Are You Ready for Duty?

by Daniel Sheridan
Yogi Berra once said that baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical. The same can be said for firefighting: We need to keep our head in the game at all times. Being a firefighter is like being an athlete, except that every day is game day. Twenty-five years ago when I was training to take the physical for the Fire Department of New York entrance exam, I trained like an athlete. I ran every day, went to the gym, and went every other weeknight to a training facility that allowed me to practice the events that were going to be on the physical entrance exam. After I got the job I never stopped working out up until this day. After 22 years, I run five miles three times a week and exercise every night. Even as an officer, I still need to be in shape; we are carrying a lot of weight, with bunker gear, PSS systems, and 45-minute bottles. In my response area, we have loads of tall buildings. We all know that we need to be in shape; but more importantly, as Yogi says, this job is mental.
I remember a time when I was still a firefighter that was not one of my proudest moments. I was on vacation leave but needed to work a scheduled overtime tour. It was a hot, humid summer day and, in my mind, I was still on vacation. I figured that it was going to be a nice easy Sunday afternoon; I just wanted to do my tour and get back to vacation. At that time, we had just switched over to bunker gear from our old turnout gear. I had not worked with the gear yet. I remember sitting in the kitchen that morning, drinking too much coffee and just passing the time.
After lunch, we got our first call. It was for a top-floor fire, and my job was to bring the saw to the roof to ventilate. At the time, our apparatus was a 1984 Mack Pumper that had the engine compartment inside the crew cab. It used to get very hot inside, even with the windows removed. It was in the mid-90s by the afternoon. When we got to the box, with all the bunker gear on, I was already sweating. I ran up the seven flights of stairs and began to work on venting the roof.
After we finished up from that fire, we got called to another fire in upper Manhattan. Without taking off my bunker gear, we responded to the other fire. I needed to get to the floor above the fire by way of the fire escape and force open a window gate and enter for search. By the time I got up to the landing, my body had shut down. I couldn’t move my arms. I was totally useless on that fire escape. It was just my luck that a guy was taking video. Every time I see that video, I cringe. I look back at that day and realize all the mistakes I made, the biggest one was that I assumed the day was going to be a “quiet one.” In addition, I drank too much coffee and had no water, I didn’t know the limitations of my new bunker gear, and I didn’t consider the weather and the ride in the fire truck. It was a painful lesson. What would have happened if my muscles had frozen up inside the fire apartment and not outside on the fire escape? I got very lucky that day–the only thing that got hurt was my pride.
Concentrate on the Job
I start thinking about my shift when I wake up in the morning. Normally, I work 24 hour-shifts that start at 1800 hours and end the following day at 1800 hours. I usually try and get a little extra sleep on those days on which I have to report to work that night. For some, this may not be easy. Many firefighters have other commitments such as child care, extra employment, or other issues. I remember when my children were young and my wife was working, I would have to care for the children while she was at work. Many a day, I would meet her at the train station in the city and pass the children off to her. I would be going to work after putting in a full day with the children. I was always sure to grab a nap while they took a nap. We should not think of the firehouse as a place where we can catch up on some rest.
If you are having problems at home or are experiencing emotional problems, you should not bring them to the firehouse. You need to be thinking clearly when you are at work. If you can, leave your problems at the front door of the firehouse for the shift–you can have them back at the end of the shift. If you are having relationship problems, don’t continue the fight at the firehouse: Tell your significant other that you are at work and you can finish the discussion when you are off duty. Any loving spouse will understand. The firehouse can sometimes be a blessing: There is nothing better than going to work for 24 hours to give both parties a chance to cool off. Don’t harbor resentment. Remember, you are at the firehouse; concentrate on the job. The problem will not change in 24 hours; it will still be there the next day.
If your problems are too big and you feel you can’t leave them, then reach out to your human resource department and see if you can get some professional help. You don’t want these distractions when you are trying to make life-and-death decisions at 3 o’clock in the morning.

