By Tom Brennan
It was a sunny but cold winter day. One of the many alarms for the Fire Department of New York fire brought a full assignment through the snow-banked streets of Brooklyn to a Queen Anne (balloon-frame construction, Victorian) private dwelling in which a fire was roaring to extension from the basement origin at the rear of the structure. Interior search teams from the first-arriving truck were unable to find the noisy and smoky but hidden fire as handlines moved into the basement and the first floor. The second truck arrived; its search team took over aggressive interior search of the second floor and attic area as well as other assignments traditionally and specifically belonging to that unit’s assignment.
Fire, now in the walls, broke out in three unrelated locations: in the stair enclosure wall, the first floor rear, and the attic enclosure. Firefighters, momentarily surprised, gathered their wits and moved to the outside to reconnoiter. We then realized through witnesses and notification that four members were trapped on the second floor (20 feet above the ground).
Portable ladders were grabbed and placed to the side and rear locations of the trapped firefighters, and an aggressive attempt was made to clear the stairs of fire for additional exits. In a few seconds, all was well.
During that time, an officer of one of the trucks stood on the front lawn and loudly and persistently demanded a roll call of his members be held in his location. This officer was one of the most respected and experienced truck officers in the area.
Firefighters responding to a commercial fire in the Northeast find fire in a truss assembly in a 15-foot ceiling in a one-story building. Members operating inside and below the cockloft have no idea just how large the fire area is. The roof team, however, knows for sure as the fire extends through the sheathing to the outer air.
The truss assemblies fail, as they do, in almost classic truss-collapse fashion, taking additional truss assemblies with them and trapping five firefighters in two locations.
Activity around the building is hectic to say the least. A photo would show firefighters standing around the perimeter of the structure with stunned looks, some holding useless 16-foot hooks in their hands. The camera would also capture the interior of the structure as can be seen through 12-foot-high loading doors.
Activity ceases momentarily even though it is a one-story building that has come down. What else can come down?
Fire in the cellar of a large supermarket in a heavily populated urban area brings more and more firefighters. Units opening the cellar ceiling are relieved by an engine and a truck and continue operations. The fire-weakened floor under the refrigeration space on the selling floor fails, and tons of “stuff” fall into the basement, trapping more than a dozen firefighters.
The decision is made to mount an immediate defensive attack as outside large-caliber streams are put into place and water is started. An aggressive company officer requests permission to breach the exposed cellar wall and search for the trapped firefighters and is denied (momentarily at least). His team began the breach contrary to communications; miraculously, all of the trapped firefighters are accounted for before additional collapse.
These are tough stories for sure. But what is the common thread here? What one thing do we see in these stories that could have added to the loss involved—though again, only momentarily? DENIAL!
Denial is a crippling mental vise that captures your behavior for as many moments as you let it! Professionalism demands that you be able to recognize it and regain operational excellence as rapidly as possible.
In this job, we operate constantly in an uncontrolled environment, one that we try with as much order as possible to control—at least to the level in which we are expected to operate and be aggressively successful with some degree of fireground safety. This situation appears out of control, hectic, and extremely dangerous to the casual, nonmember onlooker but certainly not (in most cases) to the operating fire teams.
But what happens when the situation does momentarily go haywire and “out of control” and leap beyond our routine tactical operations and force us to grab hold of our mental and physical capabilities and put them into professional high gear to perform those tasks necessary to account for and to save the newly trapped (reported) firefighters, or ourselves, or to quickly regroup and gain control of the structure? Here is where denial momentarily takes over. I have seen it during my experience and was able to question my and others’ behavior in outcomes that did not escalate into further disaster—luckily.
But try to “see” it earlier in the event. Denial is like the “too much excitement” level of firefighting personnel at structure fires. The idea is to whittle down the level of excitement over time with experience and critique.
Denial is something that requires another training quality. You have to acknowledge that it WILL happen to you at some time—hopefully at the lower and earlier ranks in your career. You must familiarize yourself with its probability through discussion and observation. The more you acknowledge denial and the physiological transformation and “ham-stringing” it can do, the faster you can recognize it and deal with it as rapidly as possible.
Almost always in this column we deal with physical firefighting events in structure fires. I have been thinking long and hard about how to present this dilemma that has plagued my career as an intangible “trick” to be able to behave in a more professional manner. I hope you get my point.
TOM BRENNAN has more than 35 years of fire service experience. His career spans more than 20 years with the Fire Department of New York as well as four years as chief of the Waterbury (CT) Fire Department. He was the editor of Fire Engineering for eight years and currently is a technical editor. He is co-editor of The Fire Chief’s Handbook, Fifth Edition (Fire Engineering Books, 1995). He was the recipient of the 1998 Fire Engineering Lifetime Achievement Award. Brennan is featured in the video Brennan and Bruno Un-plugged (Fire Engineering/FDIC, 1999). He is a regular contributor to Firenuggets.com.