Who’s in Charge of Your Fire?

By: William Goldfeder, EFO
Fire Engineering Contributing Editor
Battalion Chief, Loveland-Symmes Fire Department, Loveland, Ohio

Last summer, South Carolina Firefighter Jeff Chavis died of injuries sustained while operating at a structure fire. Subsequently, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined the fire department for “seven serious violations and six less serious violations.” The two most serious violations cited were (1) the lack of supervision by an incident commander and (2) firefighters inside the structure didn’t maintain contact with firefighters outside.

It seems simple, doesn’t it? It isn’t. We all have been to fires where these things occur. Let’s face it: It happens every day, all over the country.

I cannot imagine how the chief and the incident commander of the above department have felt since losing this firefighter. I feel deeply for them. And on top of that is the OSHA report, and whatever other problems that may bring.

The South Carolina situation got me thinking. This is an opportunity to do some soul-searching. Ask yourself, “Who is in charge of your fire?”

We make it absolutely clear to officers and students at the fire department, in command school, at the FDIC and FDIC West, and so on that you are absolutely and fully responsible for getting your firefighters home safely. To do that, the incident commander has to be experienced in structural firefighting.

You can’t have someone in charge of your fire whose “next fire is going to be his first.” Yet, some communities with so-called “OICs” and “incident commanders” who have no business running the fire and whose next fire will be their first don’t seem to understand their responsibility. And, those above them don’t seem to care. In addition, many officers today get promoted with less and less hands-on fire experience and fire training.

It’s a poor risk-management policy. The problem is that some “city fathers (and mothers)”–and even some chiefs– allow this situation to occur. Their philosophy is that when the new “incident commanders on the block” are on-duty, the odds are there won’t be a structure fire (you know, the ones who say, “We are an EMS department that occasionally goes to a fire” and “we don’t have fires anymore”). So, what happens? They feel that everything is fine and go about their merry way checking apparatus for dust, having the firefighters wash their staff car, adjusting their collar brass, making sure there are enough IV fluids, and finding outdated drugs in the ambulances. And then–suddenly and without warning–which is usually how fires come in–all hell breaks loose when they get a working fire. They are lost! Where does that leave “those they are responsible for getting home safely?”

Who is going to train the firefighters every day if those in charge don’t have the experience, training, and know-how for dealing with (or interest in) structure fires? I’ll tell you what happens: They buy any of those videos out there and call it training! Sadly, some “training officers” have become “videotape distributors.” Videos are a good supplement, but they are not training.

So who is going to take care of the troops? Who is going to be the experienced and seasoned leader at these fires and command the operation? Who is going to lead and show, by example, the firefighters what to do (and not do!) during training? Who is going to have the experience and training (real training–dirty stuff) to prepare these firefighters for the structure fire when it “comes in?” Who is going to make the firefighters (and officers) train constantly on structural firefighting operations and tactics, fire command/scene supervision, building construction, structural collapse, venting, fireground communications, and all of the related and required tasks because the incident commander knows what can happen if they don’t take the training seriously?

We have always been told (usually by someone whining) that we should always provide solutions to problems we present. So, here goes: If you know of “someone else’s fire department” that has one of these “new age” incident commanders, do the following:

  • Encourage constant realistic, hands-on fire training, with full participation;
  • Request as much outside “live fire” training as possible, with full participation;
  • Perform in-station hands-on training operations every single day so that everyone (including whoever is going to run your fire–they can do their “reports” later) gets involved and becomes familiar with each other so they will know what they can expect from each another at the fire;
  • Do your best to encourage hiring and promotion standards that require structural firefighting training and experience.
I know that EMS is critical, and I am a big fan of paramedic and EMT firefighters, who sure save many lives. But, EMT and paramedic certification does nothing to ensure a safe fireground operation, and-without an experienced, trained, and competent incident commander who has experience and plenty of training to run the fire–everyone may not get home safely.

Who is in charge of your fire? All your troops want is to “get home safely”–even if they sometimes don’t act like it. This is serious stuff.

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