Back to Basics
We each see the fire service from a single perspective — from our individual viewpoints bounded by the time in which we live, the length and breadth of our personal experience, and the depth of our total knowledge. Each generation views itself as “modern” and each generation appears to feel the fire service and the fire problem are becoming increasingly complex.
While there is no question that our equipment has become more complicated, our training programs have, in most areas, kept pace with the changing technology. And as the complexity of the fire problem increases, the awareness of the fire fighter expands.
In the long run, however, all things are relative and our feelings as we view the fire problems of the 1980s are probably no different from those of earlier fire fighters when they encountered that first gasoline fire in the back of the delivery stable where some early motor car was under repair. Imagine what a shock that must have been, particularly when you consider the equipment and training available in that era!
In spite of the proliferation of exotic problems and sophisticated equipment, water still controls or extinguishes most fires. And delivering an adequate flow of water in the right form, in the right place, at the right time continues to be our fundamental fire fighting task. The basics of handling hose, operating nozzles, raising and working from ladders, wearing breathing apparatus, and all the other “routine” tasks form the foundation on which everything else is built. Elaborate prefire plans, brilliant strategies and clever tactics will gain us nothing unless they are efficiently executed by the front-line fire fighters who, in the final analysis, make or break every operation.
Have you ever seen a ladder raised with the tip where the heel plates should be? A breathing apparatus slung on someone’s back upside down ? A drafting operation stopped cold because one individual could not tie the rope onto the strainer? A nozzle operator who did not know fog from straight stream or open from shut?
These all happen, unfortunately, along with dozens of other idiotic errors primarily because we fail to continue to practice basic skills. As one chief officer turned educator put it, “We re teaching atomic energy to people who can’t pull ceilings with 6-foot hooks!”
In general, the more frequently a fire fighting unit hits working fire, the less basic drilling is required. But for most volunteer departments, the infrequency of alarms that really test their operational efficiency makes a continuous drill program an absolute necessity.
Athletic coaches recognize “the basics” as one of the keys to success. The football team made up of players who cannot block and cannot tackle is going to be beaten. Team drill in the basics is a part of every effective football program, and the player who does not practice does not make the team. The same principle should apply to our fire fighting units.
These things should be required: Regular team drill in the basics, regular review of individual performance, and establishment of the policy that the player who does not practice does not make the team. In the life-and-death world of the operational fire service, the individual who cannot or will not maintain the necessary personal skills must be identified and kept out of critical positions. Effective fire fighting is a team effort and each member is an essential link. A fireground operation will fail, like the proverbial chain, when the weakest link fails. And when a fireground operation fails, the score is reckoned in damage, injuries and lives.
Drill officer should plan a comprehensive program which will cover all basic areas with enough time allotted to each subject to build competence in each person participating. Drill procedures should be keyed to the standard operating procedures of the department.
Members should be required to meet proficiency requirements across the full range of fireground tasks. Details must not be overlooked. Can the fire fighter release the ladders from the apparatus brackets? Can the fire fighter climb and work from ladders? Can the fire fighter pull the preconnected lines in accordance with departmental SOP? Can the fire fighter advance hose and use all nozzles provided? Standards of quality (how well the member can do the job) and time (how quickly the member can do the job) must be established and met.
Recognized performance standards such as NFPA 1001, Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications, can provide a model as well as a basis for writing local performance objectives.
Requiring members to meet proficiency standards does not necessarily mean that persons who fail to meet a portion of the standard must be totally grounded. Specific riding positions can be restricted to individuals who have met a required level of competence. For example, in some departments where breathing apparatus is carried in the bucket seats, those positions are assigned as nozzlemen on the initial interior attack lines. Riding in those positions is limited to fire fighters who have been certified as capable in all the skills required.
Members frequently will resist repetitive drill in the basics but there is simply no substitute. A continuing basic drill program will require imagination and ingenuity on the part of the instructor, the enthusiastic support of the entire officer cadre from the chief on down, and an extra effort from all participating fire fighters. The goal is swift, sure and accurate execution of all fireground orders. If we can achieve that goal, everybody wins — the fire fighters, the officers and, most important, the public!