You Don’t Have to Die to be a Hero

By Paul H. Stein

It’s tragic and heart-breakingthat nine Charleston, South Carolina, firefighters died at a fire in August; shortly after, two Fire Department of New York firefighters died at an abandoned building close to Ground Zero. I watched the memorials for our fallen brothers and felt a profound sadness. They were called heroes a number of times. They were definitely heroes who paid the ultimate price in the performance of their duties.

The question we must ask is, What do we have to do to avoid future firefighter fatalities? It’s time for fire departments to stop bringing victims to the incident. After a long fire service career, going through the ranks from firefighter to fire chief, I know that firefighters should not put themselves in extremely dangerous situations while attempting to save property. We should only take a big risk when human life is in jeopardy. This is the basic risk-versus-benefit concept that has been around the fire service for many years. The concept is titled “Firefighter Safety and Survival Benchmarks.” It basically states the following:

  • We will take a big risk in a calculated manner to save people.

  • We will take less of a risk in a calculated manner to save property.

  • We will take little or no risk to try to save people or property that are already lost.

This firefighter safety concept is so simple, it boggles my mind that we still lose firefighters in abandoned buildings and in buildings where there is nothing of value to save. If the fire service would adhere to this safety concept, there is a very good possibility that the annual number of firefighter deaths and injuries would be reduced.

Many will say, “Danger is part of the job and the customer expects us to do our job.” I don’t disagree with this at all, but our customers don’t expect us to kill ourselves in the process. They would rather lose their building rather than have firefighters lose their lives.

I know what I’m going to say will irritate some people, but it needs to be said. In reality, no organization, person or thing is to blame for the tragedies in Charleston and New York. I don’t believe in Monday morning quarterbacking. Anyone who has had the responsibility of leading a fire department or of being in charge of a dynamic emergency incident like the sofa warehouse fire in Charleston realizes that it is an extremely difficult and dangerous job. Firefighting is not a static process. Fire dynamics create serious challenges to anyone who has been responsible for mitigating an incident.

There is no such thing as the perfect fire officer or firefighter. All incident commanders try to mitigate fire incidents effectively, efficiently, and safely, but sometimes it just doesn’t happen. However, when all fire service fatalities are reviewed, in many cases it is found that the fatalities could have been prevented. In wildland fires in which fatalities occur, usually the 10 standing orders or the 18 conditions that shout “Watch out!” are violated. During structural firefighting, fatalities often occur when unnecessary risks are taken or the firefighter safety and survival benchmarks are ignored. The sad part is that we can predict bad outcomes when standard safety practices or sound strategy and tactical procedures are violated. If we can predict bad outcomes, we should definitely be able to prevent them.

One of the best learning tools to prevent firefighter fatalities is the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) reports of firefighter fatalities. The NIOSH report is a complete review of the incident and the contributing factors that led to the fatality. The NIOSH report also includes recommendations to prevent similar fatal incidents. The discouraging aspect of the NIOSH report is that, in many cases, the same recommendations are on every report. Fire officers should read these reports, their recommendations, and the lessons learned to prevent similar firefighter fatalities. The question remains, Why aren’t we doing that? Analyzing each NIOSH report allows us to predict potential life-threatening emergency situations that we might encounter. So, with the availability of NIOSH reports and many other resources to review regarding firefighter safety and survival, why do we still lose firefighters in places we shouldn’t?

Throughout the national fire service we have been giving lip service to training and firefighter safety for many years. I have often heard that “our people are our most important asset” and “firefighter safety is our most important concern.” But in my experience, these words are unsupported by action.

If firefighter training and safety were really politicians’ most important concern, they would allow fire chiefs to staff their engines and trucks in accordance with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommendations. They wouldn’t require fire department budget cuts that force fire chiefs to cut important positions in the training division. When the fire chief protests, the politicians inform the chief to “just do it” or they will get someone in the position that will.

If training and firefighter safety were the highest priority:

  • Fire department leaders would demand and ensure that appropriate training and firefighter safety requirements be achieved throughout the department;

  • Midlevel chief officers would get out from behind their desks and spend more time training with their companies;

  • First-line supervisors would make sure their people are prepared for any emergency incident, including doing everything in their power to be technically competent and making sure that their team members are technically competent, too; and

  • Firefighter unions and associations would review and revise their platforms on fire department promotions and other provisions in the union contract that could inhibit quality leadership and technical ability.

Let’s start from the top. I believe all will agree that, except for emergency response, the most important fire department priority is training. Yet when budget cuts are necessary, training is the first division to get the budget ax.

If fire chiefs really wanted to send the message that firefighter safety is their highest priority, they would prove it by actions, not words. Fire chiefs need to develop and insist on an organizational culture that maintains the highest level of firefighter safety. They need to ensure their chief officers and first line officers adhere to this safety concept.

