By Richard L. Bucher
We are not comfortable when the shoe is on the other foot. We are not comfortable when we, the rescuers, become the rescued. We avoid it at all costs, even at the cost of our lives. The result of such pride is fatherless children, widowed spouses, grieving parents, and devastated brothers and sisters in the profession. But we still avoid it, never considering the risk/benefit ratio. We just let pride get in the way until it’s too late.
When are we taught to call for help? When are we taught to give a “Mayday”? When we are trapped, when we are out of air, and when we are lost and have tried repeatedly to rescue ourselves. We know early detection saves occupants’ lives in structure fires, because it gives them time to get out. Lack of time to get out is what kills many firefighters in structures. Some die from structural collapse; some from flashovers; many, and probably most, die from running out of air, running out of breathing air time. The key factor here is to increase the time, breathing air time, to escape. I know of only four strategies to increase escape time: First, carry more breathing air with you. Second, learn to use less air, which is difficult to do when fighting for your life. Third, recognize the danger early on, and act as if your life depended on it. Fourth, call for help (more air) earlier.
The first strategy, carrying more breathing air, may become available during our careers. However, if we carry more air and ignore the three other factors, we will still get in trouble–just a little later. Second, learning to use less air may be helpful but, like the first strategy, it alone will only delay the danger if we rely on it solely. Recognizing the danger earlier and acting on it are two things we can improve on. Certainly technology has improved. Instead of reading air pressure in psi, we can now read it in minutes of breathing time left. Rate of rise temperature alarms may also be helpful. The factor most easily controlled is constantly assessing the danger and always knowing your escape route, and also the amount of (air) time it will take to escape.
Ask yourself, “What critical role am I playing in achieving the Incident Action Plan (IAP)?” The primary focus of the IAP should be life safety, yours included. Your staying in a dangerous situation with no likelihood that you will save a life is a great threat to the success of the IAP. Furthermore, many firefighters die trying to rescue fellow firefighters, and we endanger them when we allow our pride to get in the way.
Sometimes firefighters just like to go where humans are not supposed to go naturally. Have you ever wondered why so many firefighters like to sky dive or scuba dive? We learn to trust our equipment and place ourselves in unnatural environments. Skydiving and scuba diving are great sports, but sport firefighting not only endangers our lives but the lives of our rescuers. We need to know when the risk of endangering our lives outweighs the benefit of being endangered. The final strategy, calling for help early, is a slap to our egos. If we were to get lost, how many of us would announce it over the radio for all the world to hear? After all, we are the rescuers, not the ones to be rescued. To call for help would mean failure! When we run out of air, it becomes more acceptable to call for help. After all, you run out of air fighting fires; what’s wrong with that? So instead of calling for help early, while we still have air, we try to find our way out, run low on air, then call for help. The problem comes when we run out of air and consciousness before we are found. Activating our PASS device would only call attention to our being in trouble, so we don’t do it. Can you imagine the kidding that would take place around the station if the crew from another company had to rescue you? You might never live it down! Pride in the organization is good; however, when we become too proud to do what’s right, not to mention safe, then it’s bad.
We need to make it socially acceptable to call for help early. We need to train our new firefighters to call for help when they first suspect that they may be in trouble, not wait until they have exhausted their means of self-rescue. We need to train them on what to do and what information to send when declaring a “Mayday”: Location? Trapped or lost? Alone (so we know how many rescuers to send)? Out of air? Threatened by fire conditions? and more. We need to develop a culture where it’s OK to call for help, even though you are not yet at death’s door-we need to break the culture of being independent. The fire service has responded well to the implementation of rapid intervention teams (RIT). Now it is time we learned how to use them. If we call for help while we are strong, we may remain strong. But if we wait until we are weak, it may be too late.
Richard L. Bucher is a senior battalion chief and a 29-year veteran of Chesterfield (VA) Fire & EMS. He has a B.S. from the University of Maryland and has completed the Executive Fire Officers Program at the National Fire Academy.