PROGRESS OR CHANGE FOR CHANGES SAKE?

PROGRESS OR CHANGE FOR CHANGE`S SAKE?

BY CHARLES R. ANGIONE

Those of us who have been at this fire business awhile sometimes feel that we have seen it all. We haven`t, of course, but we have seen enough dramatically heralded “revolutionary” concepts come and go so that it sometimes becomes necessary for us to consciously resist viewing the latest new “breakthrough” with a slightly jaundiced eye. Not everything new is true progress. This is especially true if the innovator equates “change” with “progress.”

By way of illustration, I offer two examples of failed innovations that took place in my department many years ago.

One of them was the fire safety patrol of the 1970s. Encouraged by the city administration and certain city council members` desire to show fire department productivity and that something was being done about the city`s growing street crime problem, this appeared to be an expedient solution.

The chief`s plan called for two firefighters per district, each assigned to an engine or truck company (usually from different companies), to patrol their first- and second-due response areas. The four district patrols were supposed to provide a kind of presence on the street. This was another way of saying we were a public relations backup to the police department. These patrols were also a thinly veneered precursor to unsuccessful efforts at consolidation of fire and police services attempted years later. In practical terms, none of the firefighters knew exactly what they were actually patrolling for.

This plan provided that during the time the firefighters were out on patrol, the engine and/or truck companies would respond to alarms with a minimum of two personnel. Since the engine, truck, and patrol vehicles invariably arrived on the scene at different times, standard evolutions were effectively shot to hell. Sometimes the company officer of the second-due engine would become the hydrant man, hundreds of feet from other members of his company (his driver and his man, or men, assigned to the safety patrol).

The officers, who were obliged to make this ill-conceived scheme work, tried to give the firefighters on patrol something to do out there. They couldn`t just drive around aimlessly looking for fires, or even crime, as they had no guns or training. In fairness, the chief went on record promising that no firefighters would be issued guns or be responsible for direct crime fighting as long as he was chief. So they were given violation notice reinspections to perform. Our police-oriented public safety director (a former police officer) soon put an end to this practice. The patrols, he insisted, had to be, among other things, “alert to the community,” “the eyes and ears of the police,” and not a mere (albeit useful) detail.

We were, in fact, something akin to police cadets. We even received some training in evidence preservation, familiarity with various drugs, police report procedures, traffic control, and even shotgun firing. Firefighters would sometimes be seen directing traffic at a crime scene or auto accident on a cold, rainy night while police officers sat in the warmth of their patrol cars filling out their reports. If more police officers were needed, some wondered, why not simply hire them?

At one point, the front office, attempting to justify the idea to an growingly disenchanted public, took to bestowing commendations, previously reserved for acts of heroism, on fire patrol members who had chased a burglar or prevented a mugging by calling the police.

Eventually, the people caught on to this nonsense (with some help from the firefighters union), and the patrols were disbanded. But this did not happen until years after the chief retired, during which time the fire department, despite characteristically making the program work on many occasions, had lost many buildings because of a complete lack of coordinated fire attack and suffered an all-time low in morale.

The safety patrol program did produce some beneficial byproducts: It helped probationary firefighters learn their streets. It also came in handy for food shopping for personnel back at quarters. The main benefit, however, was to certain politicians` popularity for offering a temporary and false sense of security to a frightened citizenry in a crime-ridden city. It is questionable whether the department or the city achieved a net gain in positive public relations for safety patrols. If so, the very citizens we were sworn to protect paid a terrible price with regard to firefighting tactics and preparedness.

The other “progressive innovation” we were forced to endure was the radio-controlled nozzle. A cost-saving measure of the mid- to late `70s, this futuristic concept, ordered by the same chief shortly before his retirement and implemented by his successor, employed an unwieldy nozzle with a six-inch antenna attached. Built into this nozzle was a sending unit. Its signal was received by electronic equipment mounted behind the pump panel. The latter operated discharge valves according to the number of nozzle “clicks” or degree of rotation made by the nozzleman. One click equaled 45 gpm; two clicks, 90 gpm; and three, 135 gpm.

The plan`s main purpose was to have the pump operator, after initially setting his controls, available to augment the undermanned attack team, which was diminished by the safety patrols. I suppose it was cheaper than hiring sufficient personnel to meet NFPA standards.

If the unmanned pumper lost water pressure or anything else went wrong, there was a “turkey gobbler” that sounded to alert those inside to back out. This was followed by a complete system shutdown. In other words, you had better get out quickly or you`ll find yourself with a limp hose to protect you from a free-burning fire. The automatic shutdown functioned to protect the pump from damage, not to provide even partial protection to the firefighters on the line.

While the brainstorm that produced it may have been truly brilliant, the radio-controlled nozzle simply never worked properly. For one thing, that turkey-gobbler sound became commonplace at just about every other fire, and the firefighters were becoming nervous wrecks from abandoning ship so often. Both the sending and receiving units were extremely sensitive to shock, moisture, and outside interference. A bump while advancing hose, rainy weather, or even the guy next door using an electric shaver often was enough to throw everything off kilter.

