hill and Cummings (names changed for anonymity) pulled the 200-foot 1¾-inch attack line, knowing they would need enough line to go to the end of the hallway to effectively fight a fire throughout the A/B second-story apartment.
I helped to properly flake out the line toward the C side of the structure. There were no kinks; the nozzle was halfway up the stairs ready to be advanced. When the P-1 crew was masking up, getting ready to make entry, I jumped back on the pump panel to be ready for the call for water.
Second line. At that time, a second crew from P-2 made their way to my engine to pull a second hoseline. I asked what line they were going to pull. They said, “#1,” which is the 150-foot 1¾-inch. As they started pulling the line, I asked, “#1, are you sure?” There was no response, and I couldn’t leave the pump panel in case P-1 called for water. Other crews were arriving, and I figured if the 150-foot line doesn’t fit the need – I knew it would be too short – I’ll add a 50-foot length or get a third line. That line of thinking shouldn’t be necessary.
Kink in first line. Unfortunately, P-2’s crew stretched the second attack line over the initial line as P-1’s crew began to make entry. Shortly after, P-1 called for water, and I immediately supplied the line with 115 pounds per square inch (psi) in the revolutions per minute (rpm) mode. The rpm mode is used for the initial attack line because the slightest kink has activated the governor to shut down the pump in psi mode. That was also a recommendation from the manufacturer’s representative.
After supplying the initial attack line with water, I noticed P-2’s line was causing P-1’s line to kink because it was being pushed under the first step of the exterior stairway. I could see that water was not going beyond the first step. I yelled to the P-2 crew, in front of the stairway, twice, “Get the line; it’s kinked.” As I made my way off the truck to do it myself, P-2’s crew started to unkink the initial attack line. The line filled with water as it was going up the stairs.
Discussion. P-1’s crew made a good attack and suppressed the fire. When P-1 and P-2 crews were coming out of the structure to change bottles, I asked some typical fireground questions. Lt. Hill and Cummings said there was a lot of heat, and the B side bedroom that was venting through the half-opened window looked and felt as though it was about to go up. Cummings said he was a little concerned when he initially opened the nozzle to bleed it and the line went limp and that he was extremely relieved when he finally got water. P-2’s crew (second line) expressed that they ran out of line at the doorway of the involved apartment.
If the initial attack line is properly positioned, goes where it’s supposed to, and extinguishes the fire, all other fireground operations run much better – e.g., searches, venting, rescues, overhaul. When an initial attack line is properly positioned and suppresses the fire, a second hoseline is not needed or is stretched as a precaution. Luckily, the 150-foot hoseline pulled by P-2 was not needed in the involved room, in adjacent rooms, or above the fire floor because it would not have reached any apartments on the far B or D sides on any floor.
The advantages of having a second hoseline stretched and coming in behind the initial line are the safety of the first attack crew in case of flashover or collapse, there is too much fire for one hoseline, and the initial line bursts or has problems with the nozzle. If there is no need for a second hoseline because the initial attack line can handle the involved room (as was the case at this fire), it’s imperative that the second hoseline be able to get to the room above the fire floor or adjacent rooms to cut off fire extension.
Solutions. All pumpers should have two 200-foot 1¾-inch attack lines, as was implemented not too long before this incident. We are all human, and humans will make errors in judgment. Having two 200-foot lines takes human error out of many situations. If a crew decides it doesn’t need 200 feet, 50 feet can be disconnected and the 150 feet reconnected before the line is even flaked out. Not having two 200-foot preconnected attack lines is not preparing for possible consequences.
The second and consecutive hoselines should be stretched in a series, not at the same time. The second line should not be charged or advanced until the initial line has water. During most structure fires, our department pulls lines in a series because crews arrive on scene shortly after one another. By the time a second line is called for, the initial crew is already advancing and giving a condition, action, and need (CAN) report. These reports help determine the need for a second attack line or a backup line. Pulling lines in unison, as was done at this fire, can create a jumbled mess and have disastrous results for firefighters and victims.
It is becoming more evident that company-level training needs to be done more often, and I plan on implementing this for myself. I believe we as firefighters should be pulling lines, stacking ladders, preplanning, and critiquing the sessions at least once a month. The entire company should sign a training sheet that lists everything they did and any comments. That the second line was stretched over the first, was advanced without knowing a true need, and was too short and that the initial line wasn’t given a priority need to be discussed by all department personnel and confirm the above point.
Because it determines the outcome of a fire, subsequent arriving crews need to pay attention to the initial attack line. Make sure that it’s advancing properly, and help if need be. Too often, I’ve seen crews oblivious to the line and run by it or walk over it. Luckily, at this incident, fire didn’t extend to the third floor or adjacent rooms; the B side bedroom didn’t flash while the initial crew was advancing toward it or in it; the initial line kinks caused by the second line didn’t hinder the initial attack; and there wasn’t too much fire for the initial line. We shouldn’t have to rely on this much luck, and I think we as a department can do better.
We Must Be Ready for the Worst Possible Outcome
Were we ready for the worst possible scenario at this apartment fire? No. As stated in the letter, we were lucky the initial attack worked well, the bedroom didn’t flash while crews advanced, and the fire didn’t extend. Conversely, many firefighters and victims each year aren’t so lucky. As we all should understand, if we don’t hone our skills and stay on top of our game, it’s only a matter of time before our number comes up. So often we read and hear stories about close calls and horrible outcomes because of our making bad decisions, and we change nothing in our behavior to try to ensure we don’t meet the same fate.
