Captains and Catastrophes

By Tim Hartman

I recently read some of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports on firefighter fatalities. I recommend that you take the time to read them. They offer a great deal of insight into how firefighters die. NIOSH doesn’t pull any punches. It tells you how it really was and how you can avoid the same mistakes. If that doesn’t interest you, it should. As I read through a couple of the reports, these questions kept popping into my head: How can I avoid having one of these reports being written about one of my crew? What exactly is my job in preventing fatalities and injuries? Is there someone out there who knows, or are we all just trying to figure it out by ourselves? What are the responsibilities and job of a company officer?

Don’t think for a second that I’m going to give you all of the answers, that I somehow have the magic formula. I’m just another captain trying to figure it all out, but I will tell what I think. First, if we all tell each other what we think, then we can come up with the magic formula. The old adage that two heads are better than one definitely applies to what we do. Second, the reason for the title of this article is that any time one of our people is seriously injured or dies in the line of duty, it truly is a catastrophe, and I believe that the person best able to stop these catastrophes is the company officer.

Some of you out there may be offended by what I have to say. To you I say, “Thank you; hey, at least you read it.” And, to all of those officers who have lost firefighters, let me apologize now. I know that you have sat in judgment of yourself and that nothing I could possibly say could make you feel worse or better about what happened. My goal is not to armchair quarterback or to say how things may have been different at specific incidents in the past but to talk frankly about how things may go better in the future.

We could spend quite a bit of time talking about how you can increase safety around the station through concepts like housekeeping, limiting horseplay, and promoting an attitude of safety first. Rather, I would like to discuss the areas in which most of the serious injuries occur: training, driving to and from the incident scene, and at emergency incidents.


To discuss injuries that occur during training, we must first talk about the type of training you are doing. Recently at our department, we conducted some safety and survival training that was very realistic and required physical and mental sharpness to complete an obstacle course. The environment was as real as we could make it and required competency in several self-rescue skills. Communication and teamwork were essential elements. Requiring your people to work like this in training will undoubtedly produce injuries, and we had our share of them. But most everyone on the job would agree that realistic training scenarios are worth their weight in gold.

Even when your scenarios are as real as this one was, there is a lot you can do to prevent injuries. Prior to training, brief the participants on the scenario. Make them understand the objectives you are trying to accomplish. If the training is in an unfamiliar location, brief them on it or give them a chance to walk through and look at the layout of the occupancy beforehand. If they will need certain skills, tell them in advance, and have them practice those skills beforehand.

The training ground is not an area for “fun and games”; it’s a place where serious people get prepared for a serious job. Do not tolerate horseplay and clowning. Now, I’m not saying that you can’t have fun; one of the great things about our job is that we are able to have fun together in spite of what we do. But there is a time and a place—and the drill ground during training is neither! After the drill is over and everyone is aware that it is over, a little fun to blow off steam is not a bad idea. Remember, you have absolute control over the level of “fun” that takes place. If it gets to the point that someone gets hurt, then it has gone too far.

Let’s talk about personal protective equipment (PPE) and training. When your crew is training, you are the safety officer; it is your responsibility to make certain people are protected—for example, with gloves, helmets, and eye protection.


I teach a class at the local college to firefighters who aspire to be officers. It is an introductory-level class, but we discuss many key elements for achieving success as a company officer. In class one evening, we were talking about the domino theory of accidents and how accidents are prevented. The topic centered on cultural acceptance, or rather on how we in the fire service have created a social environment that encourages behaviors we all know lead to injury and death. I talked with the class about a seminar I had attended and how while at the seminar I rode with an engine company at the sponsoring fire department. The first call was a full structural response for fire in a residence. I was amazed to find that when we got into the cab, there were no SCBAs in the seatbacks. What was even more interesting was the reason. It seems that the chief was at an intersection once and saw one of his engines go by “Code 3.” Inside the engine was a crew that was standing up and getting into PPE. It didn’t take long for this chief to figure out that this was a dangerous situation and one that needed to be fixed right away. He took out the SCBA seats and got his guys to buy into the cultural change that says it’s OK to wear seatbelts and finish getting dressed when the truck stops.

