BY JOHN T. CARLIN
It’s another quiet evening, when suddenly you hear some alert tones come over your pager. Your ears perk up, and all your attention is focused on listening to the dispatcher to see what type of incident you are being sent to.
“Alerting Anytown Fire Department: Respond to a fire alarm activation at 123 Main Street between Smith Road and Jones Boulevard.”
You immediately recognize that address. It is the same place you have been to 20 times so far this year. Or so it seems like 20 times. You can’t help thinking, “Another one of those routine calls—a faulty detector, burned food on the stove, someone stuck in the elevator, or some other minor reason for the alarm activation.”
It is likely that every district has a familiar address like this—a place you are dispatched to on a regular basis and where you can predict the type of nuisance problem that you can quickly handle and get back to being available for “the big one.” These routine (if there is such a thing) or nuisance calls, or whatever phrase you want to use to describe them, are on the rise. When these types of calls occur on a frequent basis, human nature can cause firefighters to become complacent while responding to and at these incidents.
If 10 calls in a row are all “routine” calls, it is easy to get into a mindset that the 11th call will be more of the same. But what if it isn’t? What if the fire alarm activated because it detected a real fire, as it was designed to? What if the carbon monoxide detector alarm was not just a low battery indicator and the home really is charged with dangerous carbon monoxide? What if an unattended candle has a room well involved in that senior housing complex? Would you be prepared? Did you let your guard down? Has the response assignment been reduced?
WHY THESE CALLS ARE ON THE RISE
There are many reasons nuisance calls are on the rise. Among them is the popularity of home security systems that include fire and smoke detection. Accidental activations and smoke from burned food have increased our responses to residences to which we were not called in the past. Building codes in commercial and industrial buildings require heat and smoke detection systems in many municipalities. Those that do not have these systems as part of a building code are still likely to bear the expense of installing them to take advantage of insurance rate reductions. Smoke detectors are required in most multiple-occupancy buildings, and they often prompt calls from neighbors who hear the chirp of a low battery indicator. Carbon monoxide detectors have become widely popular and have caused a huge increase in detector activation calls. The widespread availability of cell phones gives the public a convenient means for calling the dispatch center every time someone sees some smoke from a barbecue. Also, the malicious pranks of kids have been the source of these calls in the past, and not much has changed from generation to generation.
These systems are beneficial to us as firefighters by providing early detection when a hazardous condition exists. The false alarms and good intent calls that come from these systems, however, can contribute to dangerous complacent attitudes.
WHEN COMPLACENCY OCCURS
When you are repeatedly getting dispatched to these minor nuisance calls, all with similar results, it is not that difficult to let your guard down and think that the next one will be more of the same. That is how this attitude begins, and it gets stronger each time you arrive to find the same old thing. It is as if you are taking a gamble each time one of these calls is dispatched; and if you are playing the odds, most of the time you will win—but not always.
As this complacent attitude takes hold, many things begin to happen. You slow down and become very lax in your prearrival planning. You might not bother to take the high-rise hose pack or your usual tools inside the building with you. “Why bother putting on all my gear just to reset an alarm panel?” “Doing a proper size-up of the building seems such a waste of time.” “The SCBA is too heavy and cumbersome; I’ll just leave it on the rig.”
The dispatch office or chief officers may reduce the alarm assignments to keep units available for other calls, or they just may not want to bother them for such a nuisance. If additional apparatus do respond, they disregard the SOP of staging at a hydrant or fire department connection for the sprinkler system. “It is much easier to just pull up to the other rig so we can talk about the upcoming sporting event or swap some juicy gossip.” “So what if there are several floors that should be checked?” “We were just here yesterday for the same type of alarm, and it was a malfunction.” “There must be something wrong with the system.” In volunteer fire companies, some members may not even bother responding to the call. “Why should we interrupt our daily routine just to go reset an alarm system or explain to a resident that he needs to change the batteries in his carbon monoxide detector?”
Each time we get away with this attitude, it makes us more complacent. We get a little bit more lax, and the bad habits are reinforced. Having a complacent attitude is not just limited to nuisance alarms in buildings. Complacency and bad habits caused by these types of incidents can also surface at other types of calls such as wires down, gas leaks, car and dumpster fires, and other nonstructure fires—all which can sometimes be viewed as “routine.” These incidents can have some very real hazards that can produce tragic results if firefighters ignore safe procedures and don’t remain focused.
A complacent attitude left uncorrected is much like a disease or even a fire: It can grow and spread exponentially into all aspects of our job. Firefighters with this attitude are “accidents waiting to happen.” Sooner or later, the “routine” call will be not so routine, or the nuisance call will turn out to be the real thing.
