Make Yourself Hard to Kill

Combating the Element of Complacency

By: Jason Brezler

A number of national campaigns in recent years have sought to improve safety on the fire ground. Several of the initiatives have fittingly targeted the category of ‘preventable’ injuries and deaths. Furthermore, innovative safety and management frameworks have been applied to fire ground operations and tactics seeking to make the fire ground an inherently safer place for firefighters and officers to operate. In some leadership circles, these frameworks have adjusted the expectations regarding the hazards that firefighters encounter when operating on the fire ground and have subsequently generated a series of mantras and leadership philosophies that though well intended, may adversely yield a false sense of security and exacerbate the element of complacency. My experiences from leading Marines in combat – coupled with the extensive study of Warfighting – lead me to believe that the noble objectives of fulfilling our mission of protecting life while ensuring the welfare of our personnel might be better served by adopting an appropriate ‘combat mindset:’ a mindset that aggressively counters complacency rather than strictly promoting a (culture of safety). Ensuring the safety and welfare of our members is certainly at the core of leadership responsibility in the fire service. However, real world anecdotes from the battlefield and fire ground, further validated by scientific and academic research, demonstrate that safety might best be achieved by recognizing its inherent limitations – and instilling in our firefighters an appropriate combat mindset that instills physical and mental toughness while continuously countering the element of complacency.

The Limitations of a ‘Culture of Safety’

With the best of intentions, leaders in the fire service have embraced the concept of safety engineering in attempt to reduce the risk of injury and death to our nation’s firefighters. The problem is that the inherent nature of firefighting (as discussed in Issue 3) places a substantive limit of advance and wide range of restrictions on the effects of safety engineering. In the process of advancing his “complex theory”, accomplished sociologist Charles Perrow concluded the unfeasibility of removing risk from complex systems and conversely: suggested that such attempts often unintentionally increase the risk of system failure. Examine the continued risks that our nation’s aviators, astronauts, and off-shore drillers face despite tremendous advancements in safety mechanisms and systems: should we expect the risks that our nation’s firefighters assume be any different? Furthermore, the practice of emphasizing a ‘culture of safety’ within the fire service has adversely contributed to a skewed sense of reality, perpetuated the presence of complacency, and diminished the focus on what it is that we are primarily called to do: protect life even when it requires high-risk and potential sacrifice.

Structural firefighting has always been a dangerous business and will always be a relatively precarious chore, particularly in the urban environment. Firefighters today receive in-depth training and are outfitted with personal and tactical equipment that far exceed previous generations, but the environment in which we operate in is increasingly complex and hazardous. Additionally, physical science again dictates that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Thus, many of the initiatives that have sought to enhance the life safety of our members have brought with them undesirable and in some instances, unanticipated consequences. Furthermore, the fact that we are responding to fewer structural fires than previous generations actually reduces our technical proficiency at our craft and carries with it increased risks (this inverse relationship between event frequency and risk is somewhat counterintuitive). Many of the safety initiatives, both technical and procedural, have enabled firefighters to continue to affect their mission while assuming less personal risk.

Firefighters in New York City and around the nation have benefited immensely from the industrious devotion of pioneers like former FDNY Commissioner John O’Hagan who combined a genuine desire to see firefighters operate both aggressively and safely in the performance of their duties. One of his colleagues later reflected on O’Hagan’s remarks at the opening of the FDNY’s Training Academy in 1966. O’Hagan suggested that: “although inevitably firefighters will be lost in the line of duty, we cannot become complacent and let down our guard. For with proper safety equipment and state-of-the-art technology, coupled with progressive and repeated intense training, firefighters can reduce the dangerous hazards that they face during their daily performance of duty (Flood, p. 251).” As O’Hagan concluded though, it is important to recognize that each initiative, refined procedure, and newly procured piece of equipment and gear may diminish risk to our firefighters under ideal circumstances – but NO initiative or measure will ever serve as a panacea to eradicate personal risk.

