THE WHITE COVER
BY BILL MANNING
The “white cover” shows the perfect–and perfectly safe–firefighting operation.
Why “waste” a perfectly good cover in this way?
For one, the watchdogs who for years have howled for cover photos of perfection (and who are well-practiced at spotting the “kamikaze firefighter” with neck exposed, strap unbuckled, or perhaps even entering a fire building) deserve some equal time.
More important, ideological changes in the concept of fireground safety–what it means and how it is achieved–demand immediate reexamination, using the white cover–a symbolic clean slate–as the point of departure.
Some students of the fire service note an alarming progression in the modern safety era, one that began with much reasonableness but developed into a quixotic quest: A decade ago the fire service rightly bought into 1500 and the need to reduce line-of-duty deaths and injuries; now it`s being swept up in the extremist viewpoint that firefighter safety equals risk-free firefighting.
The oxymoron is immaterial to a growing number of do-gooders who have taken the cause of firefighter safety over the brink of sanity. In Safetyland, all is possible and nothing is as it seems or should be, including the art of firefighting.
To call the over-safety sensation a national obsession would not be too great an overstatement. In recent history, many uplifting social movements have been obsessively twisted to the point at which the cause itself becomes the end, eclipsing purpose and outcome. The modern firefighter safety movement appears to be following suit and has in fact drawn among its ranks pillars of the fire service who once regularly practiced the same offenses that now are pilloried, offenses once equated with good firefighting but that are now castigated. Even for these pillars, the urge to join a club claiming exclusive rights to “the firefighters` best interests” is irresistible, as vanity compels them to the stage of unassailable righteousness on which this song is sung.
The score in the Hallelujah Safety Chorus resonates with the conviction that risk-free firefighting is doable and preferred, as though the army can do its intended job without getting shot at and sometimes wounded. This is the kind of attitude that would have had us all speaking German by 1945. But the chorus delivers confidently in public forums: Civilian safety is construed as an obstruction or unacceptable trade-off to firefighter safety, advocates rue on moral grounds the fire service`s so-called “deplorable” safety record, and property conservation is maligned as an antiquated priority. Can they be serious? You bet.
For the ample assemblage of crooners in the safety chorus, firefighter safety has become a controllable absolute achieved by legislating, regulating, adjudicating, engineering, and budgeting safety into the act of firefighting. Universal prescriptions, it is reasoned, are the syrup that the fire service must drink to protect the firefighters from killing themselves; therefore, any triumph of chaos over firefighter on the fireground must be the result of the fire service organization not taking its medicine in the right dosage.
The punishment for such disobedience is decided in the courts. With an estimated 100,000-plus firefighter injuries per year, no limit to our genius for artificial devices, and an out-of-control system of tort law, the magnitude of the problem clarifies. But we`ll strike up the Safety Chorus over and over again, until the day fireground risk is eliminated, which is a day that will never come.
As the fire service begins to dance faster to the sounds of the chorus, “good” firefighting–“premanaged,” “legal” firefighting–comes to be defined not so much by rapid fire extinguishment and rescues with the least possible firefighter injuries but strictly as an operation yielding zero firefighter injury. Mission and purpose become cloudy. It doesn`t take great imagination to conclude that, with zero injuries as the moral imperative, the best firefighting of all will be done from the firehouse, though conscience dictates conflagration prevention with outside master streams employed from beyond the “smoke zone” at 200 feet from the fire.
The sword cuts both ways, though. The 1992 law journal headline “Sue a Fire Department for Fire Damage” was not a gag. The fire service offers a plentiful feeding ground for barracudas-at-law, since aggressive emergency operations never are by-the-book undertakings to the extent generally required to defend oneself in the court of literalness run by those for whom a brush with danger is opening the morning mail. As current progressiveness promotes the theory that absolutes are achievable and human error intolerable even under emergency conditions, the fire department loses almost every time.
So the noose gets tighter and the “progressive” department embarks on an expensive course of damage control and “C.Y.A.” based on legal checks and regulatory/standards compliance, knowing full well that chaos discriminates against no one, strikes even the simplest operation, and does not follow the rules.
God help the department that falls in its path. On a national scale, the fire department is most assuredly backpedaling toward the ropes, damned if it is too aggressive and damned if it is not aggressive enough–as determined after the fact to suit the arbiters` needs. What choice is there but to throw defensive punches while falling backward, but punches nonetheless? What choice is there but C.Y.A., notwithstanding the chafing such a policy inflicts on the firefighter`s better instincts?