I’m amazed to learn that many fire departments do not even have an established safety officer position. How could any fire chief ignore the safety officer recommendations identified in NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program? Or fail to consider up-to-date standard operating procedures/guidelines, basic hose and ladder evolution efficiency standards, organizational accountability, personnel performance evaluations, effective fire officer probationary procedures, a process for postemergency analysis, and an organizational strategic plan.

For example, becoming a paramedic requires approximately six months of intensive training. Compare that to the training most departments require firefighters to undergo before becoming a fire officer.

There is no doubt that over the years, and especially after 9/11, the roles and responsibilities of fire departments have expanded, to the point that the fire service has become a “jack of all trades and a master of none.” Many fire departments have not kept up with the training requirements of the job or they have not prioritized the organization’s training needs. We are all too busy doing superfluous stuff. And when we get too busy, training suffers.

Department members can obtain training through several methods: hit-or-miss, sink-or-swim, trial-and-error, or structured-and-systematic. Unfortunately, many departments use a combination of the first three to train their team members. It is obvious that the only dependable way to enhance the knowledge of department members is to use the structured and systematic method, that is, a method based on a careful review of the responsibilities of the position in terms of knowledge and skills. This involves an orderly and timely period of instruction provided by a trainer who is familiar with the job, well-versed in training techniques, and aware of the learning process.

The fire chief is responsibile to ensure there are organizational procedures and designs that ensure firefighter safety like the firefighter safety and survival benchmarks.

All fire departments should stand down for a period of time and brainstorm to plan ways to improve their department’s safety design and culture and commit to that plan.

Let’s discuss the battalion chiefs. If you look at NIOSH reports on firefighter fatalities, you will commonly find a recommendation that the battalion chiefs should spend more time training with their companies. The battalion chiefs are usually bogged down with committees and paperwork. Many of them lose touch with basic firefighting skills, command confidence, and the people under their command. Consequently, the troops lose faith and confidence in their battalion chief’s ability to command the emergency incident.

I also find that the battalion chiefs have the least amount of organizational accountability. I know one department that calls their battalion chiefs the “free roaming vapors” because, besides taking around the mail, nobody knows what they are doing. Don’t get me started on organizational accountability. Everybody in the organization needs to be held accountable, but that’s for another article.

If there is any one group of people that have the most crucial impact on firefighter safety, it is the first line supervisor. As I travel around the country conducting training, I find that there are many outstanding first line supervisors that do a quality job and are a credit to their organization, but I also find many that don’t and aren’t. Because firefighting in many cities has become a high-risk, low-frequency event, many first line supervisors have become complacent. During my training sessions, I ask several questions regarding firefighter safety, and I’m often disappointed with the answers I receive in return. Once again, no one appears to be holding the first line supervisor accountable.

Unions also have to assume some responsibility for firefighter safety. I have been a union and association leader and member my entire career. Even after my retirement I served on the California State Firefighters’ Association for four years as an executive board director. I believe in unions and what they represent, but I know there are still departments that, by union rule, promote by seniority only and allow people to stay on the job that really don’t belong there. This is no way to run an organization, especially when it jeopardizes safety. The people in all supervisory positions should be the most qualified, not just the most senior. I believe it is just wrong when a union defends a firefighter who can’t meet the minimum technical or physical requirements of the position, especially when this firefighter might jeopardize the safety of other firefighters.

After reading this article it might appear to you that there are many difficult challenges within the national fire service, but this is not the case. These are typical challenges that many fire departments throughout the country face. What is required is a systematic approach to attack the identified challenges. As I indicated earlier, no one person or organization is to blame for the recent tragedies in Charleston and New York. Collectively, all fire departments should take steps to prevent unnecessary firefighter fatalities and keep our nations firefighters safe.

This article might irritate some people; I hope it does. I hope it irritates many to start some serious dialogue regarding firefighter safety. Let’s stop the firefighter safety lip service and really start taking some affirmative steps to prevent similar incidents like Charleston and New York.

Firefighters are already heroes in the eye of the public. We don’t have to die to prove it.

Paul H. Stein is a retired chief officer of the Santa Monica (CA) Fire Department. His 31-year career includes 25 years of experience as a supervisor. He has served as a line officer, battalion commander, fire marshal, and training officer. After retirement, he served nine months as an interim fire chief in Lakeside, California. Stein has served as the fire technology coordinator at Santa Monica College, an instructor for the California Fire Academy System, and a former adjunct faculty member for the National Fire Academy. He has an associate’s degree in fire technology and a bachelor’s degree in management and is a master instructor for the California Department of Education.

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