Q & A: Raul Angulo on Drills You Won’t Find in the Books

Raul Angulo recently presented a Webcast on “Drills You Won’t Find in the Books” (watch it on demand HERE.) Below he answers some questions submitted by viewers.

Thanks for tuning in and listening and for your great questions. It was hard to select just a few out of the more than 100 drills in this four-hour workshop; Bobby Halton encouraged me to resubmit this workshop, so it should be available again next year at the 2016 FDIC International. If you decide to attend FDIC International and sign up for this workshop, all attendees will get a DVD of the entire PowerPoint presentation. I plan to mix it up next year by adding other drills that have been submitted to me from other fire departments around the country.

Q. Has the limitation to conduct live-fire training drills hurt our ability to train our people?

A: No. I can count on two hands the number of department-sponsored trainings I have received in live-fire training–no more than 10 in 35 years. And most of those were due to the fact that I was assigned to training division and was an instructor for the new Seattle Fire Department (SFD) recruits. They all receive live-fire training before completing the fire academy.  If I excluded my training fires with recruits, I have probably received about four sessions of live-fire training in 35 years.

There is great value in live-fire training and if we had more of it, I believe we would be more experienced working and maneuvering in smoke and heat. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) rules and regulations, logistics, and permits, make it difficult to accomplish.

But look at YouTube. You have seen many fires go wrong…and they go wrong in the initial setup of the fireground. Errors are made in apparatus placement, water supplies, laying attack lines, and getting water to the nozzle. We don’t see too many errors in raising ladders, but we see a lack of placing ladders or placing them in the wrong place. These are all skills and evolutions that can be trained for, and you don’t need live fire training to get good at it. In fact, if you are not good at these basic fireground tasks, your training fires would be a disaster. None of the errors I constantly see on video would be corrected if these companies had more live-fire training. They probably would lose the acquired training structures as well.

If you study line-of-duty deaths (LODDs), many of the factors that led to those deaths were not due to a lack of live-fire training. They were due to communication issues, command issues, lack of a functional accountability system, personal health and fitness, no air management skills, getting trapped in basements, a failure to recognize warning signs in relation to smoke and fire conditions, not understanding fire behavior, not understanding building construction, etc. You can train on so many of these areas without even leaving the firehouse.

Though I have not had many live-fire training sessions, I have had a lot of fires. And most, if not all, have gone well (knock on wood and thank God). Errors my crews have made have been minor and without consequence. We were able to quickly recover. It also exposed weak areas I needed to train on. But I have never made a bad fireground decision or have a fire go sideways on me. I owe that to good, solid, and consistent training, studying, and drilling.

Q.  Are there aerial ladders with cameras on the tip of the ladder to give the aerial operator the ability to see on top of the building? If not, do you think that would provide an advantage for rescue during a commercial roof/building collapse?

A. Sorry, I do not know if there are aerials with cameras at the tip. I would assume there could be, but I am not sure if they would be that beneficial and here’s why. First of all, aerial operators (AOs) have been maneuvering aerial ladders around for years without cameras. It takes skill and practice to get good at it, but you can get very good at it. In fact I have a drill in the class called aerial target practice and I use trees for practice. I have the AO park in any part of the district where there are a lot of trees. Then I have him or her extend the ladder and get the tip as close as possible to the top of the tree without actually touching it. This way we do not cause property damage or damage to the aerial ladder. It helps the AO develop judgment for distance and clearance.

And like a back-up camera on any apparatus, it’s a guide and safety reference. We DON’T want to start teaching AOs to back up rigs simply by camera. Same with an aerial ladder.

