CREW DEVELOPMENT TIPS FOR THE COMPANY OFFICER

BY RAUL A. ANGULO

Picture yourself sitting down to watch the 6 o’clock news and seeing as the lead story a train derailment in which cars are on fire and people are trapped. Or a fire in a large occupied commercial retail store with thick, black, choking smoke spewing from the basement. The smoke is churning under pressure, obscuring visibility to the store’s main exits. Or a plane that crashed into a super mall. Today’s fire departments respond to a wide range of emergency incidents that can occur anywhere in the United States and can involve any size fire department.

Now, picture your company being first in. What immediate action can you take as the company officer (CO) to help make these situations better? If your first response is “Oh shinola!”-that’s normal. But if you freeze up and can’t get beyond that moment of mental paralysis, you are in trouble, and so is your company. You haven’t been practicing your craft. If you are a company officer who has become complacent and has lost enthusiasm for your job, you can bet your company’s morale is low and is in the smoldering stage.

So how do you jumpstart your engine company or put the fire back in your truck company? With a motivational backdraft! You need to introduce fresh air–a new perspective-to fan the flames of enthusiasm. Become a motivational arsonist, if you will. Enthusiasm is contagious and can spread like wildfire, but you have to work at it. Let’s get started.

TAKE STOCK IN YOURSELF

Be honest. Examine yourself. Where are you in your career? Are you where you want to be? Are you the officer you’ve always wanted to be? Have you capitalized on your strengths, or have you been buried in your weaknesses? You know the answer. You may have to apologize to your crew members and admit that you have let them down by not being as good a CO as you could be. Like it or not, you are the leader, and they have taken their cue from you. Tell them you are wiping the slate clean, and you are going to start over again. They deserve nothing less than the best you have to offer as the leader. If they ask why the sudden change of attitude, use the 100 annual firefighter line-of-duty deaths as your bottom line. Find a Web site that lists them, and read with your crew about each incident and each firefighter. This single company activity should be the primary motivating factor for being the best trained company officer you can be. Your decisions, or lack of, affect lives.

Review with your crew your fire department’s mission statement and all the job descriptions. (That is why we are here, are employed, and are collecting a paycheck.) Review expectations, then recommit yourself to them. Remember: Firefighters respect honesty. Firefighters are forgiving. Firefighters love a challenge, and firefighters will rise to the standard you set.

THE VITAL LINK

The CO is the vital link between the administration and the firefighters. Everything that comes down from above is channeled through the company officer, especially the captains. The captain is like the vortex of an hourglass. Captains can control the flow and flavor of information. A tremendous moral and ethical responsibility is placed on captains to support the administration’s policies and programs, because the success of such policies and programs depends on the personal commitment of the company captain. Programs important to the captain will be adhered to; likewise, practices that seem to him be a waste of time will fall by the wayside.

Captains need to set a personal example and obey the policies. If the policies are flawed, they should be challenged and changed through the chain of command and not by rebellious insubordination. To do so sends a message to your crew that you are selective on which policies you will choose to obey. It should come as no surprise, then, when your crew selects which station policies they will abide by and which ones they will choose to ignore.

On alarm, the CO is the vital link between the initial stages and the mitigation of the emergency. The CO provides the first strategy on which the other company officers will build until the incident is concluded.

Today’s COs must be better trained and better educated. They have to manage a diverse workforce of firefighters where the rules of seniority have changed. They must ensure action is taken to accomplish the day-to-day tasks; up to 80 percent of the CO’s time is spent on duties other than actual emergency responses. The fire department’s success depends on individuals’ willingness to put aside personal differences and work together for the benefit of the department and the citizens it serves. The CO’s role is to mold this group into a company-an effective emergency EMS and firefighting response team. Successful COs recognize the importance of developing this cooperation and structure working relationships to achieve this goal.

