Civilian rescue challenges

This refers to Sean Gray’s “Lessons Learned from a Civilian Rescue” (Fire Engineering, September 2013). This past June 2, after about 20 years in the fire service, I participated in the removal of a civilian victim from a residential house fire—the first and perhaps the only one of my life. In the hours and days after, I spent a lot of time reviewing the event as part of firehouse chats and in personal moments when you have those insightful self-reflections concerning what went right and what went wrong.

While reading Gray’s article, I found myself right back in the moment and was nodding my head in agreement based on what happened on that otherwise normal Sunday morning. After reading his account, I realized that there was a reason to write about my experience because the reality is that it was my “departmental moment,” and while I’d like to think my next similar experience would be improved based on this experience, I’m not likely to ever have that moment again. My next moment will almost certainly come at the hands of another firefighter somewhere out there who will read Gray’s story and maybe even this letter and take the initiative to train himself and others to be better prepared and skilled for that ultimate fire service moment—a successful civilian “grab.”

Gray’s account reflects a two-sided insight into what became a civilian rescue: the need for prior physical training and drill evolutions along with the mental recognition and preparation for what is going to be unlike other fireground tasks such as ventilation, hoselines, or forcible entry. Despite a clear head and strong intuition on my particular morning, I, too, was caught off-guard when my eyes first got a glimpse of what my brain processed as a human lying on the floor. In that instant, I was caught between knowing I was looking right at a victim and wanting to have some type of validation that it was indeed a victim before I made all on the fireground aware of it. In the span of a few seconds, I found myself wanting to be so right because I was still in disbelief and knowing that once the message was transmitted, the dynamics of the event would change in a way that could lead to people getting hurt if I was wrong. All that self-doubt and denial vanished when my gloved hand reached out and squeezed the lower leg of an elderly woman who had apparently collapsed while attempting to evacuate.

I reached back and pulled the engine company officer down toward me and exclaimed through my mask, “Victim on the floor behind the door.” Later, as we all discussed the event, he relayed to me that he, too, had the intuition that this was going to be a victim event when I pushed open the door and it moved only about a foot before stopping despite my still leaning into it. In retrospect that, too, was my “ah-ha” moment, but my brain couldn’t process it in time to prepare my eyes for that first glimpse. My prevailing thought at the time was to make sure the floor was solid because I was the first person going through the door and, although the fire was clearly visible on the main floor, there was no proof that it wasn’t a basement fire that had extended. In the moment while the engine captain waited for a radio channel to clear to transmit the message, I found that composure Gray spoke of, and within moments, the other search member had practically climbed over me, and we were jostling the victim and clearing her from behind the door so we could all exit the building.

There is a teaching moment here for all firefighters: Humans don’t have handles on them! The 30 feet from the house to the front sidewalk was not the easiest or swiftest move in history and actually resulted in an injury to the victim. While she was unconscious and barely breathing, it is disheartening to know that the victim had become injured during the rescue process. Truthfully, what did I think was going to happen since so little, if any, of my prior training and experience had ever focused on removing a civilian victim? How did any of us do the first time on the roof or on the nozzle? We are continuously learning by experience and reinforcing that with education and drills, so let’s not be so driven that we fail to realize what we haven’t yet been prepared for on the fireground.

In looking back over my training and education, I summed up that morning by saying it was 20 years of preparation compressed into about seven minutes. I now know that I could have been better prepared. After reading Gray’s experience, I’m proud to share with others my success and failure in the hope that they can benefit from my first time and that whoever has the “next” time will be that much better because of the collective lessons learned and echoed from Gray’s and my experiences. Your day will come. We all need to start today to be better prepared.

David Phelan
Firefighter/Safety Officer
Bergenfield (NJ) Fire Department

Tradition vs. practice

This refers to Captain Jesse Quinalty’s article, “The Six Ts of Fire Service Learning” (Training Notebook, Fire Engineering, July 2013).

His suggestion that the 50-foot “auditorium raise” was a questionable tradition confuses tradition with practice. Tradition is often reflected in mission statements and includes ideals, like “to protect and serve” or “service above self,” general principles handed down from our forefathers in the fire service.

A “church raise,” as we called it in Detroit, is a practice, not a tradition. It is a good practice. Above all else, it instills in firefighters the importance of teamwork and, more importantly, trust in your fellow firefighters. Although used infrequently, it has done this. I can attest to this after picking for embers between the arched beams of a church and its ceiling.

Second, the article says that the ropes are held taut in the “auditorium raise.” In fact, each rope should have a gentle sag in it because the ropes are not for holding the ladder tip rigidly in place but to provide balance. Pulling the guidelines tight can cause the ladder to “walk” or even topple.

There were a number of unsupported statements like “European helmets are safer than the common traditional style helmet used across the United States.” I congratulate Quinalty for his article. Each of the topics discussed could be a separate column.

John A. Reardon
Lieutenant (Ret.)
Detroit (MI) Fire Department

Jesse Quinalty responds: I thank John Reardon for taking the time to submit his thoughts on my article. I agree that the auditorium raise may be a practice and that it could be used in some areas. However, if it is no longer a practice within your fire department or region, does it then become a “tradition”? A tradition is many times a practice that is no longer followed. What are some other fire department practices or traditions that are no longer followed? They include riding the tailboard, using pompier ladders, and having brass poles in the fire station.

We have all heard the statement that the fire service is 200 years of tradition unimpeded by progress. In truth, the U.S. fire service is more than 300 years old, and it is those traditions that make the fire service what it is today—progressive.

I admire Reardon’s passion for the fire service displayed in his letter.


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