In appreciation of editors

I had to take a moment to compliment two of your editors. I submitted an article to PennWell, which was ultimately picked up by Fire Rescue and was published in the February 2017 issue. My experience working with editors Diane Rothschild and Kindra Sclar was nothing short of fantastic. They were always ready to answer my questions and truly treated me like I was an old friend. I can’t explain how welcome I felt.

As an FDIC HOT instructor, I know that PennWell is a class act, but Diane and Kindra took it up a notch. They are a tribute to you and Pennwell.

Brandon Dreiman

Indianapolis (IN) Fire Department

The most important life on the fireground

It seems that in every course or training session on fire tactics I have attended, it is stated with absolute certainty that the number one person on the fireground is the firefighter—that he/she is the most important life to save. I respectfully disagree.

Let’s look at a hypothetical scenario: You and your department/agency are toned out and respond to a structure fire. On the scene, you find a private residence with significant fire involvement. There is a car in the driveway, and a neighbor tells you that the occupant is thought to be inside the home. Your evaluation and judgment of the fire tell you that although it will be tough, the primary search should be doable. Do you and your partner put yourself in harm’s way and attempt to search for the missing resident?

Now, let’s assume the same scenario, only this time when you look up at the second floor, you are certain that you see, just for a moment, a face in the window in the room above the involved room. The fire isn’t controlled yet, and it is looking kind of dicey. Is that potential victim worth risking your safety by trying to get him out of danger?

I hope you see my point. If you truly believe that your own life and safety are of paramount importance, you will not enter that burning structure. And that, I firmly believe, would be a violation of the code of conduct to which we are expected to adhere and the tradition we must uphold, a tradition based on the heroic actions of firefighters in the past. Our whole reason for being is to put ourselves between danger and those lives we protect. Our tradition for as long as there have been firefighters as we know them is to take on the risks and danger so that others can be safe. Whether we take a formal oath of office or not, when we become firefighters, we are pledging that we will go where the danger is and be willing to get in harm’s way so that others can be spared. If we see our lives as more important than the victims’ lives, we will never put ourselves in harm’s way to protect “the less important life” of the fire victim. That is not what firefighters do!

Taking the argument one step further, when another firefighter is in imminent danger of death or serious injury, is not our first task to save the firefighter? Is that obligation, that unspoken but assumed commitment, enough of a contract to obligate us to put ourselves in harm’s way, even to the point of risking our lives, so that our fellow firefighter can be rescued? I sincerely hope that you would agree that there is that commitment, that our fellow firefighter’s life is more important than our safety.

By this point, there may be some who are shaking their heads and thinking that this is a macho trip, a holdover of days past, a foolish and dangerous game, a romantic fantasy from times past and old fables, and that it is no wonder that firefighters die at fires. To them, my response is this: “I cherish my life way too much to throw it away on macho games or romantic fantasy!” I have on the brim of my helmet a photograph of my dear and long-suffering wife to remind me every time I put that helmet on that there are those to whom I want to return at the end of every call. I will not squander my life or bring unnecessary pain and grief to those whom I love deeply, but I also want those who depend on me, be it victim or fellow firefighter, to know that I will risk all I have if there is any chance that I can save them so they can go home to their loved ones. I will not be foolish or reckless. I will do it deliberately and as safely as conditions allow, but I will take the risk nonetheless. There is no fantasy on the fireground. There is danger; there can be gut-wrenching fear, self-doubt, and pain and suffering—but there is no fantasy.

A corollary to that commitment is that I can go into a burning structure or other hazardous locations with the secure knowledge that I can expect the same commitment from other firefighters on the scene. If it is my life on the line, I know that others on my team will give their all to try and save me, just as I would for them. And this mutual support and commitment go a long way toward allowing us to do what we have to do, to save the victims of fire or other dangerous conditions. It is also an integral part of what makes our profession a special one.

Are our lives important? Of course, they are. Am I the most important life on the fireground? No, sir, not on my fireground. Others before self!

John Cranston, MD


Spring Lake (NY) Fire Department

First-person PTSD encounter

May 5, 2014, changed my life forever. I did not realize at the time what a profound effect that day would have on me.

We had just finished lunch, and a call came in for a structure fire. Three engines, two ladders, and one battalion chief were initially dispatched. Later, the heavy rescue and an additional battalion chief were also dispatched.

I was the captain of an engine company with four personnel assigned. Our company arrived to find a single-story residence with a basement; smoke was showing from the attic and eaves. We were assigned search. Our crew was carrying hand tools and a thermal imaging camera (TIC), making entry on division 1 above the fire, sounding the floor and scanning with the TIC as we went. Smoke was banked two feet off the floor.

