BY KEN FOLISI
Can’t see the forest for the trees” is an expression used to describe someone who is too involved in the details of a problem to look at the situation as a whole. As a recently retired chief officer, away from the day-to-day responsibility of leading a shift of firefighters and all the administrative duties that go along with it, I have had a lot of time to think about my career and the much broader spectrum of the fire service in general. Being away from the fire service for the past eight months has been a refreshing experience that has allowed me to get away from the trees and take a good long look at the forest.
Recently, I attended a chiefs’ conference, since I intend to remain active in the fire service. At that conference, many of the presentation topics were safety related. During my 25 years in the fire service, safety issues-for my own preservation and that of the people I served with-always took center stage in my thoughts and actions. The high injury and death rate among firefighters has always been an issue in the forefront of the fire service, but I think more so now than at any time I can remember.
During the conference, I began to think in a different way than before because I was now away from the trees and looking at the forest. This triggered a lot of thought about what needs to be done to help significantly reduce the injury and death rate among firefighters. Much has been said and written about this topic and the causes and contributing factors. Reviewing such reports as well as Web sites such as www.firefighterclosecalls.com and www.firefighternearmiss.com are excellent resources that give very good insight into the overall safety issues facing the fire service.
My intent here is not to take a scientific or statistical look at the problem. You don’t need a Ph.D. in safety to look at the statistics and read the injury and death reports to know that things are very wrong in the fire service today. I certainly do not consider myself an expert in fire service safety, but I would like to offer my thoughts as someone who has looked at the problem from a commonsense position away from the trees looking down at the forest.
If the fire service is to significantly reduce its dismal injury and death rate, it must accomplish three things: first, enforce seat belt and driving speed regulations; second, institute a comprehensive medical surveillance program for all firefighters and conduct meaningful research about the cardiac problems of younger fire service members; and third, and most difficult, retrain or remove chief and company officers who are not making proper decisions on the emergency scene and relegate them to more appropriate positions on the scene.
Enforcing seat belt and speed regulations assumes a department has a written regulation. Every fire department should have a specific written regulation that demands the use of seat belts at all times as well as a regulation that requires strict adherence to a safe, controllable speed for all apparatus-including chiefs’ vehicles. Chief and company officers should be held responsible for the enforcement of these regulations. Creating a culture of safety within a department through proper training that teaches safe driving, specific driver qualification, and a commitment on the part of chief and company officers to always set the example will go a long way to ensure compliance.
Almost every day we learn of firefighters dying in the line of duty; an extraordinary number of these fatalities are cardiac-related. I sense that a comprehensive investigation will reveal that many of these deaths are related to preexisting conditions. A comprehensive medical surveillance program for all fire service personnel makes a great deal of sense. If preexisting medical conditions that directly relate to cardiac problems are identified and mitigated, the death rate from cardiac problems can certainly be reduced.
A department has an obligation to see that its members are first fit for duty, then well-trained and well-equipped to deliver its services. A good medical surveillance program based on National Fire Protection Association standards is a good place to start. It may be costly, but funding should be priority number one. All of us would agree with the statement “Our personnel are our most important asset.” It’s time to show just how important our members are and to institute and fund good medical programs for them.
Another very troubling part of this problem is the fact that many younger firefighters are dying of cardiac-related incidents. Why? Medical research is needed to identify the problem and suggest solutions. Perhaps there is grant money available from government or private sector organizations that can fund such an endeavor; many national organizations are in a position to take a lead role in this kind of project.
Proper decision making on an emergency scene must continually be measured against the risk-benefit concept “We will risk a lot to gain a lot, and we will risk little to gain a little.” This saying gets a lot of lip service, but what does it mean? Fire service personnel interpret this differently, and some may not even consider this concept in the decision-making process-i.e., there is a fire; let’s put it out.
Every day in our nation, firefighters are operating at fire incidents with no reasonable expectation of saving a life or making any difference in property loss. How many times has your department expended great risk only to see the building you fought so hard to protect be torn down because the damage was so great that nothing was worth saving? If we really define and use the risk-benefit concept in our decision making, firefighters will not be put in situations that are clearly too much of a risk.
We need consensus on what risk-benefit means to our personnel, particularly to chief officers who are mainly responsible for strategic decisions involving the commitment of personnel at the emergency scene. Strict guidelines regarding risk-benefit evaluation for all fire service members should be defined, written into SOPs, trained on, practiced routinely, and enforced as necessary.