WHEN THE REAL ONE OCCURS
Despite the increase of false and minor nuisance alarms, these systems do occasionally detect real and dangerous hazards. When that happens and firefighters respond with their bad habits and complacent attitudes, there is the potential for tragedy. Unfortunately, this has happened many times throughout the country, and it has even cost the lives of firefighters and civilians and resulted in delays that have destroyed a lot of property.
One such incident occurred in Memphis, Tennessee, at an 11-story apartment complex to which the Memphis Fire Department had responded 29 times in a six-month period prior to the incident for routine, nuisance alarms. Crews responded to investigate ringing alarms. They took the elevator to the floor from which the alarm was coming. As the elevator door opened, they were confronted with heavy smoke and heat. By the time the fire was brought under control, two firefighters and two civilians were dead. The results of a detailed investigation identified some disregarded safety and tactical SOPs as contributing factors in what went wrong. Department personnel suggested that complacency was the reason for this disregard because units had responded there so many times for nuisance calls.
Other similar incidents occur every day throughout the country—fortunately, not with such tragic results. It is likely that even your own department has been caught off guard at these types of incidents. When the real, nonroutine calls occur, we fail our mission in some way. Anytime we expose our firefighters to unnecessary risk or are not fully prepared and operating at peak proficiency, compromising public health and property, we are failing to fulfill our mission.
You can take some steps to help combat the dangerous attitude of complacency. The strongest weapon against complacency is good leadership.
Chief officers who establish policies and set response assignments must understand that complacency can occur and must develop and enforce policies that will keep firefighters alert, prepared, and safe. Establishing and effectively communicating a vision for preparedness and professionalism will help prevent complacency. Members who understand their mission, believe in their vision, and practice the department’s core values are less likely to slip into the negative complacent attitude.
Department leaders can also send a message to those who maliciously cause false alarms by pursuing all legal channels against them.
Public education programs can be established to make the public aware of the potential hazards when avoidable alarms are transmitted. Some communities have also enacted laws that fine owners of buildings where repeated false alarms are taking place. This provides some motivation for owners to invest in fixing faulty alarm systems.
Department leaders need to identify locations where avoidable alarms are occurring, assess the circumstances, and take a proactive approach to stopping these avoidable alarms. Department members should be kept informed on the steps being taken to reduce these preventable alarms.
Training officers must continually stress the importance of safe procedures and train using realistic scenarios so firefighters will perform at training the way they should perform at actual incidents.
Company officers must set a good example for their crews. They should take the extra steps to check buildings thoroughly when alarms occur. They should never take shortcuts and compromise safety. They need to stay focused and insist that their crews follow SOPs completely.
Company officers should talk to their crews after every alarm. Use each incident as a learning experience. Nuisance calls can be a chance to share your knowledge and experience, and they are a great time to preplan, point out potential hazards, and talk about possible tactics to use at those locations. Ask the question, What if this were the real thing? This kind of interaction will help keep firefighters mentally focused and more prepared for dangerous incidents.
Firefighters can also show leadership qualities by taking these routine calls seriously. They can send a message to others by coming off the apparatus fully geared up with appropriate tools, mentally focused, and carrying out the SOPs for their assignment. We all need to have the discipline to accomplish our mission in the safest and most professional way possible. Read as many post-incident reviews as you can. Pay particular attention to the lessons learned portion of the reviews so you don’t end up making the same mistakes.
Nuisance calls happen in every district. We know that we can handle most of them quickly and without incident. We know that we won’t need all of our resources on every call, and we know that we can make some pretty accurate predictions about what a call will turn out to be. We know that repeated nuisance calls can lead to complacency and bad habits that can be dangerous.
We don’t know when that small routine call will become the “big one.” We don’t know when the bad habits and complacency will catch us off guard. We don’t know when things will go wrong, when a building and its contents will sustain heavy damage, or when a firefighter or civilian will get hurt or killed.
Because there is the potential for a serious problem to occur at any call is not to suggest we should throw caution to the wind and not be prudent in our decision making. It is not to suggest that we send a full alarm response to every incident with lights and sirens. What is being suggested is that we stay aware that complacency can exist. We need to recognize if it does exist and take measures to correct it or, better yet, prevent it. Complacency is an attitude—one that can have some very tragic consequences. Unlike many of the things we encounter in the fire service, our attitude is something we can control.
The next time you hear the alert tones and your ears perk up to see what type of incident you are being sent to, remember that you can decide what type of attitude you will have as your apparatus rolls out the door of the fire station.
John T. Carlin, a 22-year veteran of the fire service, is safety officer for the Big Tree (NY) Volunteer Fire Company. He is a past chief of the Blas-dell (NY) Fire Department and served nine years as the Town of Hamburg (NY) fire coordinator.