BY DAVID M. MCGRAIL
Ponder the question “Do we really need to do that every time?” as it relates to your daily operations. Recently, the Denver (CO) Fire Department (DFD) adopted four-way hydrant valves as part of our water supply operations. We use three-inch hose as our primary supply line and generally employ a forward hydrant-to-fire hoselay for most of our fireground operations. Our SOPs mandate that the first-arriving engine company lay a supply line from a hydrant and thus establish a sustained water supply to all reports of fire or smoke in any structure.
At working fires, prior to the implementation of hydrant valves, the second-due engine company gets a separate, secondary water supply as a backup to provide a redundancy if a system fails, be it a hydrant, a supply line, or the pumper. At those fires that are not quickly controlled, the next-due engine companies go to work at the first- and second-due engine companies’ hydrants, thus establishing relay pumping to increase volume and pressure. However, this practice of “going to work” on a hydrant that is already supplying water to another pumper requires shutting down the hydrant, thus interrupting the water supply to complete the necessary hook-ups.
With the four-way hydrant valve, a later-arriving engine company can go to work on another engine company’s hydrant without shutting down the hydrant. Therefore, there is no interruption of water supply. It’s a very simple concept. Although new to the DFD, our research indicated that numerous fire departments across the country have been successfully using hydrant valves for many years.
I consider my fire department to be a fairly progressive organization. Over the years, many positive changes have led to a safer work environment for our members and much more effective operational procedures. The four-way hydrant valve is a prime example.
As you may have guessed, I am a proponent of the hydrant valve. I was involved in the research and development, implementation, and training related to this new water appliance. Although the DFD is a progressive organization, we still have a 138-year history and nearly 1,000 members. Needless to say, change is not always achieved easily in older, larger organizations. That’s especially true when it involves not just the equipment but also major changes in our operational procedures.
As an outspoken proponent of the four-way hydrant valve, oftentimes I found myself in the middle of discussions, frequently trying to open the minds of some who had not seen the light of day for years. On one particular day, the members of an engine company were having a friendly discussion behind their pumper. As I passed by, one of the members stopped me and asked if I could answer a couple of questions. Several of the members asked me questions, mostly just to clarify operational issues they had encountered. Then it happened. I heard those now unforgettable words, “Hey, Chief,” one of the men asked, “do we really need to do that every time?”
The easy answer to that question would have been, “Yes, you do need to do that every time, so just do it.” But words like that are tough to overcome once they are out of your mouth. The old saying, “You get more bees with honey than with vinegar” goes a long way when dealing with firefighters. Over the years, as both a company officer and a chief officer, I have found that the members under your command will do anything you ask, especially if they have a complete understanding of the reason behind the request. However, you must take the time to educate and train your members long before the commands are given.
A MOTIVATIONAL FACTOR
“Do we really need to do that every time?” That seemingly benign statement has evolved into a significant motivational factor for me and countless other firefighters I teach, mentor, and work with on a daily basis. I realized that at the root of that question was one of the deadliest aspects of human nature, complacency. The question truly yields not just one clear-cut answer but several answers, at least on a theoretical and philosophical level.
To begin with, we all know that within the so-called “routine” daily operations of all fire departments, both large and small, we respond to countless events, many of which turn out to be something less than a major emergency—those annoying automatic alarms in large commercial buildings that frequently prove to be system malfunctions, unintentional false alarms, smoke scares, and a long list of other categories that are far from the classification of building fire.
The reported building fire turned out to be smoke from a barbecue grill. The parties trapped in an auto accident ended up being a minor fender bender with no injuries. The odor investigation turned up a small plastic spoon that was resting on the heating element inside a dishwasher. Most fire departments have had these statements on more than one incident report narrative. It’s a fact of life in our business. Unfortunately, as human beings, we can quickly be lured into a false sense of security, and that deadly disease of complacency can start to take hold.
It is easy to see how anyone could ask the question when our experience has proven many times that our good habits and disciplined actions frequently are not needed on a response. On a daily basis, DFD engine companies working in districts across the city lay out supply lines in response to reports of smoke or fire, only a portion of which turn out to be bona fide working fires. As for the four-way hydrant valves, they certainly will not be needed at the nonworking incidents and perhaps even on some of the working incidents. The DFD, like most fire departments, will quickly stop most working fires with the first handline, generally a 13/4-inch preconnect. At those incidents, the demand for water typically will not require relay pumping and the use of the four-way hydrant valve.
So, once again, the question remains, “Do we really need to do that every time?” Before we jump to a hasty conclusion and answer no, we must first examine the facts and figures on the other side of the ledger. For every full first-alarm assignment that was cancelled because of smoke from a barbecue grill, we must recall those significant events that started with a single engine company response to perhaps an investigation of outside smoke.
