MISTAKES?

BY TOM BRENNAN

Since I am always searching for new titles and direction and ideas for this column, I am always all ears around our constituency. “Write about our biggest mistakes, Tom,” was the call the other day. Hmmm. So I began to reshape the comment.

First, any of you who know me or worked with me or for me KNOW that there are no mistakes performed by aggressive interior firefighters attacking a structure fire. None! There are only lessons to be discussed during the critique—if it could be done better, if it created a slightly more negative outcome, if it slowed the mission, or if the tactic was improper for that particular incident. Then, it is a lesson for the performer and a reinforced piece of information for the rest of the team.

But, if you do the same dumb thing a second time, it is a mistake. Some of those impacts (negative) we want to discuss are related to the company, the individual, the department, or perception.

Assigning tasks. One is failure to assign task-related objectives before the alarm. This practice—whether in a volunteer or a paid department—should be part of a system that has become traditional in the daily operation of the department (or the company if no one else gives a damn). All individual responders must digest so much information in so little time—from the alarm to arrival to action—that it helps enormously if the firefighter can begin selective recall and size-up that affect his expected assignment. What would a firefighter assigned the nozzle be worried about: How many lengths to drop to the water source or keying a hydrant or getting involved with the relay of the first-arriving pumper? What would a firefighter assigned vertical ventilation do differently if the fire appears on the top floor (under the roof) or on any other floor below that top floor?

In the volunteer sector, take the time to design a system that assigns each member riding the vehicle to a responsibility dependent on the variables in your district related to type of fire, location, and position of arrival.

In the paid sector, it is easier. Have a roll call at the start of the shift all the time.

I realize that there are regional areas of response that assign one tactic to the entire response unit, but that is not the usual; I am sure you will find a roll call valuable for many reasons.

Reports. Another error on the fireground is the communication opportunity missed when units give initial reports that have no meaning or at least are severely lacking in information. Correcting this can be accomplished only by routinely using commonly accepted terms and practice! Of what importance is the transmission, “We have heavy smoke and fire, and we’re stretchin’ in?” Better would be: “We have a working fire in an occupied two-story private dwelling. Fire appears to be on the second floor.” Best would be: “We have a medium fire condition on the third floor of a five-story multiple dwelling of (brick-and-joist, wood-frame, or fire-resistive construction) ….” Everyone sees what you see, and all minds arriving clear to a narrower planning channel.

Inside and outside command. There is a belief that at routine structure fires, an outside supervisor is as effective as an inside commander. A great arriving company officer should see all the impact factors from the time the structure comes into view to the time he gets to the selected opening. An accurate and informative report on arrival, combined with standard operating procedures that account for two handlines and water supply as well as at least three truck functions expected to be accomplished based on size-up, should be sufficient; additional information and set-up should be gained from inside.

The most variable and valuable tactical unit on initial arrival is the truck company. Unfortunately as staffing levels dwindle, that officer has fewer and fewer tactical choices because all of them cannot be done. He has to change and shift based on incident priorities of life, then fire, then environment, and then property. He needs to be inside to measure effectiveness against the refined fire location and behavior if an interior attack is to be maintained.

Overestimating the emergency. Another tactical operation crippler is the tendency for the first-arriving supervisor to overestimate the emergency, the needs, and the condition. Once it starts, it gets worse exponentially! To correct this and to never make this mistake again, the rule to follow is simple but difficult: GET WATER ON THE THING; IT MAY GO OUT! I know this sounds humorous, but those of us who may (ahem) have been caught in the trap are sure to recognize the cure.

Get enough help. In coordination with this first few minutes and lessons vs. mistakes, there is one universal problem we have that I think I see as a trend on today’s fireground—that is the failure to call enough help on arrival. If your picture shows the need for three or four hoselines, ensure that five or six engines respond. If support tactics (truck work) indicate heavy entry, ventilation, alternate entry, and removal problems, as well as extension to exposures, get the three or four trucks on the road. Don’t leave this to the imagination of the dispatch system or to the ascending and responding chief officer who wants to “see it first.” You see it. You call it. They all want to come anyway, and they can always go back. Besides, it is easier to cut a RIT or FAST operation out of additional response units than to call one to the scene during and after the fact.

Wow, once started, lots of these practices come to mind! More next time.

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.

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