By David DeStefano
As a firefighter, you seem to reach a plateau at some point in your career. It isn’t always at the 10-year mark, but often, with a decade under your belt, you seem to find a comfort zone. You have been to a number of fires and other emergencies, and you are comfortable with the routine of the job. Perhaps you have been in the same company or the same assignment for a number of years. Some firefighters tend to feel they can fulfill familiar responsibilities with their eyes closed and engage them on “autopilot,” where they coast through each day.
Any firefighter or officer with this mentality, no matter how many years on the job, needs to take a step back and look around. The fire service is more dynamic than ever! You need to accomplish at least a small step each day to improve yourself, your department, and the fire service in general. With small daily efforts, you can not only improve your own safety and effectiveness but that of your entire department.
Following are 10 examples of small steps you can take, but they can be a springboard to help keep you and your department engaged and challenged.
- Expect fire. No matter what, expect every response to be a working fire until you determine otherwise. You may often be disappointed, but you will never unprepared.
- Bring all your assigned tools. Because you are expecting fire, be sure to carry all the tools your assignment requires, every time. Leaving the high-rise pack, water can, or rabbit tool on the rig is a big step toward failure.
- Initiate training. Drilling doesn’t always need to come from the training division or company officer. The 10-year veteran can organize great company training. The best often begins with a coffee table discussion of a Fire Engineering article.
- Take a class. A veteran firefighter must understand that tactics, equipment, and standards change constantly in the fire service. To remain current, all members should attend periodic classes, seminars, and courses offered by local training groups or state and county fire academies.
- Wear your waist strap. Years on the job have given many firefighters ample opportunity to forget the way they were taught, and they pick up the bad habits of the “routine response.” Self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) waist straps take an extra few seconds to buckle, but they relieve the wearer of much of the added weight on his shoulders. They also allow more freedom of movement in the shoulders for pulling ceiling or humping hose. In addition, buckled straps won’t cause entanglement and will be easier for a rapid intervention team member to find and convert to a harness for your rescue.
- Be a mentor. Veteran firefighters serve as role models for newer members, whether they realize it or not. Provide guidance and a good example of the best the fire service has to offer. Go out of your way to take a new member under your wing. The experience will be mutually beneficial.
- Crawl in smoke. Firefighters who have operated at a few fires standing and moving about in smoke without consequence may continue to do so, feeling no harm will come of this practice. Eventually, walking in conditions where you can’t see your feet will lead to falling down stairs, shafts, and skylights and off flat roofs. Always act prudently, crawl in smoke, and push a tool in front of you on a flat roof.
- Know your district. All veteran firefighters and officers need to be experts in their response districts. If you have been assigned to the same area or company for a number of years, don’t assume the neighborhood outside the firehouse is the same as the first day you reported for duty. New hazards emerge, old ones change, and neighborhoods evolve. Don’t ever be surprised by a new street, vacant commercial building, or construction project.
- Manage your air. Firefighters with numerous years on the job received their initial SCBA training under a completely different set of air management standards than those currently in place. Fighting most of our fires in single-family and small multi-dwellings gave many firefighters poor air management skills. Firefights are usually brief, and egress options are plentiful. Employing the residential mindset in large commercial buildings is a recipe for disaster. Learn and abide by current standards.
- Learn your boss’s job. Officers of all ranks move on. Firefighters are promoted and act out of rank. The day you find out you are promoted or will be in charge is no time to get serious about the role of a company officer. Learn your policies, radio reports, incident reporting system, and the other guidelines of the job while you are in the backseat position. Most importantly, learn how to make decisions based on incomplete information using size-up skills, situational awareness, and policies that will achieve the safest most efficient outcomes. Learn to make these rapidly and clearly. Watch the beat officers on your job, pick up their best traits, and add your own.
Hopefully, this list will stir action as well as discussion, no matter how many years you have on the job. Each firefighter must find his personal motivators to continue to learn and develop new skills throughout his firefighting career. The ability to adapt and overcome in a changing environment is one of the best traditions of the fire service. Make it your personal tradition!
Photo found on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Jo L. Keener.
David DeStefano is a 23-year veteran of the North Providence (RI) Fire Department, where he serves as a lieutenant in Ladder Co. 1. He previously served as a lieutenant in Engine 3 and was a firefighter in Ladder 1. He teaches a variety of topics for the Rhode Island Fire Academy. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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