(Photo by Tony Greco)
By Mark J. Cotter
I could find myself in a burning building within the next 10 minutes; half that time when I’m at our station. Give or take a few minutes, I suspect the majority of firefighters could make the same statement. With the potential for entry into a hazardous environment and similarly risky activities always sitting just a few minutes into our future, how do we best maintain a constant state of readiness? Furthermore, even if we are as prepared as possible when the call comes, how do we ready ourselves for the specific challenges we will face from the particular incident to which we are now responding? In other words, how can we best “change gears” from whatever it is we were doing before to whatever it is the emergency now requires of us?
To my way of thinking, there are three components to personal preparation: Physical, intellectual, and organizational. Each relates to our ability to perform the necessary tasks for managing the incident at hand. The first regards remaining adequately fit and healthy, the second refers to having the necessary skills and knowledge, and the third includes those measures that we undertake to address the specific circumstances present. Like most aspects of firefighting, they are also interdependent. To be successful, you must be physically able to do what is necessary, know how to do it, and then actually do it.
Preparation must be both comprehensive and continuous. It is most difficult early in our careers, when we must assimilate so much knowledge and learn so many new skills. Training for any new profession can be an overwhelming process, but becoming proficient in fire and emergency service delivery is particularly challenging as the initial training is often compressed into a few months, and it requires candidates to become familiar with a unique culture, not the least of which is the concept of “service under fire.” Probably the only experience similar is military or law enforcement basic training.
Ensuring readiness is never ending, though, and requires constant maintenance and, ideally, improvement: strength and stamina through exercise, knowledge through study, and skills through practice. The organizational component is especially transient, as efforts to enhance response efficiency must be continuously adjusted as circumstances change.
As a volunteer in our combination department, I perform scheduled, in-station duty. At other times I respond when alerted and available for structure fires, rescues, and any incidents that occur when the duty crew is on another call. When not in-station, unless the emergency is near my location, I (along with other volunteers) report to the station to staff apparatus and deploy from there. Preparation is relatively easy when I am on duty and in-station. I arrive rested and mentally ready, and my assignment for that tour (driver, officer, nozzle, etc.) allows me to position near my seat my PPE and the tools required for the standard duties associated with that position. Of course, with a hazardous situation lurking now only a few minutes away from my in-station location, it is vital that I take full advantage of this organizational “head start.”
When not in-station, maintaining a focus on preparation is more of a challenge, made even more difficult by the fact that about half of the time my pager’s song and dance must arouse me from a dead sleep. After my interrupted train of thought or dreams are replaced by clearer thinking, then begins a decision process, which is both instantaneous and complex, regarding whether I can or should participate. It includes such factors as any other commitments I might have (calculating the time before I must begin my “day job” is a routine exercise, as my employer and work setting have no tolerance for absenteeism or tardiness), the incident location and type (nearby or serious can trump the commitment issue), and my current state.
That last one has only a few items that will serve to argue against my responding to the call: illness, injury, or ingestion of a mind-altering substance. Since I am generally healthy and careful, and do not take sedating medications or illegal pharmaceuticals, my usual lone disqualifier is the recent ingestion of alcohol. I have developed a liking for craft beers, in particular, but am keenly aware that at the end of each tasting begins at least an eight-hour period of unavailability. (I have not always been so strict about avoiding emergency service activities after consuming even a small amount of alcohol, but I used to do other dumb and reckless things too, until I learned better. Although I know of some firefighters and Departments who still have no such restrictions, this firefighter, my department, and virtually every national emergency service association have a no-tolerance policy for the ingestion of alcohol prior to duty, scheduled or unscheduled. I suspect your typical juror would also hold us to that same standard.)
So much for what prevents me from responding; now for what helps. To best maintain readiness, I always keep in mind the fact mentioned in the opening line of this discussion: I might need to respond to an emergency incident any second. This awareness can become an obsession (picture any eager new member you know), and is continuously challenged and contradicted by the reality that we actually receive relatively few calls. None of these truths diminishes the importance and utility of recognizing the constant potential to be summoned immediately. If I can remain mindful that I am always just a pager’s alert away from being on duty, the natural next step is to stay prepared for that obligation.
For me, maintaining readiness means keeping up with both departmental training and emergency services information (via magazines, Web sites, blogs, etc.); viewing the world I travel through in a constant, low-intensity “size-up” mode; staying in shape and sober; and keeping my PPE in a standard array to allow rapid deployment. When in-station, as mentioned, I place my gear at my assigned riding position, bunker pants folded down and facing the apparatus; protective hood atop the boots; suspenders folded to the sides of the boots; coat hanging on the apparatus door; and helmet on my assigned seat. My turnouts at other times are stowed in my assigned position on a rack, similarly arranged, though in a more compact area. When alerted, this prepositioning of my gear helps to make its donning a predictable, efficient action.
My habits when out of the station are also standardized. At bedtime, I set out on my nightstand a baseball cap in which I place my wallet, car keys, eyeglasses, and charging cellphone. I wear a shirt and pants to sleep, so I am always adequately, if not fashionably, clothed. A pair of slip-on shoes sits beneath my bedside dresser, and my pager charges on the bottom of my nightstand. Upon receiving an alert, I grab my hat and pager, slip on my shoes, and I’m out the door. While I often fail to lock, or even close, said door, I always have everything I need to report for duty–that is, to respond to our station.
The point of all this careful and ritualized gear placement is not, as might be assumed, merely to improve efficiency. It certainly does, of course, allowing more rapid donning and response, and preventing the neglect of vital items. The greater benefit, though, is that such practiced regimens can be performed with little or no conscious effort, allowing attention to instead be directed to the incident at hand. For most of us, our ability to think rationally can approach overload soon after receiving a call as we attempt to ascertain details, perform calculations, and develop a plan (depending upon your role, these can be task-, tactical-, or strategic-level considerations), all while conditions continue to both further declare themselves and evolve (often for the worse).
A careful preincident routine essentially moves some of the decisions necessary to ensure our response into the preincident phase, allowing us to instead mentally process some of the hundreds of factors that only become pertinent once a call is dispatched. Each task we perform before a dispatch frees up a little more of our time and brain power for use afterwards. By leaving some of our response practices to a virtual “auto-pilot,” we can better monitor the dispatch channel, hear and process special instructions or status reports, and evaluate all of this in context (daytime vs. night, first-in vs. later, residential vs. commercial, etc.). In other words, preparation enhances situational awareness.
Maximizing and maintaining the ready state is key. Adequate preparation is not just about speed; it is an efficiency that allows for attention to be paid to the often-expanding chaos so as to better manage its effects. And it’s equally important to recognize when you’re not ready, and should sit one out.
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Mark J. Cotter has more than 40 years experience in emergency services and is currently a volunteer Captain with the Salisbury (MD) Fire Department. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.