RULES FOR SUCCEEDING IN THE FIRE SERVICE

Laying a new foundation can best be summed up by the six rules for “How to Succeed in the Fire Service”:

  • Rule 1: Learn your job. Be sincerely interested in and dedicated to it.
  • Rule 2: Be loyal to your department and coworkers.
  • Rule 3: Be aggressive in your pursuit of all educational and training opportunities.
  • Rule 4: Be cautious, and guard your speech on and off duty.
  • Rule 5: Be the type of person who inspires confidence and respect. Lead by example.
  • Rule 6: Be able to accept criticism graciously and praise, honors, and advancements modestly. Be humble.1

PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITIES

Come to work rested. Get a good night’s sleep. This is part of your personal commitment to your crew. Don’t show up for work to “rest and recover” from your off-shift job. This is an excellent way for your crew to lose total respect for you. I also believe there’s a higher moral standard placed on volunteers to maintain a level of sobriety 24 hours a day, seven days a week, that will allow them to perform without compromise at any given moment in case of an alarm. This is one reason I have so much respect for them.

Plan your next shift by making a “to do” list. Do this the night before you come to work, or do it on-shift before you turn in for the night. Crews report for work ready to go. They start asking, “What’s on the schedule?” before you can even get on your uniform. If you have a list ready to go, you can turn them loose on preliminary tasks while you prepare or adjust the assignments for the rest of the shift.

Stay off the phone! And don’t get stuck watching TV! These are major time wasters. Sometimes I’ll have crew members take a phone message unless it’s the battalion chief.

Have a formal or an informal roll call. Be informed, and keep firefighters informed on new department information. This adds to your officer credibility as someone who is “plugged in” or “in the know.” Firefighters hate being in the dark. When a new program is coming down the pike, have the answers ready because your firefighters ask questions. Don’t be a “damn if I know” officer. (This is a loser officer.)

SIZE UP YOUR CREW

Before you can size up your crew, you need to know your crew. You need to know their personalities, family situations, work routines (meal times, workout times, and so on), and communication styles. You need to know when they are joking and when they are angry. You need to know the difference between being lazy and being tired. Maybe a crew member is having difficulties in his personal life, which is affecting his work or the safety of other crew members. As a good officer, you have to know the normal routines to spot a potential problem that may require your attention.

Perform a size-up on a firefighter who may be detailed into the company just for a few hours or for the entire shift. Ask how long he has been with the department and if he has had previous fire department or military experience. This will help give you an idea of which firefighters can work independently and which may need closer supervision by a company officer or a more experienced firefighter.

Set position assignments, responsibilities, and expectations for EMS and CPR calls-i.e., who’s bringing in what equipment. Have basic initial fire attack plans for house fires, apartment fires, commercial fires, and haz-mat incidents. Of course, every situation is different, but at least the crew will have a general idea of what to expect from you. For example, some officers like to forward lay hose; others always reverse lay. This officer likes certain tools brought in, and that officer wants everyone to stay on the rig until he finds out what’s going on. Just give the crew a heads up on your management style at fires, especially when you don’t have your regular crew working with you.

COMMUNICATIONS AND GETTING ALONG WITH OTHERS

Getting along with others is probably the greatest contribution you can make to your success in the fire department as a company officer. The inability to get along is the biggest obstacle to success, regardless of what other qualities you may have. On the average, 10 percent of employees are discharged as the result of unsatisfactory work performance. The other 90 percent are let go because of their inability to get along with others in some form or another. Check with your city personnel director to see if this holds true for your city.

The art of getting along with others is a critical managing skill that can be acquired and developed. With recent violent incidents involving disgruntled employees, it’s also sadly becoming a survival skill within the workplace, including America’s fire departments.

Again, to be a successful CO in today’s fire service, you have to be a student of human nature and know your people. All firefighters are different. We have male and female and every ethnic flavor; we have Theory X, Y, and Z employees; and we have some employees who are compliant while others are defiant. But each one is created equal with an ingrained sense for fairness. So create a climate of fairness in your company and the fire station. Everyone respects and trusts an officer who is just and fair. It won’t always be easy. In fact, it isn’t. But remember: “Everybody bitches, nobody quits.”2

WHAT FIREFIGHTERS EXPECT FROM THEIR OFFICERS

Basically, firefighters have only three expectations with regard to their officers:

  1. to be taken care of,
  2. to be protected, and
  3. to be kept informed.

To be taken care of and to be protected are not the same. Company officers should protect firefighters from

  • getting killed,
  • getting hurt,
  • getting sick,
  • going nuts,
  • getting embarrassed,
  • getting fired, and
  • looking and feeling stupid.