If you were drinking the night before, keep in mind that even though you had a few hours sleep, the alcohol in your system may not be completely gone. One 12-ounce can of beer contains .02 percent of alcohol; most states consider .08 percent to be over the acceptable limit. Your body can process .02 percent per hour. Do the math: If you were out until 4 o’clock in the morning and your shift starts at 8 o’clock and you had eight beers and four shots of tequila, you will still be considered over the limit at the beginning of your shift. We are not even factoring in the tremendous hangover with which you will be dealing.

Get Familiar with Your Response Area

I had a conversation recently with another captain who is working on a study about the psychology of firefighting. One point he mentioned to me stuck out: Firefighters feel much more confident when they are familiar with the buildings in which they are fighting the fire. When I was a firefighter working in the South Bronx, I knew my response area inside and out.
We spend a lot of time drilling on tactics and procedures, but we should be spending just as much time on building familiarization. I was assigned to a ladder company. Many times we would receive a call; the function of the ladder was to investigate the call. By default, we were gaining a lot of knowledge about our buildings; the engine company, meanwhile, would stay by the back step ready to stretch hose. If the call was minor, they never made it into the building. One of the benefits engine companies have gained from responding to medical calls is that the firefighters are now becoming more familiar with the buildings in their response areas. This is a big psychological advantage.
A good friend of mine, John Rice, worked in a neighboring engine company while we were both lieutenants. One night we had a good fire in the top floor of a tenement. John was the officer of the first-due engine; I was third due. There was a lot of confusion about the building layout. We had fire out two windows on the fifth floor on the B side; and there was heavy smoke out the windows on the sixth floor of the D side. The chief thought we had fire in four apartments on two floors. John had the line up there very quickly, and the fire was knocked down. Afterwards, I told John that they did a great job. He told me that he was in this apartment the week before for a medical call and knew it was a duplex apartment that had floors on opposite sides of the building, sort of a crossover. He already had a picture in his mind before they even stretched the line, taking away the mystery and making his company look like All-Stars.
This reminds me of an incident when I was first promoted to captain and was working in my old neighborhood. We had a phone alarm for a fire. This was my very first tour run as a captain in a different borough. I gave the chauffeur directions and told him to wait for the first-due engine to get in the block and where the hydrant was. When we got to the fire, it was a pot burning on the stove. Afterward, the chauffer asked me how a captain from the Bronx knew so much about the neighborhood. I told him that we were in the building in which I grew up. I wound up staying at that firehouse for about a year and a half. I grew up in that neighborhood. I knew the layouts of all the buildings, including the apartments. We would drill frequently on the buildings, which proved to be a great advantage.
Even with all this knowledge, things can still go awry if we are not on top of our game. We had a group of four row frames that were partially occupied. Two of the buildings were completely vacant, and I told the firefighters that it was only a matter of time before they “get lit up.” We had a minor fire and then, a week later, an “all hands” in one of the buildings. We drilled on the buildings frequently and were very familiar with them.
One beautiful summer afternoon recently, we were ordered to relocate to another engine company to cover while they were at a fire. When they returned, I told the officer that there was no rush and to clean up and rest a little. He told me that they were okay and we could get back. I told my chauffeur to take the avenue back instead of the parkway (I like to be available–if we are on the parkway, you can travel faster, but you are out of it if there is anything going on). Halfway home, I heard the radio come alive. It was a call to the neighboring company to tell it that they were “going to work” at a box. I recognized the address as the four buildings for which we are supposed to respond first due. We were now close enough, and I informed the dispatcher that we were back in our response area and were responding. I looked to the south, and the sky was black–the sun was blocked out. The officer gave a second alarm on arrival, and the chief transmitted a third alarm as soon as he got in. All four buildings were involved.
Mentally, I was prepared to deal with this box based on being first due. I had run through the scenarios on where we would stretch, which hydrant we would take, and how we would position the apparatus countless times. Now I was coming into this box on what is a multiple alarm, and all the priorities were different. When we arrived, hoselines were already being stretched. The chief ordered us to start a hoseline; he would let us know where he wanted it. He decided that the hoseline was needed in the end building, which was not yet involved, but fire was travelling quickly toward it. We brought the line to the front of the building, and I ordered the firefighters to wait while I went in and checked out the situation. I ran into a firefighter with whom I had worked on the rescue when I was a firefighter in the squad. I told him that I would go up with him to check things out. When I got to the second floor, the fire was right outside the window on the B side. I headed up to the top floor. There was a high heat condition. I decided to head down and bring up the line to the second floor.