So let’s discuss what could happen to a camera during a commercial roof collapse. First, there could be a lot of heavy smoke and fire obscuring the camera lens, so you may not be able to see anything on the monitor. Extreme heat could melt or damage the camera. The camera could be damaged by striking the building. Many preplumbed waterways and master stream nozzles have been damaged by inexperienced AOs. How would you aim and control the camera? Cables? Remote control? How much would this cost? Maintenance costs? Would a sufficient size viewing monitor fit on the control pedestal? Is that monitor weatherproof? Can you see the TV on a bright sunny day? Would the illuminated glare destroy your night vision?  Could a camera scan a roof as quickly as a firefighter with a thermal imaging camera? If some firefighters made it to a different roof edge or parapet wall, would the AO rely on the camera to reposition the aerial ladder? Or would the AO rely on sight and skill? My guess is the AO would not be looking at the monitor screen during such an event. I think staring into a TV monitor would limit your ability to see the giant picture unfolding in front of you. You could miss valuable warning signs because you’re focused on a TV monitor.

Also, a collapsing roof means the building is unstable and losing to the fire. Maybe the ladder has to be retracted and repositioned because they are now in a collapse zone. This would render that camera useless.

On the surface, it sounds like a technological benefit, but I think it would be a cost-prohibitive feature that would be hard to justify much less serve its designed purpose. If firefighters happen to remain on a roof that has partially collapsed, they are moving away from the fiery vent hole and looking for another area to get off the roof. If firefighters have fallen through a roof, they are now in the attic space or on the floor below the roof. I don’t see where a camera at the tip of the aerial is really going to help you out.

Q.  As a young new company officer, what are some of the ways to break through old mindsets that are not conducive to training?

A. For a national audience, I realize there are many ways to become an officer. But let’s assume, through some competitive testing process, you get promoted to company officer. However, the responsibilities, liabilities, and consequences are the same; whether you’re volunteer or career. YOU are responsible for the training, well-being, and safety of your crew. And when you accept that supervisory position, you are telling the fire chief and the city that you are willing and able to carry out the directives and abide by and enforce the laws, rules, and regulations of the fire department. As the fire chief’s representative, you have all the formal power you need to command the crew within boundaries of those rules and regulations etc., regardless of what the old-timers say and do and regardless of any longstanding traditions.

Remember this, longstanding traditions that are essential to your fire department operations have already become policies and standard operating procedures. If they have not been adopted, it is because they did not pass the scrutiny of being essential. Therefore, they remain simply traditions. If they are harmless traditions, like a junior member always does the dishes and takes the night watch, then fine. No harm, no foul. But if those traditions are interfering, sabotaging, or resisting new practices and trends, especially in the areas of fire science and safety, the traditions have to go. And YOU don’t want to be the one holding down the fort of a losing battle. The best example of this was the dramatic department transformation of Charleston (SC) Fire Department after the Super Sofa Fire that killed nine of their members. The city and fire administrations (and the city attorneys) are not about upholding tradition. If you’re not willing to carry out their new directives, they will find another supervisor who will.

That being said, relying on your formal power right from the start is probably not the best way to start your career as an officer. You don’t need to prove your formal power because the crew is well aware that you already have it. But they will test you to see where you are going to draw the line. And that will probably start on Day One.

The best thing to do is start by building relationships. They need to see you are anxious to do the right thing. Don’t think because you’re the boss, you need to know everything. In your areas of expertise, you can lead. In areas that you’re not the expert, you designate a leader, and then you follow. Your authority was exercised by designating another more experienced firefighter to lead the training. You need to be the “coordinator” of the crew’s knowledge, talent, and experience. Then corral it, and put it all together to be the best crew you can be.  Old guys who “seem resistant” often put on that façade because they already think they are the best. You can challenge them to bring you up to speed. Everyone wants to be on “The Best Crew.”

Let me give you an example. As a firefighter, I spent 4 ½ years on a truck company. The rest of the time, on engines. I spent all my lieutenant years on an engine. When I made captain, I spent the first 10 years on engines. One day I was working on Ladder 6 for one shift (before I was assigned there). I told the guys I wanted to do some aerial work and specifically wanted to focus on aerial stokes rescues. The reason I wanted to drill on this is because these were low frequency/high risk evolutions. This is something you need to do as fast as possible and you have to get it right. The public, from the mayor on down, will expect me to get it right. Though I was not an expert (and I did not pretend to be), I would ultimately be held accountable if this evolution went bad, or we were unable to execute it on a real call. Frankly, I did not want to risk the personal liability due to lack of practice.

