Eight Possible Reasons for Fire Department-Induced Chaos

A string of firefighters holding an attack line at the scene of a structure fire. Perhaps not the optimal deployment of fireground resources.

(Photo provided by Roger Lunt)

By Roger Lunt

It is important to note that chaos does not exist on all fire scenes. However, not all departments are so fortunate. They struggle with the challenges of the structure fire vs. available response resources under the seemingly ever-present existence of chaos.

Since entering the fire service in 1978, I have heard of and seen too many fire department influences that can contribute to fire scene chaos. Once fire department-induced chaos surfaces on our fire scene, the response is challenged by the chaos loop. Fire department decisions and activities influence chaos, and chaos influences fire department decisions and activities.

I have never experienced a response at which I felt that the fire department was to blame for fire damage or personal injuries prior to our arrival. However, following a response, I believe it is always important to review our activities and decisions.

With each of these postincident discussions, we should review and recognize our possible role in property loss or injuries that may have occurred after our arrival. Within this discussion, consider the challenges presented by the existence of or the avoidance of fire scene. These reviews and honest discussions are necessary in achieving a goal of avoiding fire department-induced chaos.

Though not exhaustive, this list offers some insight as to why chaos still exists on many fire scenes.

1. The Fire Department Has Not Identified A Fire Department Response Goals/Responsibilities List

If you have not established a list of fire department response goals and responsibilities, then several informal, personal lists will surface. These will seem to place the department in the same book, but in most cases they are probably pages apart in application. Simply working from the same fire department book will not serve to avoid chaos.

Just saying that we want to win is not clear enough. Likewise, saying that we want all firefighters to return to the station unharmed does not place your responders on the same working page of the same book.

Is no one getting hurt our only benchmark for a “good run”? If no one got hurt, but as a result of our actions or inaction a family lost their home, was it really a good run? I always felt, and continue to believe, that our response standards encompass the health and safety of our firefighters, but the measurement we hold for a “good run” encompasses much, much more.

At your next department meeting, ask your members to identify a prioritized listing of goals that they want to achieve on the next response. You may be surprised with the wide range of answers. The greater the range, the greater the risk of fire scene chaos.

2. The Blame Game

Rather than fix a problem that hinders our community service and even risks the safety of our firefighters, it seems some departments may prefer to simply blame specific individuals or circumstances using familiar labels.

“We have too many freelancers.” Although the freelancers of this statement may present a response safety and efficiency problem, many freelancers have gotten a very bad, undeserving rap.

Rarely, if ever, do we hear of a lazy freelancer. It is a good bet that we do not need a lazy firefighter. So is it possible that the fire scene freelancer is not all bad? Is it possible that he or she actually holds the work ethic that we desire? Is it possible that he or she has shown up to save a home or protect a neighboring property? Consider that the department simply has not identified and established a response system to do so.

“Communication broke down again.” When working the fire scene, we have things that compete with our communication efforts. As a result, we may misinterpret a message, or simply not get the message at all. If communication breaks down, it will be very difficult to have a fire scene without of some level of chaos.

Imagine that you have just placed an order for a hamburger, fries, and small coke at the drive-up window screen. The fast food chain employee replies through the visible speaker “Copy,” or “10-4,” or “Roger that,” or the fast food chain employee provides a double click of the microphone and then directs you to drive forward. How confident will you be that your original message was understood? Is the fast food chain employee providing feedback that is heard on your fire scene? Did it seem to concern you more with your order of a hamburger, fries, and small coke than it does when attempting to communicate on the fire scene? Do you hold a higher communication standard at this drive-up window than on your fire scene?

Chaos will surface if you simply explain away legitimate challenges and problems with an overused, blaming statement. Before being too quick to point a departmental finger of blame, be perfectly certain that you have the correct target, and always remember that identifying a challenge or problem is only the first step to a chaos-avoiding solution.

3. Chaos vs. Organized Chaos

Some departments have addressed their fire scene chaos with a new label. They don’t have chaos, they have “organized chaos.”  Oh boy, we are a creative bunch. Someone has created an oxymoron to describe the fire scene.

Using an oxymoron to define the fire scene does not change the meaning and challenges created by chaos. In fact, one should be concerned  that this revised label for chaos may serve as an excuse on some responses and little will be done to remove chaos altogether.

4. Not Taking It Seriously

I have heard chaos defined as the arrival of the fire chief. I have also heard department leaders express the idea that chaos will always exist. Whereas the first reference is often meant to be humorous (but not always), and the second is a genuine expression of a locally determined fact, both may reflect a serious problem within the department.

I suspect that most of us enjoy our career so much that we regret that it seems to be passing too quickly. With that thought in mind, I challenge you to research fire service line-of-duty deaths and fire scene injuries for the years you have served as a member of the fire service.

