IT`S TIME FOR US TO RECLAIM OUR FIRE SERVICE
BY GREG FALKENTHAL
The fire service is rapidly finding itself at a crossroads–a juncture which, depending on the direction taken, could very well determine its mission into the next century … or its un-timely demise. When the job description of firefighter was as simple as the job title, there was little to distract one from the core mission. Firefighting was a comprehensive discipline in and of itself, and it was studied and practiced in the pursuit of perfection.
Now, the job description of firefighter takes up two-thirds of a page on the an-nouncement flyer and ends with the all-encompassing “other duties as assigned.” Diversification, a concept embraced by the fire service in recent years, implies that the “consumer” enjoys an enhanced level of service from an organization versed in many disciplines–or so goes the theory. The unfortunate result is that we have rapidly diversified ourselves to the point where we no longer do anything well, especially fight fire.
WE`VE LOST THE FIRE SERVICE
The very attribute that has made the fire service the greatest profession in the world is now becoming its poison pill. There is no way the fire service can continue to be pulled in as many directions as it is now without the eventual destruction of the very fabric that holds us together. The fire service has always been the real-world personification of the professor on TV`s Gilligan`s Island, who was able to make a shortwave radio from two coconuts and a hairpin. Adversity, challenge, and the ability to do more with less have always been our greatest strengths. When fire stations were closed, budgets were cut, and staffing was reduced to pathetic levels, we simply viewed the circumstance as one more challenge. Now, when the camel is unable to pack any more straws, we are not even organized enough to be able to scream for help with a single voice.
An examination into the recent history of the fire service draws striking parallels to an old fable. Two brothers who co-owned a market began fistfighting in the street over how to divide the profits. They were oblivious, however, to the fact that as they fought, their store was being stripped by looters. We have given away the fire service and have forsaken not only our core mission but also the civilian population in the process. We have given away the fire service on one hand, and that which we have not given away, we have allowed to be taken from us–usually without the faintest protest. Instead of taking the lead and fighting for ourselves, we have allowed our destiny to be controlled by those who know the least about what it is that we do. Time after time, op-portunity knocks at the door of the fire service, but the knock is never heard because of the noise of the brawl inside.
THE RUNAWAY SAFETY TRAIN
The runaway safety train is one of the concepts that has erupted while we were busy fistfighting in the street. The American Heritage Dictionary defines safety as “1. The condition of being safe; freedom from danger, risk, or injury.” To even the untrained observer, the fact that the concepts of safety and firefighting are even remotely compatible should be brought into question.
The concept of safety in our business has become a blurry issue, and some of the key points have gotten lost. The safety issue in the fire service has taken two distinctive forks in the road. The first detour was the misguided notion that we needed to conform to the same workplace safety requirements as private industry. Somewhere along the way, we lost sight of the fact that the fireground differs from the eight-hour workplace in that it is a spontaneous, an uncontrolled, and a destructive environment wherein inaction or delayed action will cost the lives of civilians (you remember the civilians, they are the ones we swore before God to protect). When it comes to the concept of inaction or delayed action, nothing does more than the two-in/two-out boondoggle, but more on that later.
The second road less traveled was carved by those who would join in an inherently dangerous profession and then somehow seek ways to make it safe for themselves. Our greatest mistake was somehow falling under the illusion that we believe that legislation equals safety. Safety cannot be legislated, mandated, promised, or guaranteed by statute or any other magic wand. Practicing OSHA`s two in/two-out rule doesn`t make a firefighter safe any more than walking into a garage makes you a car. Fully encapsulated, positively pressurized, PASS-equipped, two-in/two-out firefighters doing stupid things on the fireground are going to result in just as many deaths and injuries this year as last.
No mandate will ever take the place of intelligent decisions made by competent, well-trained, and experienced fireground personnel acting appropriately based on the most accurate information available at the time. For those of you who feel warm and fuzzy now that two-in/two-out is in effect, ask yourself if your department has a PLAN that becomes activated when the two who are in begin screaming for help from the two who are out. When you have a flat, the spare tire doesn`t do much good if there is no key to the trunk.
The prescription for the ills we have created has increasingly taken the form of legislation. When you can`t function on the fireground, pass a law. When an operation goes bad, write an SOP. I`m reminded time and again of the typical reaction of my grammar school teachers to disruption on the playground. The problems were usually caused by one or two brats who couldn`t play nice. The reaction, however, was to take the ball away so no one could play. This obviously didn`t change the behavior of the two who were causing the trouble or offer any other permanent solution, but it did punish the 95 percent of the kids who were playing nice. The adult equivalent of this punishment is the two-in/two-out rule. Because of isolated instances of fireground mismanagement and the lack of personnel control, all are punished, even those who play nice, yet nothing is done to change the behavior or address the root problem.