When I told the guys we were going to drill on this, I immediately got push back from Old Joe. Joe was a nice guy, funny, competent, but LAZY! He said (in front of the crew), “Oh Cap, why do you want to go and do that for? We already know how to do that! Just relax and we’ll make you look good.” I answered, “Joe, I know you already know how to do that. We’re not drilling for you; we’re drilling for me! I want to make sure I know how to do that. As a truck captain, I can’t pretend I know how to do that, I really want to know how to do it with some level of confidence. Joe, I need you to show me how to do it so I get it right. Help me to become a good truck captain,” Notice I’m using referent power to solicit his expertise, without giving him the option of not doing the drill (formal power).

Once we were out there, I kept asking him questions. I know how an aerial stokes rescue should look, but I was rusty with all the ropes and pulleys. So I made him the instructor and me the student. By asking him questions, I was forcing him to use his knowledge (which was also rusty)–which was the intent of my drill–while learning the new procedures–another intent of my drill. It became fun and the one- hour drill ended up becoming more like three hours of training.

The next morning at about 06:00 hours, Ladder 6 was dispatched to an aerial stokes rescue at a construction site! I turned to the crew inside the cab and calmly gave the order, “Ok guys, just like yesterday.” The call was during the morning commute. When we showed up, everyone was there: the TV cameras, the battalion chief, the safety chief, the assistant chief…My guys exited the cab and executed a fast and flawless aerial rescue. Textbook perfection. We all knew it probably would not have gone as smoothly had we not drilled on this evolution the day before, but nobody said anything. However, back at the station, who do you think told the blow-by-blow story and bragged the loudest to the oncoming shift? Old Joe. And he never stopped bragging about that story. It also changed his attitude on drilling on the basics.

As a company officer, sometimes you’re the quarterback, and sometimes you’re the coach. But it’s always about building relationships–in getting the senior firefighters invested in teaching the junior firefighters–because lives depend on it. The Super Sofa Fire was not selective about rank and seniority.

Q.  Do you find value in having your firefighters develop, deliver, and do all the follow up and record-keeping with company-level training? And if so, how often do you recommend using the training/mentoring tactic?

A. Yes, I find value in that, but it depends on the subject matter. For example, many of the Firefighter I and II individual skill sets are required training within a designated time frame for skill retention, i.e. the monthly SCBA drill; therefore the company officer does not need to lead every drill on masks, hose lays, basic ladders, and EMS. It is totally appropriate to delegate these subject matters to firefighters you are mentoring. For those who are studying for promotion, delegating the record-keeping portion is also an opportunity for them to develop administrative skill sets. However, you as the company officer are still responsible for accurate training records.

There may be other drills where you have firefighters on your crew that have expert knowledge on the subject. For example, I have two firefighters who spent many years on the technical rescue team. So I have them take the lead on high-angle rope rescue and confined space drills, especially the drills that require setting up rope systems. Quite frankly, they are better and faster at setting it up than I am. But as the company officer, I need to make sure that I can recognize that all the systems are set up properly and ready to go.

Be advised, as a newly promoted officer, you need to take every opportunity to develop your own expertise and credibility, and remember, your reputation is established on the fireground. So drills on preincident planning, fire behavior, hydraulics, building construction, strategy and tactics, search and rescue, and ventilation–these are subjects that I would not delegate to a firefighter. This is your opportunity to demonstrate to your crew that you know what you’re doing.

If you are weak or have questions in these disciplines, I would reach out to another company officer and get all your questions answered there before you conduct a company drill. Keep studying these subjects matters–you will get better at it.  Remember, this is where the battle happens. The environment is an uncontrolled emergency that requires decisions to be made, and you’re the one making them. Your crew will be looking at you for direction. You need to develop your leadership style and fireground command presence. Don’t give away that advantage.

Q.  How do you delineate the line between establishing a healthy competition and creating negative experiences–like embarrassment and hazing? Is it just a matter of monitoring the participants?