Have an effective investment in worker welfare and survival so that everyone goes home! (2)

Safety should be the strongest emphasis in every endeavor; there should be zero tolerance for policy violations. Continuously review safety policies and safety components in all areas of training. Conduct quick and complete critiques at every incident to review what went well and what did not. This is the only time you will have the exact same firefighters together again at the same incident.

Taking care of firefighters and their needs includes the following:

  • recognition as a person,
  • a sense of belonging,
  • a sense of security,
  • fair treatment,
  • good working conditions,
  • the opportunity to be heard,
  • the opportunity to prove oneself,
  • the opportunity for promotion and advancement, and
  • to know changes in rules and expectations.

It is basically knowing very well Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. (1) Firefighters expect help from the leadership in guidance, inspiration, encouragement, discipline, and approval for a job well done. If it is not given, frustration sets in. Practice Chief Alan Brunacini’s “Timeless Basic Boss Routines”:

  • Tell the workers what you want.
  • Give them the training and tools to do the job.
  • Get out of their way, and let them do their job.
  • Tell them how they did.
  • Help them to get better. (2)

Remember: It is less than 18 inches between a pat on the back and a kick in the pants, but a CO gets more results from the pat than from the kick. Build the trust, and respect the trust.

REGAINING YOUR CREW’S CONFIDENCE

Remember: In this job, your reputation is still made on the fireground.

You can be good at EMS, building inspections, fire prevention, office organization, and paperwork, but if you want to be a company officer and leader of firefighters, you have to be good on the fireground. Success in building your company’s trust and confidence happens at fires. It doesn’t spring into existence. It doesn’t grow like weeds. It takes time and effort to establish. You must earn that confidence and trust. If they are earned, your crew will give them freely because they are based on trust and respect for you as their officer and your leadership abilities. You earn this privilege to command by

  • investing in yourself and your training,
  • becoming knowledgeable and knowing your job,
  • having a respect for training, and
  • being responsible and accountable.

The results will be loyalty, cooperation, efficiency, and fewer complaints.

Be decisive. Nothing drives firefighters crazy more than someone who can’t make a decision. Study the various decision-making styles, and use them appropriately. We want firefighters to like us, so we make the easy decisions that make us look good and try to ignore the tough ones that will anger some. Try for a win-win solution, but realize you can’t please everyone and that no matter what decision you make, someone won’t be happy.

Stay positive, and keep up your courage. The manner in which you face discouragement is important. Think of any chief who has lost firefighters. One of my favorite quotes is from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in the moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Fire “Attactics”

The list for tips on strategy and tactics can go on and on, with many of us agreeing to disagree. But here are a few “remembers”:

  • Memorize the National Fire Academy Fire Flow Formula:
    L 2 W divided by 3 = total gpm for 100 percent involvement.

    Study this formula, and learn how it is applied on the fire floor, floors above the fire, and exposures. If the fire flow capability of available resources exceeds the required fire flow, you can usually attack the fire. However, before this decision is implemented, the CO should consider the following:

    • Is it safe for offensive operations based on existing conditions?
    • Is the fire area accessible?
    • How many lines are needed, and at what gpm?
    • How many firefighters are needed for the attack?
    • What support activities are required (RIT)?
    • Where are the best vantage points for applying water (from the uninvolved toward the involved)?
    • What safety concerns do I have?

    If, on the other hand, the fire flow requirements exceed the fire flow capability of available resources, a defensive mode of operation is usually required. Go defensive!

    Remember: In situations where little can be done to save the involved building with the resources available, exposure protection becomes the primary objective. Don’t wear out or take a chance of injuring your firefighters on loser buildings. Protect exposures!

    Remember: Rollover is your final warning before flashover. You might be able to survive a flashover if you can react in time and are within five to six feet of the exit door.

    RISK-BENEFIT ANALYSIS

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    • We will begin our response on the assumption that we can saves lives and protect property.
    • We may risk lives a lot, in a calculated manner, to protect or rescue savable lives.
    • We may risk our lives only a little, in a calculated manner, to protect savable property.
    • We will not risk our lives at all to rescue or protect lives and property that are already lost.

    PERSONAL TOOLS

    Personal tools are just that, a personal choice. Some firefighters carry everything, including the kitchen sink, while others maybe will carry a flashlight. I like to carry a pickhead ax. However, considering the dangers associated with lightweight construction, I think an engine officer’s tool of choice should be a pike pole. Here’s why.