For example, a risk-benefit guideline might read as follows: “On arrival at a single-family residence structure fire, if fire has control of 50 percent of the structure and there is no reasonable expectation of a life hazard, then an exterior defensive attack shall be initiated.” Or, “The structure at 123 Main Street has been determined to have significant structural hazards for firefighters; on arrival, if there is fire involving any structural components and there is no reasonable expectation of life hazard, then an exterior defensive attack shall be initiated.”
Chief and company officers who consistently make poor emergency scene decisions need to be retrained or relegated to more appropriate positions in the incident command structure. This I believe is a real “elephant in the room” (a situation where something major is going on; it’s impossible to ignore, like an elephant in the room, but nobody talks about the elephant because nobody knows what to do about it). It is very clear that many serious and fatal incidents involving firefighters have resulted from improper decisions by chief and company officers; it’s a real elephant in the room, and it’s time to recognize it and do something about it. Examples are committing firefighters to situations that clearly are not consistent with the risk-benefit concept mentioned above, poor fireground strategy and tactics, and lack of incident command and safety procedures such as assigning a qualified safety officer and rapid intervention teams.
Proper training for all chief and company officers with regard to emergency scene decision making is key to good incident outcomes. All officers should have appropriate training before they are put in decision-making positions. But this should be only the beginning of officer training; ongoing training is also important but often neglected. When was the last time your department offered refresher training for chief and company officers? I suspect there are many officers-especially chief officers-so consumed with administrative duties that this type of training takes place rarely or not at all. It’s unrealistic to expect a chief officer whose duties are primarily administrative to occasionally respond to an emergency incident and be at a high level of performance if ongoing refresher training is not taking place.
An important element of the ongoing training process is to perform comprehensive critiques of emergency incidents as well as multicompany drills. Critiques that are objective, nonbiased, and perceived by all its participants as a learning tool can be of great benefit. A good critique can identify both good and not-so-good performances-the good can be recognized and enhanced and the not-so-good can be corrected with specific retraining.
Add a peer review component for company and chief officers to the critique process. It should focus on the decision-making process with regard to the risk-benefit concept. This type of critique, if objective and fair, can identify officers who have difficulty making proper decisions on the emergency scene. Once identified, specific training to resolve any problems can be initiated. Hopefully, this will help improve the individual’s decision-making process.
But what if there is no improvement and the difficulty in making proper emergency scene decisions persists? I believe that some chief and company officers for whatever reason do not have the capacity to continuously collect and process information on a fast-moving emergency scene and make the kind of critical decisions necessary for a favorable outcome. A chief or company officer who falls into this category should not be given such a position on the emergency scene. This does not mean the officer is not a good person or a good firefighter. It simply means that he is not equipped to be in that position on the scene.
Every football player is important to the team, but all team members are not equipped to be the quarterback. Every soldier in the military is important, but not all are equipped to be a general. Having personnel who do not have the capacity to make critical decisions is not unique to the fire service; we need only look to the military, which has struggled with this issue since its inception.
There are positions that do not require the critical strategic and tactical type of decision-making skills necessary during a fast-moving emergency incident. Officer positions in rehab, staging, occupant services, and public information are examples of some of the less critical but nevertheless important positions to which such officers can be reassigned.
Allowing personnel who are not equipped to be in critical decision-making positions on the emergency scene is a recipe for disaster. By ignoring the “elephant in the room,” we do a disservice to all fire department members and the citizens we are sworn to protect. Identifying chief and company officers who are not equipped to be in critical decision-making positions on the emergency scene and assigning them to noncritical positions is a very difficult proposition, but I believe it is so critical to firefighter survival. Having extra personnel on the scene, state-of-the-art electronic accountability and tracking systems, an extra alarm assignment just for RIT duty, one-hour SCBA with good air management, and a rabbit’s foot for good luck will not stop firefighters from being needlessly injured and killed if chief and company officers continue to make serious mistakes in the emergency scene decision-making process.
KEN FOLISI recently retired as a battalion chief from the Lisle-Woodridge (IL) Fire District after 25 years of service. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from Southern Illinois University and a master’s degree in management from National Louis University. He is an Illinois state certified fire officer III. He currently serves as assistant professor in the fire service administration BA program at Lewis University in Romeoville, Illinois.