A.  Let me address hazing for a moment. It’s getting difficult to haze anyone in any organization. Not like we should look for the opportunities, but if you’ve been in the fire service for any length of time, you know there is a bunch of practical joking and horseplay. We’ve all witnessed the well-intended and harmless pranks get out of control and go sideways. It’s risky for officers to be in on practical jokes, but if you like to take risks, I’d keep it to wet sponges and water fights. I do not like mixing training with practical jokes. And never allow your crew members to mess with anyone’s personal protective equipment and safety gear. No filling up someone’s bunking boots with water. No switching the right foot boot with the left foot, no shortening the suspenders, don’t tighten the ratchet on the helmet, etc.

The difference between practical jokes and hazing is that hazing always looks to embarrass or humiliate a member in front of the others. You cannot allow this. Period. Does this mean you can’t have fun? No, this means you need to know your people. You need to know who can take a joke and who can’t. You need to know who is thick-skinned and who is thin-skinned.  And never allow racial, religious, sexist, or sexual orientation jokes or pranks. All it takes is for one firefighter to complain to HR or the administration because they felt sexually harassed or discriminated against or were subjected to a hostile work environment and you will pay the price. The bosses will never back you for harmless prank. If you want to run a circus, then leave the fire department and join one.

On to competition. Remember, everyone came into this job competing. Most entry exams are timed competitions, so this job attracts competitive people by design. If your crew has a competitive nature, they will have already demonstrated it to you– through sports, trivia questions, and other types of challenges. Many firefighters are involved in competitive sports outside the job. Others are into CrossFit workouts and training for events like the Firefighter Combat Challenge. These are excellent barometers to gauge who on crew is competitive and who is not.

There are many competitive standards that are already established by NFPA and your fire department; for example a firefighter needs to properly don a SCBA within one minute. So start with this drill. If your crews work slowly but steady and take the full minute to meet the standard, then they are probably not very competitive and just want to meet the minimum requirements. (There is nothing wrong with this mindset because you can only enforce minimum requirements.) But if they start racing each other, they’ll don that without you challenging them.

Move on to competitive bunking drills, tying knots, and the hangman drill (this is a drill to see who can hang on to a horizontal bar with full bunking gear and SCBA before fatiguing and letting go–hanging in the ready position as if you were going to do a chin-up.) Once you get a good feel for the competitive nature of your crew, you can ratchet up the stakes by performing coupling and hose evolutions for time. We have a drill called the Ozark drill (named after the Ozark Hotel fire in Seattle). In this drill, truck companies have to deploy, raise, and fully extend every ground ladder on the apparatus, including the aerial ladder, for time.

Once the drills get more complicated, you’ll see those members who will continue to excel and you’ll see the members who will start to fall behind and become “self-limiting”. Firefighters will start to become frustrated and irritated with their performance. That’s the clue the competition has gone as far as it’s going to go. At this point you need to end the competition and focus more on completing the task safely and efficiently, not with speed.

One problem you need to watch out for with competitive training is that firefighters start taking shortcuts to improve times and that can become unsafe. You need to enforce the safety rules and they have to drill using all the safety features. Don’t risk firefighter injuries or damaging equipment on speed drills.

Our department used to have a Top Engine and Top Truck competition on their respective drills (My crew was always placed 2nd. We never clinched the title.) The competition was eventually discontinued because there were those in the administration that felt it was sending the wrong message to firefighters–that we only valued and rewarded quick and speedy ace companies. And if you could not perform at this level, you lacked pride and esprit de corps. Others felt it promoted elitism. Some looked at it from a risk/benefit management perspective, and of course safety chiefs thought it was unsafe. Bottom line, firefighting is emergency services. We are not a competitive pro sports team. So even though I did not agree with their conclusions, I did see the merit in their argument.

You’re never going to go wrong by NOT creating competition. As firefighters get older, they will become self-limiting to avoid personal injury. Don’t push them as long as they can meet the minimum standards.

Q.   How do we merge long tradition with the emerging safety culture?

A. Good question. I think I get the gist of what you’re asking, but you need to be careful how you phrase the question. Please read my lengthy answer above; I’ll try not to repeat myself, but these questions share a lot of the same cultural resistance.

