By Daniel P. Sheridan
There are loads of fire videos on YouTube these days, and it seems that if firefighters are not on top of their game and make a mistake, it will become the subject matter for many jokes and critiques on the Internet. I was giving a lecture the other night; afterward, there were some videos thrown up for the students to watch. The students were laughing at the firefighters and criticizing every move they made. I am sure glad that YouTube didn’t exist when I was a firefighter because I am sure I would have made the hit list a few times. There’s not a fire that I’ve gone to in my career where I didn’t come back to the firehouse afterward and think there was something I could have done different or even better.
I have sat many times in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium criticizing the Yankee manager for all the things that he should have done. It is very easy to sit on the sidelines and have all the answers, especially after the fact. Firefighting is an extremely difficult and complicated profession, and there are many obstacles that get thrown in our way when trying to deal with a working fire.
For example, here in New York, we are dealing with so many issues: simply trying to get the correct address, dealing with the traffic in the street and double-parked cars, civilians and others parking on hydrants and in front of the building, people clogging the stairways and interfering with our hose stretches; the list goes on ad infinitum. What annoys me the most about this YouTube craze is that in these videos you usually see just the mistakes. You have no idea of what happened prior to the arrival of the fire department.
A CRITICAL LOOK AT ONE FIRE
The other night, we received a call for a reported fire in a five-story multiple dwelling. On the way to the reported location, the dispatcher informed me that they were receiving numerous calls for a fire on the third floor. They filled out the assignment with an additional engine, the rescue, and the squad. The first arriving engine transmitted the signal for a working fire, and the units all went to their respective assignments. As I got closer to the scene, I could see that we had fire out two windows in the front. It seemed like a pretty routine job. We had trouble getting our second-due ladder to the front of the building because of the double-parked cars. This was the start of the troubles.
When I was finally able to get to the front of the building, I realized that my first-due ladder couldn’t get the aerial to the fire floor because of the overhead wires. I asked him if he could figure out a way to get the ladder to the fire floor. I overheard on the handheld radio that there was a problem with the stretch–the civilians kept pulling the line into the building. Somehow they wound up with too much hose in the building. Getting water on the fire was now going to be delayed because the firefighters had to figure out how to deal with all the excess hose.
Had this fire made the YouTube circuit, I am sure there would be a lot of Monday-morning quarterbacks criticizing the apparatus placement, the hose stretch, or whatever. The reality is unless you are there, you have no right to say anything. When we respond to fires, we have all of about five minutes to get it right. A lot can go wrong if we don’t get it right in that initial time frame between the receipt of the alarm to the arrival of the first engine.
As a battalion chief, you have the ability and the right to correct these potential disasters. If you arrive on the scene and you don’t like the way the apparatus is positioned, you need to change it. Get on the department radio and inform the units to change their normal response pattern, and get them where you want them. I am finding that as a battalion chief I am getting more involved in the operations these days. I am trying to keep the firefighters from getting too complacent and challenge them to stay mentally prepared at all times. I find myself at times being guilty of the tendency to become complacent. We respond to the same location numerous times for an alarm activation in a commercial building, or perhaps we respond to that building in our area that is fully sprinklered and they burned the popcorn in the microwave. We are getting beaten down with these calls on a daily basis.
It is very impressive to watch the companies in Midtown and Downtown Manhattan; they respond to thousands of these alarms a year, and very rarely does it turn out to be a real fire. They get off the apparatus with full self-contained breathing apparatus and a complement of tools. The engine company firefighters respond into the lobby with their folded hose, ready to go to work. The chauffeurs get on a working hydrant and await further instruction.
If we are to learn anything from our mistakes and ensure that the firefighters who have died have not died in vain, we need to fight the complacency factor. In 1994, firefighters in Memphis, Tennessee, responded to a routine alarm at a building they had been at numerous times in the previous weeks, but this particular call ended in tragedy. We all have those types of occupancies in our response areas, and we all know that it could happen to anyone of us–that one time that we let our guard down that it comes back to bite us. We need to be on our “A” game at all times, which means being in full personal protective equipment and ready to go into action at a moment’s notice. When I was a firefighter and when I became an officer, instead of being annoyed at the nonsense calls, I used them as an opportunity to train.
Instead of being aggravated that you are responding to another gas leak, use it as an opportunity to learn about the building. When I was a firefighter and was assigned the roof position, if we had a gas leak or a food-on-the-stove, I would go to my position as if it were the real thing. After a while, it would become second nature; you will be surprised at how well you will come to know your buildings in your response area. When you get the working fire at 0300 hours, you won’t even have to think twice about where you are supposed to be.
One of the huge benefits that my department gained as a result of the EMS system was that the engine company firefighters were getting to know their buildings extremely well. When I joined the department, normally the ladder company firefighters would enter the building and the engine firefighters would wait at the back step until they were ordered to stretch. If it was a food-on-the-stove or some other emergency, the engine company firefighters would get back on the pumper and never set foot in the building. In some cases, the first time a firefighter would set foot in a building would be for an actual working fire. These days, the engine firefighters are getting to know the buildings as well as or even better than the ladder company firefighters.
Let’s s try to not do things that will make the YouTube circuit. Remain vigilant, and avoid complacency. Look at every call as a learning experience to make us better at our chosen profession.
Daniel P. Sheridan is a 25-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York and a covering battalion chief assigned to Division 6 in the South Bronx. He is a national instructor II and a member of the FDNY IMT. He is a consultant for www.mutual-aid.org.