The reality you find from your research is that the sobering statistics shadow the humorous intent of “CHAOS” (Chief Has Arrived On Scene). If you have to purchase that T-shirt, wear it only in your department; it may apply there. And perhaps–though I doubt it—it may impact the leadership problem within your department. However, do not wear the shirt in public. To do so is disrespecting those other fire chiefs who have played a significant role in removing chaos from their scenes. You may have even worked on one of their fire scenes.

With either expression offered above, whether meant to be in fun or not, neither will move the department away from fire scene chaos.

5. Training — Trucks, Engines, Pumpers, Squads, Rescues vs. We Don’t Have Those Designations

You should only take issue with the use of these fire scene designations in training sessions of departments that do not have the designations or need such.

Being organized is an undisputed key to avoiding chaos. Assigning proper (that is, specific to your response) labels to on-scene personnel is an important element when it comes to maintaining an organization that supports readily identified duties and assignments.

Most response organizational structures should not be dependent upon the type of rig on which many departments respond. Some fire departments will restrict the assignments and the division of their fire scene to the type and number of response rigs. This limiting approach may not serve as a good management system, nor help prevent scene chaos.

6. Organize and Support: It Is Not All About Giving Order

A misinformed officer may be under the risky impression that his or her sole function is to give orders.

Until all members of the fire department response team with duties at the strategic- or tactical-level of the response structure understand and accept that it is simply impossible to see all and know all, chaos will be a part of the response.

I supported my trained firefighters in doing what they are trained and educated to do. Thus it is important to be able to distinguish between providing direction and merely shouting orders.

7. Return To The Basics in Training: Rules vs. Common Sense

It is our basic skills that have been proven time and time again to make the difference in effective fire control.

It is also a proven fact that success in the application of those skills will reduce the fire scene chaos that results from confusion, stress, and injury to firefighters.

Does your department know more about reflective vests, clipboards, and hook-and-loop accountability systems than what is behind the acronym RECEO? Through training and field experience, you must be able to separate rules from common sense. If not, Mr. Murphy and the ensuing chaos he portends will show you the difference

Anyone can open holes, pressurize air movement, and even place water on fire. To avoid chaos, the firefighter must know the outcome of the action before the demonstration of the act. Making an organizational structure that extinguishes fires and keeps our firefighters safe, relies upon the basic skills of each of our members. Supporting and directing the troops in implementing the proper basic tactics is the Incident Commanders primary resource to putting out most fires.

Personnel, at any level of an organizational structure, will have difficulty supporting and or working alongside untrained, unskilled personnel. These are key ingredients for a creating chaos.

8. More Excuses Than Training

“Our response footprint will vary with the time of day and time of year.” “We never know who or how many will respond.” “We just don’t have enough fires.” “If we had more people, things would have gone better.” You may have heard some of these excuses yourself.

The truth is this: A chaos-free fire scene is the right and duty of every responder.

What should be the minimum number of firefighters that determines whether fire scene chaos is acceptable? Continuing on with this common excuse, at what level of skill found on our scenes is chaos acceptable?

It would appear that both of these excuses present a large welcome mat for chaos. If chaos is a bad thing, then it is not acceptable, regardless of the time of year or time of day. It should not matter if there are six or 36 firefighters on the scene and if they are all line or staff personnel. They all remain the most valued asset on the location. Chaos will threaten their safety.

Review the definition of chaos. This definition does not make reference to a shortage of resources. Additional personnel will probably always be welcomed. However, to avoid chaos you need an increase in trained personnel, and you must possess management skills. If not, your interest in more personnel is actually risking a greater level of chaos.

It should also be recognized that regardless of the number of responders or the collective experience that they have, they represent the fire department. Your community expects your arrival to improve things, not add to the disaster at hand.

Some fire departments are finding that the number of average structure fire responses has declined over the past decade. Those departments risk a corresponding loss of the department skill level. A fire department training schedule must adjust to compensate for this loss of fireground skill and knowledge application. If not, chaos will fill the void. Realistic and frequent training encompassing the response to varied types of structure fires is going to be the best remedy to this growing concern.

An hour of good fire service training or education will do more in your avoidance of fire scene chaos than a week of excuses.

Whether the statement is “We never know who or how many will respond,” or “We do not have as many fires as we use to,” a challenge to the training program has been identified. Excuses only risk contributing to chaos. However, to the observant, these statements will serve as a great aid in identifying the next training topic.

Roger LuntRoger Lunt is a retired fire chief who spent 38 years in the fire service. He is the retired deputy director of the Illinois Fire Service Institute and is a field instructor with that organization. He has a bachelors degree in law enforcement administration and an associate degree in fire science technology. He is a founding member of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. As a member of FEMA Region V Disaster Mortuary Response Team [DMORT], he deployed to New York within 24 hours of the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers, and deployed as a member of the United States Health and Human Services DMORT Weapons of Mass Destruction Team to the after math of Hurricane Katrina. He is the author of the self-published book, “Avoiding Fire Department Induced Chaos.”



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