Let me say again, longstanding traditions that are smart and beneficial to firefighters and firefighting have already been integrated into your fire department’s policies and SOPs. If they haven’t, there is a reason it’s only tradition and not policy. Remember, you cannot legally enforce tradition but you can legally enforce policy. Therefore, if you side on tradition at the expense of following policy, you will be held accountable, which may also include legal liability. Having the guys raise their glasses at the local pub in your honor because you upheld a tradition will be no consolation if you received a monetary hit and disciplinary action.

The clash between tradition and anything else is change. Something or someone is changing the way things have been done in the past. When you mention the safety culture like it’s an adversarial enemy, you’re implying the tradition is unsafe. If the tradition was safe, it would be non-issue. Take for example riding the back step. Tradition. When I joined the fire department, we were still riding the tailboard and yes, it was fun! However, one of my SFD rookie classmates fell of the rear step and was killed responding to a false alarm. Fire poles are tradition, but I was the Captain of Station 33 when a firefighter fell through the pole hole in the middle of the night and sustained a career-ending injury.

I loved riding the back step and I loved sliding the pole, but I am not going to be the voice championing traditions that lead to a LODD and a line-of-duty injury. How can I? What’s more important? Upholding tradition or changing dangerous practices?

Take seat belts. This is an on-going battle. The primary reason firefighters resist buckling up is because they feel it slows them down from getting their gear on, including SCBA. That’s it. They want to be ready for battle as soon as the air brake hits. Yet between five to seven annual LODDs (on average) are a direct result of a firefighter not wearing a seat belt. This is a preventable event, yet to uphold tradition, you’re willing to roll the dice and say to this firefighter’s family their death was justified. Besides, it is the law in every state.

Trust me, you don’t want to be the company officer responsible for a firefighter death or career-ending injury because you chose to follow an old tradition instead of a safety regulation. That will mess you up for life. I love the camaraderie of the fire service, but after 37 years in the fire service, I’ve come to see that The Brotherhood, whether it’s your local department or on the national scene…is selective. It’s the Brotherhood that holds on tightly to tradition, but once you’re out of step with them–you’re out! Instead of worrying about upholding tradition, worry about your legacy and start a new tradition. Be known as a company officer that never risked his or her crew on buildings that had no value. Didn’t risk their crew’s lives on fighting fires inside vacant buildings, who watched over the well-being of their crew, who limited their exposure to carcinogens, who followed all the safety rules, who knew how and when to be aggressive and when to be conservative in attacking fires, who was a safe officer instead of a Kamikaze company officer, who valued knowledge in building construction and fire behavior, who trained and drilled their crew for every possible scenario they may encounter. They’ll talk about you for years and model themselves after you.

Q.  What type of drills do you have, or have performed for hospitals and hose advancement inside hospitals?

A. Getting a real hospital to drill on is rare but not impossible. I found a local community hospital that was getting ready to remodel a wing. The entire wing was vacated except for the hospital beds. I was able to get permission to perform search and rescue drills, specifically hospital evacuation drills. So we focused on the actual task of getting mattresses on the floor below the simulated smoke level and moved them to areas of refuge.

By code, all hospitals must be sprinklered (but never say never…there may be a few that aren’t) so I would guess most fires would be kept in check, meaning you’re probably not going to be advancing a 2 ½-inch hoseline down a hallway. The main problem in hospital fires is smoke spread, not flames. And I can’t imagine a 1 ¾-inch hoseline would be any more difficult to advance in a hospital than it would in a residential or high-rise hallway.

The main challenge for engine company operations in hospitals is getting through all the self-closing fire doors. The fire doors are designed to compartmentalize and confine a fire to a room, hallway, or wing of origin. The main rescue emphasis is to move the affected patients to the other side of the fire doors into wings that are not affected. We need to isolate and protect the patients in areas of refuge that still may be on the fire floor. Engine companies need to find the right stairwell and the right standpipe from where to attack the fire. Wedging all the fire doors open for easy hose advancement is not the tactic that should be used. This defeats the purpose of the designed intent of the self-closing doors. You must do everything possible to limit smoke spread, therefore even advancing a single 1 ¾-inch hoseline may require up to six firefighters because you will need personnel stationed at every fire door to help advance the line while controlling the door as best as possible.