    Firefighters have been injured and killed by ceilings and trusses that have come down on them. The fire above them isn’t being detected until it’s too late. You don’t want that fire above you or behind you. If it’s an obvious fire somewhere in the structure, the CO has to check the ceiling space before the crew starts advancing down the hallway and into the rooms. An ax simply doesn’t give you the reach.

    Besides pushing, pulling, prying, and wedging, the pike pole allows you to break out higher windows for ventilation and to cover more floor area in a search while your crew is extinguishing the fire. The pike pole also allows you to operate an interior 21/2-inch hose with ease and gives you a mechanical advantage to drag an unconscious firefighter quickly while freeing one hand to follow the hose or wall out to safety.

    Wedges are underused in many fire departments. It takes only one time to learn how dangerous it can be to have a door close on an uncharged line and have the flow of water blocked when you call for it. A delay in water can have disastrous consequences if interior conditions rapidly change for the worst. Carry at least one wedge.

    I carry two knives, one on my belt and one in the pocket of my bunker pants. I also carry two halogen bulb flashlights with an extra set of batteries wrapped and taped in plastic to keep them dry. One light is attached to my bunker coat; the other is in a pocket in my bunker pants. You may find yourself in a position where you may be able to reach only one, and the extra batteries may make the difference in a successful search or self-rescue if your flashlight suddenly dies out. (Check the condition of your flashlight when you put your coat on the rig at shift change; you’d be surprised how many firefighters fail to do this.)

    Carry numerous body loops, webbing, or straps. I carry six. They are excellent for tying open doors for ventilation or closing them to control airflow to a fire. They can be used to secure hoselines during defensive operations, saving the strength and stamina of your firefighters, and they are essential to assist in civilian and firefighter rescue carries.

    Finally, tucked inside my coat is a pair of swimming goggles for a quick water rescue or wedging a sprinkler head.

    CREATIVE AND REALISTIC DRILLS

    Practice like you play. Make your drills as realistic as possible. Have members wear the personal protective clothing required for the task. That means full bunker gear with SCBA, helmets, radios, and gloves. And if they’re wearing full gear, you wear full gear. Make it a practice to perform certain drills blindfolded if they would most likely be carried out on interior operations where visibility could be zero. Using wax paper or a spray-painted lens cover or simply wearing the hood backward can simulate heavy smoke conditions. If members can perform tasks in the dark, they can easily perform them when visibility is clear.

    Certain tasks have to be performed with gloves. Switching radio channels, tying knots, and using SCBA quick-rescue fill techniques are examples of tasks that have to be practiced with gloves on. If you have a tendency to remove your gloves for better dexterity, fire conditions may be so hot that your hands would immediately burn, rendering your hands useless. Now you have taken yourself and your buddy out of the fight.

    Use common sense, and be safe. There are plenty of times when T-shirts are OK. When you are teaching new information or techniques, create an environment that’s conducive to learning. There’s a time for instruction and a time for practice.

    Drilling with full gear allows the firefighter to become efficient and confident with bulky, cumbersome equipment. Can you imagine the U.S. Armed Forces not practicing with ships, planes, tanks, guns, and so on because they are too heavy, bulky, or hard to handle and still maintain a superior level of military readiness? On the contrary, we admire Navy Seals, Green Berets, and Ranger units because of their demanding level of training and capabilities. They are experts at what they do because they practice the same things over and over again. We dare do no less.

    Taking a hydrant is a little more challenging when the crew member has to make the hookups in full bunkers with his face piece getting tangled up in the wrenches, but that’s exactly how it will be when your company is first in with the two-in/two-out rule or third in and your assignment is to secure a water supply. It’s the only way the firefighter will learn the little tricks like flinging the face piece under his arm or around his neck to keep it out of the way. If you practice thoroughly without shortcuts, you won’t forget the little things that can cut you short when the alarm is real.

