(September 2011)

Brown M&M’s

I look forward to reading each issue of Fire Engineering. Thanks to Editor in Chief Bobby Halton for “Brown M&M’s” (Editor’s Opinion, July 2011). The editorial is wellwritten, and I will be happy to share the magazine with my coworkers.

Brian Stoothoff
Battalion Chief/ Public Information Officer
Ocala (FL) Fire Rescue

IC’s perspective of risk vs. gain

This letter is in reference to Captain Stephen Marsar’s “Survivability Profiling: Applying What We’ve Learned” (July 2011). [Editor’s note: Previous segments appeared in the December 2009 and July 2010 issues.] First, I would like to thank the author for another excellent article. I do not think we can remind firefighters often enough that they must always consider the risk vs. the gain. I do think we have to be careful about being too ruledriven when making fireground decisions.

The July article provides the following examples cited from the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department “Safety and Risk Management” standard operating procedure:

1 “A fire in a rear bedroom of a house, with smoke throughout [the house], may allow a survivable environment if a search and rescue effort is initiated quickly. We may extend a limited risk, in a calculated manner, in these conditions.”
2 “A significant fire in a residence with dense smoke under pressure to floor level throughout the building likely means victims could not survive. A very cautious, initial fire control followed by a calculated rescue operation would be warranted.”
Note: This seems to ignore the possibility that victims might have protected themselves by closing their bedroom door. Keep your child’s bedroom door closed. If a hallway fire occurs, a closed door may hinder the smoke from overpowering your baby or toddler, giving firefighters extra time for rescue (http://www.usfa.dhs.gov/campaigns/usfaparents/escape/).
3 A wellinvolved structure would likely represent a zero survivability profile.
4 Similar conditions in an abandoned building would indicate little survivability and little property to be saved. Members should avoid an offensive fire attack.

Victims buried by a trench collapse or under water for 10 minutes or more would be unlikely to survive. Therefore, an extremely cautious and wellplanned, safe recovery operation is required.

Some of the photos in the article depict a fire that had extended into every floor. On the second floor, it had traveled through all of the rooms in the front of the apartments. All floors were heavily charged with smoke. There were water supply problems, and the volume of fire and closeness of adjacent structures made rescue over ladders problematic. Several occupants had already jumped out of second and thirdfloor windows. Experienced firefighters later told me that they assumed anyone left inside would probably die. (This would appear to fall under category 2 or possibly category 3 from the list above.) Nevertheless, five occupants were rescued by three firefighters. All were close to death and needed immediate emergency medical care; several needed to spend time in a hyperbaric chamber.

Since all of the rescues were made without the benefit of a charged line and all firefighters had to operate individually because of the number of occupants who had to be rescued, it is fair to assume that if any one of them had died, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health might have criticized the firefighters for not following the “rules.” What the firefighters did instead was use their experience and intuition, as well as their trust in knowing that their fellow firefighters would be right behind them with additional resources. They also gave the victims the “benefit of the doubt.” As a consequence, five people are alive today. Perhaps firefighters with less experience or firefighters working in a department without the resources of the Boston Fire Department would have reached a different “risk vs. gain” conclusion. But, that is the point: Every fire department is different, and every fire is different.

This fire was the only fire in the history of the Boston Fire Department where the top three medals for bravery were given out for one fire. In addition, the rescues were described in the firefighters’ citation as rescues that were performed under “extreme risk.” Despite this, as the incident commander that night, based on my interviews with the firefighters on scene, I would still characterize their decisions as calculated and deliberate. They understood the situation and estimated their ability to find the victims and get them to safety. There is no doubt in my mind that they understood the risks; they just felt that the risk was worth the gain.

Joseph Fleming
Deputy Chief
Boston (MA) Fire Department

Time to rethink volunteerism

At last count, 14 millionplus Americans were out of work, many of them volunteer EMTs and firefighters. As states, counties, and municipalities continue slashing budgets and paid EMT and firefighter jobs, more of the public safety burden falls on volunteers.

Many understaffed paid departments now rely on volunteer mutual aid, and some city administrations have even tried replacing paid personnel with fulltime volunteers.

Towns unable to pay overtime or hire additional police and Department of Public Works workers often call out volunteers for nonemergency responses such as digging out fire hydrants in snowstorms, clearing fallen trees in wind storms, and handling traffic details at other incidents, to name a few.

It is time to rethink the boundaries and limits of volunteerism. Although no one can question the noble intent of such volunteers or what they mean to their communities, one must question if our elected officials are not misusing these free services in their efforts at plugging spending gaps and keeping taxes down and what can and should be done to better compensate volunteers for their unselfishness.

Most volunteers receive only a small yearly allowance and retirement package based on the number of calls they make and drills they attend. In many communities, they don’t even get this.

These modest payouts hardly make up for their sacrifices. If you factor in those unemployed but still volunteering, you get an even bigger picture of how much of a contribution they make.

The nationwide volunteer force is literally saving the country billions in taxes, wages, and health care benefits, often while struggling financially to support themselves. More must be done to assist these volunteers. Some suggestions include tax breaks on mortgages and leases, discounts on car licenses and registrations, and perhaps a yearly tax rebate from the state or local municipality.

A wider view would include unemployed volunteers being paid unemployment benefits in exchange for continued service until they find fulltime employment again. This would also help to boost the dwindling volunteer roles.

These initiatives would require spending and possible tax increases at all levels of government, but our elected officials should consider how much these volunteers save our communities in tax dollars and essential services.

Unlike paid EMTs and firefighters, volunteers have no union representation and thus have little voice in political matters. But, like their paid brethren, they continue to serve despite budget cutbacks and little in the way of financial appreciation.

It’s time we looked harder at how our elected officials use free volunteer services and ask that they give back more in the way of better financial incentives and compensation, especially during difficult economic times.

Edward Farentino
Mahwah, New Jersey

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