By Billy Goldfeder
It seems that ever since Chief Alan Brunacini from the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department started reminding us that the impression we give the public may just possibly be a contributing factor in our ability to get the public’s support, many fire departments seem to go out of their way to “do the right thing,” be it helping Mrs. Smith, Mr. Jones, or whoever. That’s generally a good thing. On the other hand, sometimes we just don’t think.
“NTS,” or “Non-Thinking Syndrome,” affects ALL of us. Just read some of the articles I have written (“Oh, you mean you should do a spell check and reread a document BEFORE you hit the SEND button?”) Then there was the time I had a fire in a large mansion-style home and called for dozens of tankers–only to find a significant and easily accessible source of water on the property. And then there was the time that I didn’t do a walk-around, and the list goes on and on. Yes, we all suffer from NTS from time to time.
There are times when it’s no big deal, but then there are times where our lackadaisical, poorly focused, careless, “Don’t worry, we’re FIREFIGHTERS,” irresponsible attitudes kick in. Then, there is a mess to deal with.
All of you can provide numerous examples of some of the more serious NTS situations that have occurred; some are even caught on video. Remember years ago the fire department that had hundreds of citizens (and kids) at their open house, the department lit a small shed on fire, and the firefighters responded to show the public the job they do? The shed burned more heavily, the firefighters–on their knees–walked right into the flames, and they caught on fire? Yeah, firefighters on fire. Just the thing for a three-year-old to witness.
Recently a fire department with a good reputation sadly ended up airlifting “one of our own” after a bonfire that was lit by the firefighters burned a few of them–with hundreds of witnesses. I guarantee you that the department has safety policies and regular training and requires members to wear full gear when responding and on a scene. But I’ll bet that the NTS kicked in at this “nonemergency” scenario, giving members a false sense of laid-back calm. No sirens, no urgency; hey, we’re safe-we’re setting the fire!
So what do you do about NTS? I think that NTS is unavoidable when strict policies and procedures aren’t followed (or don’t exist); when proper supervision isn’t provided; when strict and daily discipline is lacking; when serious, applicable, disciplined, and regular required training is lacking; when we don’t have qualified people involved; when command and control aren’t applied; and when only one “head” does the thinking without fostering appropriate input. NTS is related to Murphy and his law. A constant state of expecting the unexpected–whether on an emergency scene or not–is the only way to minimize the hazards.
With a regular “dose” of organizational discipline, written and easy-to-understand policies, constant and applicable training, qualified supervision, and command and control–at all times-during emergency or routine details, you can minimize NTS.
NTS is the enemy of risk managers, which is what we’re supposed to be!
Chief Billy Goldfeder is a battalion chief for the Loveland-Symmes (OH) Fire Department. Previously, he served as a chief in Ohio, Virginia, and Florida; an engineering/public protection representative covering southern New York for the ISO; and a lieutenant with the Manhasset-Lakeville (NY) Fire Department. A 1993 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program, he is the former chairman of the International Association of Fire Chiefs Volunteer Section. He recently was made an honorary battalion chief of the Fire Department of New York.