    It’s OK to have fun while drilling. Add an element of friendly competition to the drills. Scramble hoses of various sizes, appliances, and couplings. Then, time how long it takes each firefighter to make the connections. Include connecting to the hydrant. Trust me, they will spend hours trying to outdo each other or shave seconds off their personal best. Make sure you play too. Don’t believe that because you are the CO you have to do it better and faster. In fact, the younger guys will probably run circles around you. Don’t be intimidated. The main thing is drilling so that everyone gets it right. A football coach doesn’t have to play better than the players; he just has to know the game better. Be a good sport; it pays big dividends in developing company morale.

    Cross-train your crews. With firefighters working overtime, mutual trades, and putting together “makeup” companies for multiple-alarm fires and statewide mobilizations, firefighters need to know truck work and engine evolutions. With smaller departments, this is already common practice. In major cities, however, it’s easy for company officers and firefighters to fall into the “we don’t do that” routine.

    Though routine drills are important, you can pull a line or throw up a ladder only so many times before it becomes “boring.” That is the reason you will hear many firefighters say “I already know how to do that.” It’s like tying your shoes: Do you continue to drill on tying that knot? Of course not. But some crew members may not be as confident as the more experienced firefighters and would welcome the extra practice. However, they may not bring it to your attention because they do not want to appear weak or incompetent to the other members on the team. If the CO initiates the basic drills, it takes the pressure off the less experienced firefighters. Never having to practice on the basics is a myth. Why is there such a reemphasis on going back to basics on the national fire scene? Because basic mistakes, with serious consequences, are still taking place at fires. That answer should suffice for the “we already know how to do that” attitude.

    CREATIVE DRILLS

    Here are a few creative drills that emphasize the basics and add problem-solving challenges that promote teamwork, morale, and personal confidence.

    21/2-Inch Line with Pike Pole

    This is an excellent technique if your department uses automatic combination nozzles. Start by having firefighters operate a 21/2-inch line with a straight stream at normal psi, preferably without straps. Ask them how long they would last holding on before they would have to shut down the nozzle. The answer is always “not very long.” Then introduce this technique:

    • Use a body loop (webbing) and tie a hose knot (girth hitch) to a charged 21/2-inch line approximately six feet behind the nozzle and the other end to the pike pole.
    • Place the pike pole underneath the hose to support its weight about three feet behind the nozzle.
    • The pike pole is rested on the hips of two firefighters, practically eliminating the nozzle reaction for all the firefighters on the line. This allows for maneuverable and extensive operations with 21/2-inch hose for defensive operations without firefighters’ becoming tired.

    For interior operations: Two firefighters can use this technique. One firefighter kneels down while straddling the hose with the pike pole on top of the hose and in front of his knees. With this firefighter approximately six feet behind the nozzle, the firefighter at the nozzle can lay down and operate the line with little or no nozzle reaction. This position allows the two firefighters to keep low in a hallway and operate a 21/2-inch line without getting tired.

    Following a Hoseline to Safety

    Try this drill in a public storage facility. Owners will usually give permission. Public storage facilities have long hallways with dead-end aisles.

    • Lay two charged 21/2-inch lines to include at least two coupling connections that cross and loop over each other down the hallway, the way they would in a real fire.
    • Put a downed firefighter at the nozzle with the PASS device activated.
    • Turn off the hall lights, or cover SCBA face pieces.
    • Send a rescue team to follow the lines in and drag out the firefighter.

    Besides the physical challenge, they will be limited by the air in their SCBA cylinders. The harder they breathe, the less time they will have to complete the drill. Include feeling the coupling connection with gloves to determine the path of egress as a component of the drill. Blindfold and bring other teams in at midhoselay, and have them exit the building by feeling their way to a coupling to determine the path of egress.

    Advancing a 21/2-Inch Hose Up Stairs While Staying Low

    It’s easy to advance up stairs or down a hallway when you’re standing up and you can see where you’re going. Try it blindfolded, crawling on your belly to simulate heat and smoke conditions. It’s not that easy.

    Ladder Rescue Carries

    Practice rescue carry techniques for firefighters or civilians by using a baby ladder or roof ladder as a stretcher or sled. Practice pivoting the ladder over obstacles.

    Night Operations

    Most fires happen at night. Once in a while, practice everything at night: hydrant hookups, laddering buildings, and engine evolutions. There are different safety dynamics and challenges at night. We need to feel comfortable in our real work environment.

