BY TOM BRENNAN
Most of you who know me understand that I am usually not impressed with statistics that seem to support an exciting or excitable subject that follows them “first shot out of the bag.” Those numbers and matched data were planned to do just that. “Figures lie and liars figure,” is an old adage from a college statistics course from my early days.
You also know how I feel about our fire service and those who actually “do the job.” There are tons of helmet and patch collectors among and around us who have learned to “talk the job” and probably could never walk the job.
All this has recently resurfaced in an exerted national effort at reducing our injuries and deaths attributable to our just getting the job done. This time, however, the statistics are more true and prophetic than they appear even when sensationalized.
When you look at how we look “doin’ our thing” today, we have never been so personally protected by excellence in product than at any time in our history. Couple that with a heavy cut in structural fire activity (stop counting ambulance runs and workers), and you have an alarming and escalating statement: We are killing and injuring more firefighters going to fewer true occasions of risk than at any time in our history!
With that said, we still must stand between truly threatened Americans and that which truly entraps them. In short, we have to do our job and accomplish our mission as safely as possible in the world’s most uncontrolled risk environments.
Most all of us agree that our risk assessment needs constant “tweaking,” but there has to be a difference in commitment and success between our showing up at the scene with a piece of apparatus as professionals with intense training and the guy who was asked to help someone as he got off a bus.
Again, those of you who know me know (you may not agree) that I think this is a simple job-even high-rise commercial structures can follow the old core statement from successful tenement firefighting, “Get to the floor below and fight your way up!” Same as, “Get water on it, kid; it may just go out!”
While this may appear too simplistic for firefighting, it surely applies to our commitment to reducing injuries and deaths to our nation’s members of the firefighting profession. The injury and death statistics come from some common grounds; to solve or impact the whole, we have to attack the individual parts differently and from different quarters or parts of our profession. We pussyfoot around decisions that are needed and orders that will make an instantly positive difference and that cost relatively nothing and require little training, such as the 20 to 35 percent of our statistics caused by responding to and returning on apparatus to anything! Today’s apparatus do not cause accidents in themselves, as could have been the case in the old days. Our people do.
We have just read of another water tanker turning over while negotiating a ramp exit from a highway. You would think that these things are designed to do just that. Give me a break! Set policy! Certify! Supervise! Manage! Follow-up!
The company officer in charge of the response, positioning, and return must take charge. Too many of these costly deaths and injuries in this category are so easily avoidable as to be non-events. Accountability does not mean only to count who runs in and out of a building on fire!
Lieutenant Paul McFadden, a volunteer company officer, jumped into the second seat of the first-to-respond pumper in a Long Island, New York, fire headquarters in the dark of night in a snow and ice storm. Noticing the driver’s grip on the steering wheel and his staring into the night, McFadden asked, “Are you ready?”
“Just make plenty of noise and use lots of lights-it’s bad out there,” stammered the driver.
“Shut this down, and get off the truck,” ordered McFadden.
How many people were able to go home later than night because of what McFadden did?
The same thing can be said for volunteers who respond in their personal vehicles. There are no policies or courses or procedures or certifications that I know of that account for the attitude, speed, and funnel vision of a civilian-turned-firefighter in his own vehicle that now is loudly screaming and flashing enough stuff to have a nuclear generator in the trunk. It surely appears to me that this category is a great place to start improving statistics.
The frustrating, sad incidents of firefighters finding themselves under the wheels of a moving apparatus are the next statistics to eradicate. No driver or chauffeur of any apparatus should ever back up or move out of quarters with anyone else onboard. All responders should be monitoring the blind spots, the traffic, and the civilians moving in and around the apparatus-period. For sure, the number of firefighter deaths and injuries related to response and return can be drastically cut immediately. And without a culture change.
This would also eliminate collisions with doors to quarters and doors on apparatus being sheared off. “How do you know that it didn’t come down by itself, Chief?” and “How do you know that the compartment door was left open and not checked, Chief?” are two questions I used to get asked during an investigation after the fact.
My response: “ ’Cause I did it myself and that lesson is already learned!” ■