Firefighter Brett Tarver of the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department was lost at an event that began as a report of rubbish burning outside a building. A week ago, at 42 minutes past midnight, I responded with a first-alarm assignment to a report of smoke on the first floor of a multiple dwelling. That building, like many others, has a strong and well-deserved reputation for late-night burnt food incidents. There were no second-source calls, and my first-arriving companies reported nothing showing. I struck the second alarm four minutes later and the third shortly after that. What early on showed indications of being a routine nuisance call proved to be a heavy volume of fire on the lower level that connected two large, seven-story multiple dwellings, each containing three separate wings with nearly 600 occupants. And, there were no sprinklers!
If we could accurately predict the future, it would be simple to answer our question. However, I am still searching for that magic “fire service crystal ball,” and Nostradamus didn’t include addresses or building locations in his prophecies.
PREDICTION VS. PREPARATION
We can’t predict, but we can prepare. Preparation is a lot like size-up: It’s ongoing and cumulative. It begins with the physical and mental preparedness of all firefighters. It rests with a strong mindset and belief that it could happen today. What is it? It could be just about anything. The greatest prophecy in the fire service today is our own history. We continually hear about how firefighters have been killed in the same ways as in years past. Fire Department of New York Deputy Chief (Ret.) Vincent Dunn has told us on many occasions, “Learn from your history, or you’re doomed to repeat it.”
As a young man growing up, I wasn’t the best student. I especially disliked history class. After all, at 16 years of age, I figured, what’s the point? I had a lot of things on my mind, and history wasn’t one of them. Now in my 40s, I am driven to learn as much history as I can, especially as it relates to our profession. As I aggressively study history, I continue to ponder the question, “Do we really need to do that every time?” My research took me outside the fire service, and I discovered some very interesting things.
There have in fact been countless occasions in American history that began with complacency, neglecting to take one or several actions that should have been accomplished. Some classic examples of these failures relate to our question and illustrate that, yes, we should have done that this time but didn’t do it. In many of these examples, the people involved knew better but gave in to complacency that resulted in tragedy.
My first example occurred several generations ago: “a day that will live in infamy,” the now infamous words of then President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Countless books and movies recall the events related to the Pearl Harbor attack that occurred more than 60 years ago. Sure, hindsight is 20/20, but perhaps we sometimes see only the things we want to see and ignore the real important stuff when making decisions. In the case of Pearl Harbor, historical facts indicate that plenty of intelligence pointing to a possible attack by Japan existed long before it ever took place. In fact, on the day of the attack, several young GIs assigned to radar screens saw the enemy aircraft long before the first strike. Their pleas to take action fell on deaf ears, with comments such as, “It’s probably just some birds,” or “It has to be some of our aircraft.” Do we really need to do that every time?
I was a “new boy” with only three years of experience on the job in 1985. It was the morning of January 28, 1986, and I was on duty in the fire station. I was busy mopping the kitchen floor. The TV was blaring in the background. Suddenly, the TV screen was filled with a fireball in the skies over the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Space Shuttle Challenger had just blown apart in midair. The lives of seven very talented people were lost in a matter of seconds. What went wrong?
The subsequent investigation uncovered several disturbing items. During what appeared to be a political battle, engineers who had designed parts of the aircraft literally had pleaded with NASA managers not to go forward with the launch of Challenger. Their concern was that the cold weather would negatively affect the O-rings that were supposed to seal the joints of the solid rocket boosters. The engineers believed it was too cold and that the O-rings might fail and allow the extremely volatile fuel to escape and cause the spacecraft to catastrophically fail. Having had already postponed the launch because of cold weather three times, the NASA managers were growing increasingly impatient. Politics prevailed over safety. The launch went forward. The temperature was 36°F, lower than that for any other previous launch. The O-rings did, in fact, fail, and 73 seconds after the launch of Challenger, seven lives were lost forever. Do we really need to do that every time?
More than 17 years later, it wasn’t O-rings but foam insulation panels that led to the Columbia spacecraft disaster. Once again, history repeated itself. The post-investigation uncovered correspondence within NASA that warned that if foam insulation panels broke loose from the space shuttle’s fuel tanks and struck the aircraft, catastrophic failure was highly probable. Do we really need to do that every time?
The events of September 11, 2001, certainly have overshadowed the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. But as historical lessons go, this was extremely significant. I’m not a big fan of politics and do not want my message to be distorted by political commentary. However, I have to believe that whether a person is liberal, conservative, or somewhere in between, our country really missed the message in 1993. The malicious intentions of those involved were clear, and their tenacity obviously was underestimated. Had a vigorous campaign against terrorism started in 1993, those 343 Fire Department of New York brothers whom we all sorely miss would still be with us today. Do we really need to do that every time?