The fireground is an inherently dangerous place for even the most seasoned and well-equipped firefighter. The bottom line is that regardless of a firefighter’s tactical proficiency, the nature of war and fire ground operations eliminate an idealistic guarantee that a firefighter will return home to his family after duty. A senior firefighter in the FDNY instructed his Probies to religiously start each tour by telling themselves…. “I’m walking in this (expletive) door and I’m walking out this (expletive) door at the end of my tour.” But you can rest assured that this same firefighter kissed his wife and children goodbye before leaving home for the firehouse because he recognized that even his experience, mental and physical toughness, and resolve did not guarantee him omnipotence on the fireground. The rationale promoted by some that ‘safe practices’ will send firefighters home to their loved ones is not only impractical, but also curiously challenges physical science itself. Consider that a firefighter can be in exactly the right place, at the right time, doing precisely what the operation requires of him and still be overcome by a series of events that leave him seriously injured or dead. However, in most instances where serious death and injury occur, it is the element of physical and mental complacency that compromised the safety and well-being of the firefighter. For this reason, the element of complacency actually poses the greatest obstacle to the welfare of our members and it is a risk that we can actually manage.

No Room for Complacency on the Battlefield

I turn for a minute to the battlefield: only a foolish infantry battalion commander would suggest to the parents and spouses of his troops that he planned to bring them all home from a tour in volatile southern Afghanistan. Why? Perhaps because combat commanders recognize that the nature of war dictates that uncertainty and risk pervade every engagement on the battlefield. Unfortunately, some days, the enemy just has a better day than you – as his ability to outmaneuver you at a particular time and place might generate friendly casualties. Like firefighters, sometimes the best trained Marines are in the right place at the right time, but still fall prey to the enemy. But in some instances, it is the element of complacency that subtlety weakens a Marine’s combat focus leaving him ill-prepared for the dangerous tasks at hand. Furthermore, the limits of technological superiority and safety engineering are nowhere more apparent than in the mountains of Afghanistan where illiterate, Taliban insurgents toting Mujahedeen era AK-47’s and explosives consisting of homemade ammonium nitrate can frequently inflict casualties on the world’s most highlytrained force equipped with advanced equipment and armor.

Though a good battlefield commander understands that sometimes the “chips fall as they may” in favor of the enemy, he more importantly recognizes the dangerous, poisonous, and potentially deadly consequences of complacency. Visit any patrol base in southern Afghanistan and you will see signs that affirm, “Make Yourself Hard to Kill”, “Complacency Kills” and perhaps most profoundly, “Someone out there wants to kill you, are you going to give him the chance?” Psychologist, former Green Beret and West Point graduate Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman recognizes the dangers of complacency in his exceptional book, “On Combat.” The text strives to optimize the psychological and physiological readiness of our nation’s first responders to include: soldiers, law enforcement officers, and firefighters. LTCOL Grossman examines key issues such as training, stress inoculation and decision making but conscientiously neglects the concept of safety. This is likely attributed to the fact that Grossman’s life experiences as an Army officer and research findings as a psychologist fail to substantiate that a ‘spirit of safety’ yields desirable results on the battlefield, in domestic hostage situations, or on the fireground. Grossman includes a series of anecdotes highlighting ‘complacency as an enemy’ and comments that ‘warriorhood is infectious and communicable,’ later adding, ‘train half for yourself and half for your (brother) [p. 179].’

Practical Methods to Combating Complacency

There are several proven methods that a good commander employs to combat complacency on the battlefield. These methods have a great deal of application to the fire service and include: conducting realistic training, ensuring rigorous physical conditioning, fostering attention to detail and managing the element of time on the battlefield and fireground. These methods will be explored in greater detail in upcoming issues.

Flood, Joe (2010). “The Fires.” Riverhead Books: New York, New York.
Grossman, Dave (2007). “On Combat.” PPCT Research Publications: United States.

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