Given finite dollars and manpower in municipal structures, the energy spent on C.Y.A. management saps departmentwide devotion to what used to be the only fire service bottom line that really mattered: rescues and extinguishing fires. I defer here to the esteemed Bill Clark, who has a long fire service history but keeps current with fire service principles and practices. He says, “Are we reaching the time when the politically correct answer to `Fireman! Save my child!` is `Just wait until we set up our incident command and personnel accountability systems, and then we will get to it, provided we can do it without violating any NFPA or OSHA standards`? Ironically, at this very same time, we see articles about `total quality management` urging the fire service to become more consumer-oriented and give the customer what they want. Speaking in behalf of the customers, I would say that what they want most of all is instant rescue, even at the expense of ICS, personnel accountability, and various `standards.`” And I will add an exclamation point.
It does indeed make one hunger for “simpler” times. Give the modern fire department 1950s-vintage pumpers, hose, etc. (but keep those BAs!) and it wouldn`t put out any less fire or make fewer rescues. Arguably, nothing has changed all that much in 50 years, unless you throw liability and “progressive safety management” into the mix. What are you doing that`s so different, other than rescuing and putting out fire?
The fire service is afflicted with a balance (as well as memory) problem made no less difficult by its attraction to the song of the safety chorus sirens, which would have you write off the building before arrival and would have you applaud the “four-year veteran” who, when told to stretch a line to make ready for an interior attack, attempts to engage his officer in a philosophical discussion of whether it`s “worth it.” Worse, I am reminded of the videotape that shows a fire department working hard at setting up the ICS and establishing the fireground logistics sector while occupants are jumping from windows–in terms of firefighter safety, a great operation.
But it`s not the accountability system or the ICS or the standards per se that cause the problem–it`s an inexhaustive sprint at safety heaven, regardless of the consequences, and its manifestations that feed the current situation.
This same safety push has at least in part contributed to the decrease in firefighter fatalities over the past several years. Arguably, it may even have contributed to a decrease in the estimated firefighter injury rate, since it appears that in today`s climate more injuries are reported and “reportable,” the word “injury” having been expanded to mean “any boo-boo, hangnail or greater.” Yet is this decreasing trend, if attributable to greater safety regulations, an acceptable trade-off, given the circumstances?
The sum total of the fire service is not how many firefighters are injured. The sum total of the fire service is how many potential saves are saved, how many small fires fail to become large, and how few firefighters are injured while doing it. Is it reasonable to forfeit two of the three objectives, in lieu of our moral obligation to the third? I think not.
Such forfeiture is a colossal failure and a colossal insult. It presupposes a fundamental change in the mission of the fire department, from “risk mastery” department to “risk elimination” department–a very important distinction, for many reasons. Do firefighters no longer have the training and experience to be conceded the legal leeway to make the hard fireground decisions? If not, who can make the decisions? Are fires to be “premanaged”? And if we prosecute every fireground decision that goes awry, will we have a fire service in 20 or 30 years? For in truth, over-safety sensation insanity benefits no one other than those who stand to gain the most from it financially, who would without responsibility or morality suck dry the fire service as we know it until there is nothing left.
There is hope, but it will take much work and perseverance on the part of fire departments and individual firefighters to realize it.
Most important, we must continually emphasize that training is the key that opens the door to firefighting success and safety. Good training is worth a thousand regulations. It begets responsible firefighting. It is the true firefighter empowerment and the best insurance against fireground injury–the true balance between safety and duty. Training is your power. With it, the fire service embraces the challenges with confidence, intelligence, and firepower–as risk masterers, in control of its own destiny. It should never take a back seat to any fire department occupation. And for the department–as a business–training is the greatest ally in response to the external arbiters of “legal firefighting.”
Need we return to the days of the “leather lung” to fulfill the obligation to the public? Certainly not. Consider an aggressive but safety-conscious approach to firefighting that charges all responders at the scene, regardless of rank, with the job of safety officer/risk manager. Consider also proactive support of sane standards–you be the judge. They are your standards, and it`s you who has to live with them–not the standard-maker, not the lawyer, not the government agency, and usually not even the Hallelujah Safety choirperson. You`re the firefighter, the expert voice. Want to reduce line-of-duty deaths? Push for standards that would insist that firefighters be physically fit to serve and thereby lower the annual death toll more than all the other standards combined.
We must understand in our hearts that firefighting is a dangerous business and tragic circumstances will arise, sometimes beyond our control–it wouldn`t be firefighting otherwise–and the fire service mission should not be penalized for it.
Safety is a relative concept. Strip away all the words, philosophies, agendas, and hysteria, and you`re left with one stark reality: “Safe” is when you`ve done your job as best you could and return home to the family in one piece, none the worse for it. But lest we forget, the deep-seated human need for a sense of purpose, in any walk of life, compels us to fulfill our obligations to ourselves and those who rely on us, which in the case of the firefighter is to make rescues and put out fires–the rest be damned.
It`s time the fire service took a hard look at the white cover and color in its new perception of fireground reality–a big-picture reality, hopefully, that offers the best service to those you protect with the greatest possible margin of safety for the providers of a unique service.