Q. Do you find the advancement of the 2 ½-inch hose with one person and the long pike pole cumbersome or can it be done with ease?

A. First of all, I know my other Seattle colleague who teaches the Nozzle Forward classes has various methods for advancing a charged 2 ½-inch hoseline. It’s good to be exposed to these techniques and it certainly is a task we must know how to do. 2 ½-inch hoselines have their place i.e. commercial structure fires, but since the fire service switched from 1 ½-inch attack lines to 1 ¾-inch or 2-inch attack lines, the additional gallons per minute has been sufficient in the majority of interior attacks to extinguish the fire before a 2 ½-inch hoseline was required. But in my 37 years of service, we did not advance 2 ½-inch attack lines very often inside the structures. We did lay a lot of 2 ½-inch supply lines up stairwells, but a 1½-inch gated wye was attached and the attack continued with 1 ¾-inch lines. The majority of fires I’ve been on with 2 ½-inch inside the building was used to knock down the 2 ½-inch fire back to a 1 ¾-inch size fire. We used the reach of the hose stream and then shut down the 2 ½-inch nozzle.

The rest of the 2 ½-inch operations I have been on were for defensive fires or for protecting exposures. Therefore, these lines were operated from the exterior perimeter of the fire. The 2 ½-inch flows approximately 300 gpms and has a tremendous reach of more than 75 feet. Is there really a need to advance the 2 ½-inch on a target within this range?  2 ½-inch hoselines were more likely to be repositioned than advanced. If a fire building is declared defensive, the incident commander (IC) has already written it off because it no longer has any value. It serves no purpose to advance an interior 2 ½-inch on these fires.

Remember, one side of the fire triangle is fuel. On a defensive fire, there may be no rush or urgency to extinguish this fire. 2 ½-inch lines could be used to protect exposures and let the main body of fire burn itself out. If an interior commercial fire required more than 300 gpms or multiple 2 ½-inch hoselines to contain it, I’m not sure if I would want to be inside of a fire that big and that deep. What’s the survivable life hazard and rescue profile of any victims? And I doubt an IC would be comfortable with that decision either.

A fire that requires in excess of 30 gpm to extinguish is not your regular interior attack. If so, I would want to operate the 2 ½-inch from a safe position like a stairwell landing, close to a fire door, from the protected side of a fire wall, through an exterior window or exterior door, from outside the collapse zone, or from the safety of another building. Again, I would utilize all my reach before I started advancing 2 ½-inch.

The one-man 2 ½-inch hoseline using the long pike pole is most likely a tactic I would use to protect an exposure building. As long as the firefighter is not in a collapse zone, he/she is not in an IDLH so they would not necessarily need a partner.

It is a low-frequency event to advance a charged 2 ½-inch down a long hallway and around corners. Nevertheless, we still need to know how to do this. All my 2 ½-inch evolutions using the pike pole configuration would require the firefighters to shut down the nozzle and use the hose strap to advance the line. The best tool I’ve seen for advancing charged 2 ½-inch hoseline is The Bowring tool.

Q. Where can I get more drills and information? Can you send me more?

A. You can start by signing up for the four-hour workshop at the next 2016 FDIC International. I am also hoping to present more of these drills on future Fire Engineering webinar presentations so keep watching for them. Also, I will be writing about these drills and many others (one at a time) on fireengineering.com.

RAUL A. ANGULORAUL A. ANGULO is a 34-year veteran of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department and captain of Ladder Co. 6. He writes the monthly column “Tool Tech” for Fire Apparatus and Emergency Equipment magazine. He has authored numerous articles published in fire service magazines. He lectures on fire service leadership, company officer development, fireground strategy and tactics, and firefighter accountability systems throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

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