A brand new Mack pumper containing the specialized equipment and two nozzles had been purchased initially as an experiment and assigned to Engine Company 4. It got so that everyone at Engine 4, particularly the pump operators, dreaded the assignment. Most of them liked helping take the line in, but “operator error” was often the determination for many of the system malfunctions that occurred with increased frequency. Furthermore, you had to wait for the pump operator to gear up and join in the attack. Everybody was always hurrying him, which probably contributed to additional malfunctions. Requests for transfers flooded in. Anyone transferred to the company as a replacement felt doomed.

The front office made a concentrated effort to modify or salvage this very expensive equipment. This began with returning the pump operator to where he belonged–at the pump panel. But no matter what other combination of hardware or procedural changes were attempted, things just got worse–and more confusing. Nobody trusted the radio-controlled nozzles anymore.

Finally, the front office, weary of trying to make a mistake work, gave up on it. The hardware was dismantled at last, to the relief of all, and returned to the manufacturer for a refund. Apparently, other departments that had purchased the promising sounding system also had reported problems. Thereafter, we used the pumper “the old-fashioned way.”

To his credit, the chief who implemented the fire safety patrols and ordered the radio-controlled nozzle would not pass the blame (even if deserved) to his superiors for these cost-saving concepts. Still, his batting average for true progress remains exceptionally high. In 1969, for example, he was one of the first chiefs in the nation to take advantage of large-diameter supply hose. The rubber-lined, cotton-jacketed 312-inch hose was the LDH of its day. His attack line/feed line concept revolutionized our department in providing a much quicker and more effective initial attack on fires. Other truly progressive ideas of that time he implemented included in-service company inspections, a real fire prevention/ education program, a comprehensive training schedule, organized prefire plans, and the like.

Ironically, the chief may be remembered primarily for safety patrols and, to a lesser extent, his initial commitment to the radio-controlled nozzle–and only by some old-timers for his truly valuable contributions to the fire service.

The moral of this story is not to avoid progressive innovation or discourage experimentation. They have proven vital to the advancement of the fire service. However, experimentation must not proceed on the fireground–a life-and-death laboratory–in the absence of adequate data. Once embarking on an experiment, it must be objectively evaluated at every step. One must not allow ego to get in the way. Too often, we needlessly tie our position and personal honor to our ideas–our abundant self-confidence causing us to forget that experiments that fail to bring positive results must eventually be abandoned. There is no shame, after all, in honest failure if you have tried your best. The shame comes from not trying or stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that failure. The point is to avoid falling into the tempting and dangerous trap that blindly equates change with progress.

For every real breakthrough in the fire service, there are hundreds of false alarms. We don`t charge hoselines, place ladders, and request additional units for a false alarm. We return to quarters and prepare for the next alarm. Neither should we go off half-cocked over every fad that comes along.

The fire service is often said to be notorious for resisting change. While there is truth in that charge, it is just as true that we tend to jump on the bandwagon for each new concept that gains popular acceptance, whether or not we fully understand it. Such a concept then can become corrupted by misuse and often ends up little more than an oft-parroted cliche.

The misapplication of the fog stream springs to mind. Despite Lloyd Layman`s qualified endorsement of the fog stream used in indirect attack on unvented shipboard fires, and despite Keith Royer and Bill Nelson`s advancement of the fog stream applied in a combination attack on structure fires from exterior or protected areas of the building, the fire service went overboard in acclaiming the applicability of the fog stream to virtually all situations. Only after many firefighters suffered steam burns during interior attack (by upsetting the thermal balance) did we begin to see the fog stream in proper perspective–though some fire departments continue to misuse it today. It is, as Layman, Royer, and Nelson had been telling us, an excellent tool for use in certain situations.

The current fad of never allowing the IC to assess conditions personally from any vantage point closer than a block away from the fire building is a modern example of carrying a good idea–keeping the IC from becoming physically engaged in firefighting–to extremes. Now it has become fashionable to deny the IC the full use of his means of obtaining feedback, such as his primary senses, in his attempt to evaluate what his personnel are up against.

One must also question the wisdom of such things as legally mandating the use of super heavyweight bunker gear at every response to every type of alarm. This encapsulating envelope dangerously holds in body heat. I regularly see firefighters suffer the early effects of heat exhaustion from employing this equipment and know of at least one fire officer who died of heat stroke, reportedly attributed to the wearing of bunker gear in hot weather for an extended period of time. Although burn incidence is going down, that of the many injuries related to overheating–and this may include heart attacks–is going up in at least equal proportion. We in the fire service simply have to do better in providing a viable balance between protection from both the external and internal dangers of heat.

It takes courage to fight for a new idea. I know this to be true, having received my share of scars over the years for committing myself (and, as acting chief, my department), against heavy opposition, to the incident command system, five-inch hose, ultra-high band radio communications, and other proven innovations I believed in. It takes just as much courage to risk being dismissed as a reactionary dinosaur by standing against popularly accepted change for change`s sake. Perhaps it takes more. n

CHARLES R. ANGIONE is suppression deputy chief for the Plainfield (NJ) Fire Division. A decorated 23-year line veteran, he has served in his present position for 11 years, one of which he spent as acting chief of division. He has a degree in fire science from Union County Technical Institute as well as certificates in advanced incident command, strategic analysis, and executive development, among others. Angione is also a NJ state-certified fire service instructor II and fire official.

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