More Safety Size-Up

BY ALAN BRUNACINI

Last month we described the safety vs. the hazards model that you can use to help manage hazard zone risks. We discussed how critical an adequate number of trained, fit, capable firefighters is to safe and effective fireground operations. Our personnel resources are the first item on the safety system side because that capability provides the operational ability for us to create the rescue and firefighting force that overpowers the force of the fire.

The welfare and survival of those same workers also create the need to understand, evaluate, and connect the relationship between the safety and the hazards parts of the tactical operations system. Please recall the “dumbbell”-shaped teeter-totter model that graphically has safety on one end and incident hazards on the other.

The model is designed to create both a conceptual and an operational framework to size up and manage the hazard zone risks that are present. The model creates the capability to compare those hazards in relation to our basic safety system as we perform the standard rescue/fire control/property conservation operational tactical priorities. This simple comparative approach (i.e., connecting hazards with safety) becomes the very practical basis of fireground risk management.

Maintaining a continual situational awareness of the status of that safety/hazard relationship is a major strategic level function of the incident commander (IC). The IC does the command level safety job by always controlling the offensive/defensive position and function of the firefighters working in the hazard zone. In fact, the ability of the IC to control where firefighters are (position) and what they are doing (function) really defines if the IC is in control or out of control—this is really simple and really important. The inside-outside (the hazard zone) decision is based on the relative “weight” of the hazard/safety ends of the model—the heaviest end wins.

Along with providing an adequate workforce to effectively perform the basic tactical priorities, the firefighters are protected with an overall safety system with its own set of local operational elements. That safety system includes (in addition to an adequate number of capable firefighters) the physical equipment we use (hardware), safety procedures [standard operating procedures (SOPs)], personal protective equipment (PPE), and incident command system (ICS). Let’s take a look at the other four parts of the safety system.

We are using the term “hardware” to describe broadly the tools, equipment, and apparatus we use to do the “mechanical” part of the work we perform (hardware simply sounds more refined than “stuff”). Virtually every part of what we do operationally involves and requires some sort of tool. Those tools range in size from a full-size ladder truck to a pair of pliers and in sophistication from a sledgehammer to a piece of computerized biomedical equipment. We are taught from birth as firefighters to never get off the truck without a tool in our hand.

We use our tools like all tools, to create some physical response. We apply these tool-induced responses to create a force that controls conditions. Every tool we use has its own set of capabilities and limitations, and the user and the boss of that user must evaluate and compare how those capabilities/limitations stack up against the conditions that tool is being used to change, control, or eliminate.

It is a little odd to see hardware listed as an item in a safety system. Where we fight fires typically has a variety of construction, arrangement, and contents features that create physical barriers and obstacles to our operations. In these cases and places, we are effective (and safer) to the extent that we can manipulate those obstructions so that we can search the affected areas and directly engage the fire. Manipulation physically involves using tools, equipment, and apparatus to force, open, move, push/pull, break, pry, remove, cut/saw, smash, shove, hit, bash (wow!). These actions are used to “make the building behave” (Tom Brennan quote).

Our safety is directly connected to our effectiveness—when we are effective, the incident problems are getting smaller, and we are getting safer. When our operational effectiveness is going down, the risk to our troops is going up. A major tool we use to make the toxic and thermal problem go away is water and all the hardware involved in its application. I guess we could call everything (hose, appliances, nozzles) we use to make stuff wet “hydraulic hardware.”

How the water meets the fire becomes the business end of firefighting. How we use our monster forcible entry/exit tools to clear the way to that fire-water meeting, and then how we apply water, is directly related to an unforgiving (and standard) outcome where either we kill the fire or get away from the fire, or the fire kills us. That is the reason we include hardware as a major item in the safety box.

Safety SOPs are another critical category in the safety system. These procedures must be designed to match the local characteristics of the department where they are applied. They create the operational game plan for how we are going to integrate safety practices into our standard operational practices. Those safety procedures describe in detail the physical hometown “plays” we use to do all the operational parts of performing these tactical priorities. They become the procedural safety program front end of our standard SOP/Train/Apply/Critique/Revise model (very well discussed in previous columns).

Please read and reread the following sentence: Operational safety is the most critical activity that must be managed within all the SOPs.

Responsible fire service bosses must ensure that standard safety practices are written in basic, clear, understandable, doable department procedures. Those safety SOPs must be enforced as rules, not guidelines—simply, if it says to stop if the light is red, it means STOP every time; if the SOP says do not breathe smoke, it means ALWAYS WEAR YOUR SCBA wherever/whenever smoke is present. Those procedures must be well known, and department members must become functionally and consistently effective in the contents of those SOPs through well-presented training.

Those local SOPs must be used to structure and direct fireground activities and operations in which the members engage (show time). After those operations, bosses must conduct a standard critique (every time) that evaluates how well the workers and the SOPs worked. Good safety SOP compliance should be commended; safety problems must be carefully coached. Based on that critique, necessary revisions must continually be made and then processed back through the model to be certain that all five parts of the model are current and effective.

The basic safety challenge in most fire departments is not that there are not enough SOPs. The problem is that the SOPs that are in place are not being effectively managed (read: “enforced”). It’s pretty easy to write an SOP, have a big pep rally, make up some snappy slogan bumper stickers, and have the fire chief breathlessly proclaim that he has “zero tolerance”(?) for ___ unsafe act (pick one, plug it in).

It is a critical organizational responsibility for bosses on every level to physically be present so they can inspect and supervise every operational activity to be certain that we do what we say we are going to do in the SOP. When this supervision occurs, wherever you look, there are effective bosses who are awake, aware, and directly involved in the safety and welfare of everyone in the system. Such engaged bosses identify and address problems while they are in early “misdemeanor” level stages before they become serious (“felony” level), which are sometimes sadly fatal.

Bosses on every level should be very aware that when a bad/sad thing happens and the color-coordinated attorneys come to town, they get the boss man/woman sworn in and ask two basic questions: “What is your SOP?” and “Did you follow it?” The department is in trouble if the answer to question #2 does not match the response to question #1.

The fourth item in the safety box is PPE. This gear involves the clothing/equipment we use to “dress” the firefighters for their trip into and (hopefully) out of the hazard zone. The standard survival-suit inventory includes coat, pants, helmet, boots, hood, gloves, SCBA, and personal alarm device. The PPE ensemble is designed to be an integrated system that all together provides thermal and toxic protection.

The protective gear we now wear is a product of space age technology. It is getting lighter, better, more comfortable, and affords better and better protection. This stuff is the product of a never-ending string of ongoing research and development. The John-Jane Firefighter we put inside all this breathtakingly modern equipment is the product of a basic human design spec that was originally developed one and a half gazillion eons ago, and pretty much has stayed the same since.

The problem with the traditional human blueprint vs. the current PPE profile is that the human design team never understood that Ben Franklin would organize us into teams of thrill seekers who would use our traditional body design (and limitations) to routinely run (!) into burning buildings—a completely unnatural human act. Our skin is not at all fire resistive, our bodies can tolerate only a very limited amount of heat, our organs cannot endure the collapse of even very lightweight stuff, and our respiratory system cannot survive even a very few breaths of the current products of combustion.

The ability/limitation to effectively operate within the hazard zone is mostly regulated by the actual anatomy- and physiology-based endurance capability of the firefighter. Simply, the gear we are now wearing can withstand a lot more physical abuse than the body it is protecting. The IC must understand and use the personal physical capabilities/limitations of the firefighters inside the PPE to define the safety of the hazard zone operating position—doing this requires a practical and challenging combination of science, experience, and intuition.

Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINIis a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site bshifter.com.

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