Are you ready for the worst possible scenario every time you climb aboard your rig and respond to an emergency? If not, why not? Isn’t that your responsibility? Officers have an obligation to curb complacency among their firefighters. If officers aren’t helping to provide a positive environment, working to motivate their people, and setting an example of being the best they can be, they’re shirking their responsibilities and fostering bad attitudes. Some officers, especially company officers, don’t realize the influence they have over firefighters. Show me a company with a great attitude, and I’ll show you a great company officer.
Firefighters Responsible Also
Despite your rank or time on the job, it is your duty to be the best you can be individually and collectively as a team. We depend on each other in many instances. Our job dictates that we operate at high competency not only for ourselves but also for our fellow firefighters and their families. We need to do what we can to ensure that we all go home safe.
Do we have an obligation to approach a firefighter who’s complacent? To help you answer that question, let me ask you: “Knowing that you have to depend on a firefighter who is on your rig who doesn’t take training seriously, would rather be 10 toes up on a recliner, is more concerned about his B job while on shift, or is not interested in becoming a better firefighter, do you feel that you would have something to say to him?”
The question isn’t “Should we say something?” but rather “How should we say it?” Most issues can be handled in house without involving officers; this is true of bad attitudes like complacency. You’d be amazed at how some well-placed words of encouragement and positive criticism can help to get some individuals out of a rut.
When you’ve made the decision to approach a fellow firefighter, do it privately. Start the conversation on a positive note; don’t be confrontational. Being accusatory will cause the person to become defensive. It can also be helpful to let the firefighter know of some of the mistakes you made and how you rectified them. Make it clear that you have the person’s best interest at heart. If what the person has done has made you very upset, wait until you’ve calmed down. However, do not wait too long; these conversations should take place as soon as possible after the behavior, or the message will seem out of context and irrelevant.
This was the situation after the incident in my letter to the Safety Committee. It was very upsetting that firefighters could be neglectful to the point of not knowing the correct hoseline to pull or how to correctly deploy it. Even more disturbing was that they didn’t understand the possible ramifications of their actions. I sat on it for a few days before approaching anyone. It’s extremely important to be in the right frame of mind when approaching firefighters about how they’re performing their job. Regardless of what you say and how you say it, they may still become defensive, which needs to be dealt with appropriately.
A Personal Inventory
There is no question that bad attitude runs downhill. A firefighter can do only so much. But, do not think that you have no influence. Attitudes, good or bad, are extremely contagious. We need to ask ourselves what type of attitude we’re nurturing and whether we are part of the problem or part of the solution. Be truthful: How is your attitude? Rate yourself based on the following questions:
- Are you thoroughly prepared to go on a call the minute your shift starts?
- Before the start of your shift, do you show up with just a few minutes to spare, drop your gear at the door of the truck, and go have a cup of coffee, or do you check your self-contained breathing apparatus and other personal equipment?
- How often do you read articles or books to better yourself as a firefighter? As a person?
- Is getting ready for a promotional exam the only time you study anything having to do with firefighting?
- How often do you visit or talk about the structures in your district? Do you even care if you visit them?
- How often do you talk about the various tactics that might be needed at different incident types – e.g., houses, strip malls, apartment buildings, warehouses, high-rises, and hospitals?
- When was the last time you discussed types of basements and the tactics you might use in different situations?
- Is firefighting 101 training (stacking ladders, deploying hoselines, and butting hydrants) annoying to you?
- Do you enjoy training, or would you rather be watching TV?
- Do you approach scenes as though the person needing help might be your friend, husband or wife, or child?
- Do you take pride in your appearance?
- Do you “love” being a firefighter and everything it entails?
Although not a complete list, these questions drive home the point. I can honestly say that for the most part throughout my career, I have had a positive attitude. My father is a retired lieutenant from the same department, so I grew up with the job and thoroughly love what I do. But, I have to admit that I have had my low points.
My captain counseled me about my attitude several years ago. He approached me in a very professional manner, and I felt he had my best interest at heart. He told me that I had been performing well at my job but he was concerned that my attitude would eventually affect not only me but also my fellow firefighters. After taking a truthful personal inventory, I made a conscious decision to step up my game. I need to be the best I can despite what is going on around me. I owe this to the people I serve and the firefighters with whom I work. An attitude, good or bad, is a conscious decision.
MICHAEL FURCI is a 17-year veteran firefighter with a fire department in Ohio. He is a licensed registered nurse and a paramedic. He has been involved in physical fitness and bodybuilding for more than 30 years and is a fitness consultant on health, fitness, and sports-specific training. He has a B.S. degree health education. He owned and operated Club Olympia Fitness Center in Westlake, Ohio, for more than 10 years, and was voted “Best Personal Trainer” by Cleveland Magazine. He specializes in improving athletic performance through strength, conditioning, and nutrition. He uses his education and knowledge to train clients according to their goals – for example, competition, increased fitness, strength, weight loss, health, or sports and vocational (firefighting) performance.
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