I was not prepared for what happened next. There was a loud bang, and then the whole floor went black. I was thinking that this was it, that I finally got caught. I was waiting for the flash, but it never came. I was knocked down the stairs, but I knew that the rescue firefighter was still up above me. I transmitted the information over the air, but a second later he came out of the smoke. It just goes to show that as much as we prepare, things can still go awry on the fireground.
I still am not sure what happened. Did the top floor flash over, or was there a backdraft? Did the Tower Ladder push the fire into the building? I don’t think I will ever know. The point is that I thought I had that whole scenario figured out and still almost got killed. You never know in this business. We don’t go to fires by appointment. If we had the luxury of knowing when and where they are coming, things would be a lot easier.
I always think it is like playing third base: The balls always come screaming at you, and you don’t really have time to think. You must react based on your experience and knowledge. With fires, we get the call, arrive in four minutes or less, and have to make quick decisions. This is the reason we can’t be weighted down with emotional issues. We need to be 100 percent all the time.
Complacency is a real issue in this job. We do the same thing over and over, and many times we are predicting the results. I do it myself. We respond to a certain hospital in our area at least a few times a week. We have certain buildings, which we call “The Projects,” to which we respond consistently for the same situations: food on the stove, rubbish in the hall, a water leak causing an electrical emergency, and gas leaks. Firefighters in Memphis, Tennessee, let their guard down in 1994 when responding to a recorded alarm in a high-rise building to which they had responded numerous times in past months for false alarms. Two firefighters wound up paying with their lives.
The other morning, my company responded to a water flow alarm in a commercial office building at 0600 hours. We go there all the time, and if I were working, I would have assumed it was going to be just another nuisance call. Instead, the call turned out to be for a fire on the second floor. The firefighters were prepared and did everything that they were supposed to do. They positioned at a hydrant, took the rolled-up hose, and waited for the ladder to let them know what was happening. My lieutenant let me know that the firefighters did an outstanding job, containing the fire to the area of origin with a very difficult. complicated stretch.
I know very well how hard it is not to become complacent and fall into a routine, expecting certain things to happen as if they were scripted. Just the other night, we responded to a call for a fire that turned out to be an electrical emergency. While returning to quarters, we received an alarm for “smoke on second floor” for a building I know well: It is fire resistant, fully sprinklered, and has a standpipe in the center stair. I told myself, “We never come here except for medical calls–we had a sudden infant death syndrome baby last time there. It has a security desk and is a home for battered women. Honestly, I had my guard down a little. I went through the motions. I knew that we were going to be there by ourselves for a while. I masked up and entered the building. People were exiting, but no one was excited; I assumed nothing was happening. I got up to the second floor and ran into the maintenance man, who informed me that there was an electrical fire. I saw three spent extinguishers and opened the door only to be met by heavy black smoke down to the floor. I ordered my firefighters to start a hoseline. It turned out that the fire had started in the stove in an apartment and worked its way up the wall. It just goes to show again: You never know with this job. Like in baseball, there are many dull moments, lots of foul balls, fly outs, and so forth, but once in a while someone knocks it out of the park.
It’s difficult, but for everybody’s sake, when you get the call–no matter what–give it your full attention. Leave your problems at home, and consider the possibilities of what you may be getting into. Instead of talking about trivial things or about girlfriends and sports on the way to the call, talk about the block, the hydrants, or the building itself. Talk about the last job you may have gone to at this location and what went right or wrong. Listen to the dispatcher for more information; open the windows to see if you are getting any indication of smoke. If you do, what kind of smoke is it: wood, plastic, electrical, or a pot burning? Use all your senses. The easy part of this job sometimes is actually putting out the fire.  
DANIEL SHERIDAN is a 22-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York and captain of Engine Company 46. He is a national instructor II and an instructor at the Rockland County (NY) Fire Academy. Sheridan founded Mutual Aid Americas, which works with fire departments in Latin America.

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