While completing our search, we came across a company with an attack line on division 1 that advised that the fire was located on the same division. At this point, a ladder company reported fire was visible from the basement.

While exiting for reassignment, I came across the door to the basement. Since the attack line was on division 1, their quickest option was to descend the stairs to the basement. I advised fire attack to manage the door for me while I sounded the stairs for them prior to their descent. It was never my intention to descend into the basement, just to sound the stairs for fire attack since they were without hand tools. I took approximately three to four steps down and found the stairs intact. I turned around to exit and found the door closed.

I later learned that command had ordered an evacuation from the structure; I did not hear the transmission. When the search and fire attack crews exited the structure, they thought everyone was together. Once I found the door closed, I could hear crews on the other side of the door. The door was inward swinging to the steps and had no doorknob or way for me to open it. I didn’t call a Mayday at first because personnel were on the other side of the door, and I needed to immediately relay my message. Just needing assistance with opening the door, I immediately transmitted on the radio, “They had closed the door on me, and I need it opened.” This was after several failed attempts of trying to transmit with my radio and receiving a busy tone.

Three personnel from the initial crew reentered to locate me, and two companies entered through the basement. Twice I came back on the radio saying, “You have to hurry; I am burning up.” I contemplated breaching the wall; however, I knew from our search that I was between a bathroom and a kitchen, which would make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to breach. Also, I had a four-foot hook in a three-foot stairway. I began beating with everything I had using my hook against the door to make noise for the search crew.

Visibility was zero, and my TIC was “whiting out” because of the high heat conditions. The air in my cylinder had become heat saturated. This made it hot to breathe; I felt as if I were being stung by a million yellow jackets. The ceiling overhead stayed intact the entire duration, making my position like a chimney with a cap over it. I knew my only other option was to go downstairs into the basement, which I didn’t want to do. I couldn’t take much more of the heat.

At this moment, I could hear the rescue crew coming down the hallway. The door swung open, and two hands grabbed me. We immediately began heading out under extreme heat conditions. I cannot explain the feeling of relief and pure adrenaline I was experiencing when I was safely outside and able to breathe in fresh air.

After being checked out by emergency medical services and rehab, I returned to my crew for overhaul. After completing overhaul, I found blisters on my wrists, with more forming. I declined transport to the hospital but reported to a medical facility for evaluation. I was found to have second-degree burns on both wrists and forearms. I also had first-degree burns on my upper torso.

After returning to work, it seemed as if everything were normal. Prior to this event, I had no knowledge of or education dealing with mental health and my personal care or the signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I had been in the service for more than 16 years.

I began having trouble sleeping; I was reexperiencing the fire and nightmares. I felt detached from everyone but my children. I was depressed and very emotional. I had all the beginning signs of post-traumatic stress and did not realize it.

On the night of May 27, 2014, I self-medicated with alcohol to suppress my feelings. I did not want to be alone and missed my children, so I headed to a friend’s house. Because of this poor emotional and alcohol-influenced decision, I was pulled over and charged with driving under the influence. I wasn’t thinking clearly and self-medicated to cope. I realized I needed some help and made an employee assistance program (EAP) appointment for PTSD assistance. The shortcoming of many EAP resources is that they are not experienced in dealing with emergency responders. Our makeup and reaction are different from those of the general public. This was the case with my encounter; it wasn’t the doctor’s fault; he just did not have experience with firefighters.

Subsequently following this attempt to get assistance, I made an appointment with a local outpatient treatment center for counseling. I was placed in a 40-hour intensive outpatient program, receiving treatment and coping skills.

Following this counseling, I began taking classes on critical incident training, suicide prevention, and substance abuse prevention to better assist myself and emergency services. While attending these courses, I found that I needed more assistance with my PTSD to ensure I had all the needed tools. I located On-Site Academy in Westminster, Massachusetts, an in-patient treatment facility solely for emergency responders and military personnel suffering from various forms of critical incident stress or substance abuse. I stayed at the facility for nine days, attending sessions on anger management, group discussions, Alcoholics Anonymous, group cooking, massages, debriefings, one-on-one counseling, and Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing.

The stigma surrounding our mental well-being in the fire service must change, and we must address the issue of first responders using alcohol as a coping tool. We spend hours training to be skilled and physically prepared for an emergency. We must do the same for mental preparation.

I am sharing my story so we can at least make a dent in this stigma and to show that it is okay to say you’re not okay! We must be able to recognize the warning signs of substance abuse, critical incident stress, and the risks for suicide in ourselves and our coworkers. Together we can make a difference.

Perry Hall

Assistant Chief

North Carolina



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