“History” Lessons Within the Fire Service
Moving from those examples outside the fire service, we don’t have to struggle to identify countless events that have ended in tragedy for us. Reviewing the fire service case studies in which firefighters were injured or killed is a significant learning tool. The sad part involves the discovery that much of what we learn often is nothing new at all. I believe that most of the tragic events that occur in the fire service are the result of several factors that set in motion a chain reaction such as that of dominoes falling one after another until they’re all down. During that process, individual decisions can literally stop or increase the speed of the fall of the dominoes.
It boils down to good habits, plain and simple. We don’t have control over everything that can affect us, but we do have the ability to develop and maintain good habits and the basics, like stopping two floors below a reported fire floor and walking up the last two flights, Basic and elementary, sure. But failing to strictly follow that basic procedure has on more than one occasion been the first domino to fall on a path that resulted in the death of fellow firefighters. Do we really need to do that every time?
Every single call to which we respond has to be taken seriously. We don’t know for sure what it is until we get there, investigate, gather the facts, and take care of business. The chief officer who chooses not to respond to the automatic alarm because it’s probably false sends out a strong message to every one under his command. That message is one of laziness and complacency. Just like a dysfunctional family, soon most of the members under his command will follow his lead and absorb the deadly habits of complacency. Many will get away with it for weeks, months, years, perhaps even an entire career. But it takes only one time to be wrong, and the dominoes will fall.
As my father and mentor (retired DFD Division Chief Pat McGrail) told me on many occasions, “The most important fire you will ever go to is the one you’re at right now.” Take every call seriously, conduct a comprehensive and professional operation every time, and consider it over only after you have covered all the bases and brought it to a safe and successful conclusion. If you think it’s nothing before you even get there, the dominoes of complacency are falling; the result could be deadly for somebody you should be protecting, specifically your fellow firefighters.
Today’s fire service is filled with youth, and we must protect them. In my conversations with young firefighters, they all say the same thing: They want experience. They want the opportunity to prove themselves to the older firefighters. Many comment that they just want to be a great firefighter. But when will they get their chance?
To those young firefighters, I always say the same thing, “Carpe diem.” That’s right, seize the day! Often the young, eager firefighter is waiting for his moment to shine. I remember my own thoughts and desires as a young firefighter. I, too, was waiting for that moment when I could step up to the plate and show the veterans I had what it took to do the job. As it turns out, they were watching me all the time, not just during the serious events.
I frequently think about the 343 brothers lost on 9-11. I was fortunate to have known a handful of them personally. They all demonstrated greatness through their incredible courage and actions that horrible day. We all hope that we would be as strong as they were if ever faced with something that enormous. But it wasn’t that one event that defined those men and who they were. This is especially true of Andrew Fredericks, whom I think of every day. Those who knew him fully understand that he wasn’t waiting for his moment—he was seizing the day. The positive impact he had on the American fire service and countless firefighters across the country, including me, was absolutely phenomenal. The man will not be defined solely by his heroic actions on 9-11 but more specifically by his daily actions and contributions to the American fire service and FDNY.
As firefighters and human beings, we can make specific choices. There are two basic paths we can take daily on the job. The easier path is complacency—donuts in the morning and Oprah in the afternoon. It doesn’t get any better than that. The second path is for those interested in hard work, study, dedication, and professional development. It is the path of preparation. It may lead you to climb the stairs at the local high-rise building after roll call or to make a quick stop at a construction site on the way to the store to size up lightweight construction, the latest firefighter killer, or to lead a drill on the essential components of a RIT pack and train in rapid intervention operations for commercial building fires. All this work is in between calls and other department activities. Yes, you can have your cake and eat it, too. There’s nothing wrong with taking some time to relax, watch some TV, or do some personal stuff. Just remember, take care of business first. Get prepared, be prepared, and stay prepared, both mentally and physically.
“That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.” These words were spoken by the actor Robin Williams in the movie Dead Poets Society. What will your verse be? Have we answered the question yet? If not, remember this: When you walk through the doors of the fire station to start your work next work shift, you can be a truly great firefighter, or not. It will be easy to distinguish the real firefighters from those who consider our great profession to be just a part-time job. Simply put, the truly great firefighter never asks the question, “Do we really need to do that every time?” The truly great firefighter just does it every time. Carpe diem.
DAVID M. McGRAIL is a 22-year veteran of the fire service and a district chief with the Denver (CO) Fire Department. He is an instructor with the fire science program at Red Rocks Community College in Lakewood, Colorado; the Rocky Mountain Fire Academy; the DFD Officer Training Program; and the DFD Fire Academy. He is the lead instructor for the engine company (standpipe) Hands-On Training at the FDIC. He is a member of the FDIC and FDIC West educational advisory boards and the Fire Engineering editorial advisory board. He has two associate of applied science degrees in fire science technology from Red Rocks Community College and two bachelor of science degrees from Metropolitan State College of Denver, one in human resource management and the other in fire service administration.