    The Hangman and the Wall

    Here is another set of timed competitive drills. Again, crew members will spend hours trying to outdo each other. With full bunker gear and SCBA, see how long each member can hang onto the end of a bedded aerial. Have a safe dropping distance of one to two feet.

    Find a retaining wall or a basement window. Have firefighters simulate falling into a basement and see if they are able to jump up and pull themselves out. The most fit firefighters will be able to do this; the others will need the aid of a hand tool like an ax or a halligan to boost themselves up. The whole point of these drills is to give crews a sobering awakening to how difficult it actually is to extricate yourself or hang onto a ladder or ledge until help arrives.

    Bridging and Other Uses for Ladders

    To take the mono-tony out of raising and lowering ladders, research the creative uses for ground ladders. There are various bridging techniques. Look for buildings in your district that are a laddering challenge. Many property owners appreciate the opportunity to allow your crews to practice on their buildings in preparation for the real thing. It gives them a great sense of security knowing you are prepared for an actual emergency on their property; it also enhances community relations. Take every common-sense precaution to prevent damage. Pad ledges with tarps before raising or bridging with ladders.

    Ask your truck company how it would rescue an occupant from a window that is out of aerial reach and inaccessible from above because of heat and smoke. This variation of the Lorenzo Ladder, developed by Lieutenant Peter Lorenzo of the Fire Department of New York,3 is a creative solution. Though this is an extreme last resort and dangerous measure, it would work. I include this example because it is an excellent problem-solving, team-building drill for truck companies.

    Another Lorenzo variation is using a Bresnan distributor secured to the end of a roof ladder with body loop straps. If engine crews are having a difficult time making entry into a hot, smoky basement fire, this setup could be used through a basement window, giving you the reach to extinguish the fire with a round nozzle pattern at 270 gpm. It provides an extended reach in a variety of situations or confined spaces using any combination of nozzles without exposing firefighters to untenable environments.

    The motto of the Los Angeles City Fire Department, and adopted by our company, is “Train like your life depends on it ellipse because it does!” What else needs to be said? Design your drills with this end in mind, and you will always have creative, challenging, and meaningful company drills.

    Tips for the company officer can fill volumes, and the pages would never be complete. There are valuable lessons to be learned from every fire officer around the world. Don’t retire without sharing the wealth. I think that as a CO you should develop at least three key relationships: (1) with a chief officer who inspires you and serves as a role model and teacher, a chief who can counsel and encourage you; (2) with a peer of equal rank whom you respect and trust-one with whom you can exchange ideas and feedback, someone with whom to share victories and defeats; and (3) with a junior officer you are personally going to mentor and take under your wing.

    Remember: We are never as good as we can become. Mahatma Gandhi said, “We must become the change we want to see!” For me, the challenge is in the area of company administration and organization. It definitely is not my strong point, and it drives one of my lieutenants nuts! That’s why he is so valuable to the company. Where I am weak, he is strong; I rely on his talents for keeping my station’s paperwork and records organized.

    In the words of General Colin Powell: “The business of a leader is to turn weakness into strengths, obstacles into stepping stones, and disaster into triumph!” Every time we go to work is a new day to do it better.

    Endnotes

    1. The Department Company Officer, 2nd edition, IFSTA, 1990.
    2. Brunacini, Alan V., “Functional Boss Behaviors” seminar, Jan. 2000.
    3. An assembly diagram of this technique can be found on page 367 of Firefighting Principles & Practices, 2nd edition, by W. E. Clark, Fire Engineering Books, 1991.

    Additional references

    • Hamm, Robert F., Leadership in the Fire Service, 1st edition, IFSTA, 1990.
    • Staley, Michael F., Igniting the Leader Within, Fire Engineering Books, 1998.
    • “Managing Company Tactical Operations,” National Fire Academy.
    • “The Art of Principal Leadership, The Seattle Fire Department Way,” Jan. 2000.

    RAUL A. ANGULO is a 20-year veteran of the Seattle Fire Department and captain of Engine Company 33; an adjunct instructor at Seattle Central Community College; and an instructor at the National Fire Academy, where he teaches fire service leadership and fireground strategy and tactics. He is a member of the FDIC West advisory board and of the National Fire Academy Alumni Association board of directors. He is president of the Fellowship of Christian Firefighters, Seattle-Puget Sound Chapter.

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