I had just recently been certified as a driver and was assigned to work under a particular captain for the shift. We left on a call that required us to cross a major boulevard. I proceeded across the six-lane highway; when I got to the middle, I realized that I was going too fast for the dip on the other side. After the front wheels hit the ground and we all gathered ourselves together, that captain said to me, “Slow the #$@& down.” The message was loud and clear.

Again, we have created a social environment that says it’s OK to drive too fast. Statistics show that excessive speed is one of the most significant contributing factors in accidents. Most of us work in relatively small districts. The difference between 35 and 45 mph or 45 and 60 mph on a two-mile response is a matter of a few seconds. Are a few seconds worth the life of a firefighter?

Get your people to buckle up, and get your drivers to slow down. If we company officers can accomplish just that, we could reduce the number of fatalities by 20 to 30 percent. That’s about 25 more firefighters each year who would be able to go home at the end of their shift. That’s 25 fewer phone calls from the chief or visits to the family or funerals to attend.


Once at the incident, captains shouldn’t fight fire! When you put on the badge, you gave up your right to fight fire and took on a greater responsibility: protecting those who fight fire.

When your personnel go into a hostile environment, they are focused on the task at hand. They are looking to rescue a person or to find the fire and put it out before anyone gets hurt. Many times, they are so focused on the task that they forget to look at their surroundings. This is where they get into trouble and where your job begins. We want our firefighters to be aggressive and fearless. We want them to want to go in every time. We want them to want to stay in as long as they can. What we don’t want are company officers with that same attitude. Your job is to let them know when it isn’t going to work and to rein them in. You need expertise in building construction, fire behavior, reading smoke, and recognizing the warning signs of those “hostile fire events” that kill firefighters. Like it or not, you can’t do this from the nozzle or while you are pulling hose around the corner and up the stairs or even on the working end of a pike pole. If you think that your people will think you’re not pulling your weight on the fireground, then you need to ask yourself, If I’m not watching them, who is?

It’s not that your firefighters are incapable of taking care of themselves in most situations, but firefighting is dangerous enough that we should be on the lookout for those dangerous situations, firefighter killers, all of the time. Firefighters are focused on their job; we need to focus on ours. When your crew is dragging hose around corners and up stairs or when they are searching rooms for potential victims, they may not be thinking about what’s overhead or how the fire is affecting the building. They may not know how far they have advanced, how much air it took to get there, or what conditions look like behind them.

These are the things that should be on our minds: What is the smoke telling us about the fire? What is happening where we are, and what is happening between us and our egress? What is happening above and below us? Where is our egress, and where will we go if it gets blocked? Are our efforts having an impact, or do we need to abandon these tactics and report back to command? How much air do my people have left, and is it enough to get out if something goes wrong? Is my team intact and in contact? If command asked for a roll call right now, would I be able to give one?

Now, this doesn’t mean that you’ll never be able to fight fire again. There are times at just about every fire when you should pick up a tool and lend a hand. That is when the fire is mostly out and salvage and overhaul have begun. There are also fires that are so small that you can determine that there are no hidden hazards or firefighter killers. Then it’s OK to go to work, but you probably don’t have to because your crew has things well under control. Then, there are those defensive fires when no one is going into the hazard area. You can feel free to work on those as well.

I realize that some of you out there ride on three- and even two-member engines. And what about those volunteer departments that sometimes get only a handful of people to a fire? When you are shorthanded, it becomes even more important to have someone with experience and authority looking out for the members.

In the incident management system, the higher you go in the command structure, the more important this concept becomes. For example, if you are assigned as a group or division supervisor, your area of responsibility expands potentially beyond that of your crew. If you are assigned as a branch director, you will be responsible for several crews, groups, or divisions. As the operations chief, you will be tasked with the overall tactical operations at the incident. And, of course, the incident commander is responsible for many things, not the least of which is the safety of all personnel operating at the scene. I’m sure you can see the importance of supervision at these levels, especially at the crew level.

TIM HARTMAN is a 14-year veteran and a captain with the Henderson (NV) Fire Department. He is an instructor in officer development at the Community College of Southern Nevada. He also has delivered presentations at the IAFC EMS conference.

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