All too often in this “quick-fix” society in which we live, we look for one-size-fits-all solutions to our problems. SOPs is an area in which we have lost sight of the original intent. There is nothing wrong with standards on the fireground that let everyone know what the ultimate objectives are. There is, however, a recent trend in which SOPs are used in place of adequate training, in a manner that re-moves the discretionary latitude of experienced firefighters and officers, and ultimately, in the postmortem, becomes more of a punitive hammer than a fireground tool. We have long realized that few experiences in life are as dynamic, as challenging, or as unforgiving as the fireground. The successful fire officer was one who could stay one step ahead of the fire and develop and implement tactics based on real-world experience and sound strategy.
“A LACK OF TRAINING”?
If the U.S. military had operated like the fire service in 1980 in the aftermath of the ill-fated attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran, emergency legislation would have been passed to outlaw the use of helicopters in warfare. Politicians and safety advocates alike would have been patting each other on the back as they walked the hallowed halls of Congress, congratulating each other for enacting a mandate that eliminated all danger for soldiers on the battleground. Fortunately, the military does not operate like the fire service, and an investigation into the causes of the failed mission was launched. The conclusion was simple: The personnel were unprepared for the mission they undertook because of a lack of training. A lack of training? What a concept! Aren`t we glad we don`t suffer from a lack of training in the fire service!
And what about training? Here is a subject that occupies an enormous amount of our in-service time. We devote countless hours to it, name conferences for it, assign chief officers to it, and spend billions in the pursuit of it. With all of the time, energy, and money spent in the name of training, our firegrounds should be the most efficient, safe, and effective orchestrations of personnel and machinery in the modern world.
But the death and injury statistics prove otherwise year after year, and few seem interested in finding out exactly why this is. Look at your department`s training schedule. Chances are excellent that less than 10 percent of your yearly training hours are devoted to fighting fire, the single activity that is most likely to result in two chief officers standing on your front porch in the middle of a cold, rainy night expressing their sincere sorrow to your spouse.
Recent history has shown that even groups with countless years of bitter and often deadly conflicts have been able to agree on some sort of compromise and cooperation. The Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East, as well as the Protestants and Catholics of Northern Ireland, have been able to overcome their deep hatred and forge groundbreaking efforts for peace. Yet, in the fire service, we hear that the “big three” fire service organizations, who are supposed to be on the same side, cannot reach a consensus with regard to the United States Fire Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And yet, we, seemingly oblivious to the obvious, stroll merrily along wondering why nobody in Washington takes us seriously. Duh!
WE ARE HERE TO SERVE THE CITIZENS
Benjamin Franklin must be whirling in his grave as he is forced to view what his service has become. Our organizational last name is “service.” We do not exist to feather our own nests, carve our own niches, or grab our own piece of the pie. We exist for the sole purpose of providing a service to those who are in immediate danger of losing life or property. THAT`S IT. Many a dilemma could be solved if we simply asked ourselves: What is the best decision we can make at this immediate moment, given the information available, that will best serve the people we swore to protect?
There are many reasons for finding ourselves closer and closer to the abyss. Each specific jurisdiction across the country has its own problems, and many are unique to certain areas. But there are also obstacles to the health of the fire service that are common to every state in the union. As members of the fire service, we need to stop looking only at ourselves for a minute and step outside. By looking at ourselves, we adopt a very narrow perspective and consequently succumb to the shortcomings a narrow perspective can create. Instead, we need to see ourselves as others who are not members of the fire service see us. Only then will we be able to examine our actions and our recent history in a truly objective manner.
The fire service is quickly becoming one enormous association (and a loose association at that) of special interest groups. Everyone wants his own piece of the pie, and each refuses to play nice with the other kids until it gets it. Many times this results in one faction or the other`s ultimately choosing to sit in the corner and pout. It`s time to take the fire service back from the special interest groups, profiteers, and those who seek to serve themselves and to return it to its original owner, the citizen. Hopefully, this can be achieved quickly, which will save us the embarrassment of having to explain how childishly we have behaved. n
n GREG FALKENTHAL is a ladder company captain/haz mat technician with the City of Vallejo (CA) Fire Department. He is a staff instructor with the Santa Rosa Junior College Training Center for Fire Technology and teaches in both the California police and fire instructional systems. He is a member of the FDIC educational advisory board.