Recently, a 19-year-old volunteer firefighter from upstate New York died while engaged in an interior structural firefighting operation. The subsequent investigation attributed his death, in part, to a lack of familiarization with his self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). Apparently, the SCBA he grabbed from a neighboring department’s rig was one with which he had never trained.
“Practice Makes Perfect!”
This saying is true in almost every aspect of life. In sports—assuming you have the basic talent needed to participate—you will get better when you practice. Baseball, football, basketball, and hockey players begin practicing their chosen sport when they are kids, and they will continue to practice throughout high school and college. The good ones may be lucky enough to be drafted by a professional team, where they will continue to practice, in many cases, every day. Tiger Woods started playing golf when he was two years old and, until he was injured, played golf every day. The Williams sisters also played tennis every day. It is interesting to note that many Major League Baseball players today come from countries where the climate is warm enough so they can play and practice the game all year long, giving them a leg up on players who come from cold climates.
However, this concept is not exclusive to sports. As a young man, chess champion Bobby Fisher played hours upon hours of chess. Bill Gates sat at a computer creating programs when he was in high school. Practice, practice, practice!
Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers cites numerous examples—including Gates—of successful people who, in addition to being afforded the opportunity to practice their skills, truly put in the time to become incredibly proficient. Gladwell’s famous figure of “10,000 hours” of practice is now seen as the benchmark for achieving proficiency.
The airline industry recently recognized that pilots who routinely fly the latest generation of “fly-by-wire” computer-assisted airliners may be losing their flying skills because they do not practice physically flying the aircraft the way they used to. So, what does this have to do with firefighters?
Not Enough Fire Service Practice
Because of the huge reduction in structural fires over the past 20 years, firefighters (with a few notable exceptions in cities like Detroit) are not able to practice their skills as often as they did in the past. Although total runs continue to go up [mostly because of emergency medical services (EMS) and automatic fire alarms], the number of structure fires continues to go down. Some reasons for the reduction in fires include better fire safety education, improved building construction practices (except for unprotected lightweight wood truss construction), increased code enforcement, an increase in the installation of sprinkler systems and smoke detectors, and a significant reduction in cigarette smoking.
During the “war years” of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Fire Department of New York’s Engine Company 82 and Ladder Company 31 were two of the busiest companies in the city. Inner-city companies in Los Angeles, Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, Boston, and New York were going to multiple “working” structure fires every night. This is no longer the case. For instance, “La Casa Grande” in the South Bronx, New York, is now often referred to as “The Little House on the Prairie.”
With the reduction in structure fires, today’s firefighters do not get to practice their skills as their predecessors did. However, they are more skilled in EMS than before. Many fire departments now identify themselves as “fire/rescue departments”; it is not unusual to see a “paramedic engine” respond first due with trained “fire/medics” onboard. And, the traditional six-person engine company is nearly a thing of the past.
As the hands-on structural firefighting experience decreases and the skills associated with structural firefighting diminish, the alternative—training—takes on more importance. Most, if not all, career departments do some form of training on every shift.
Let’s assume that career firefighters are on duty 40 hours a week. Obviously, not all of that time is spent fighting fires and training. Most career firefighters are permitted to sleep during some part of their shift. At a rate of 40 hours a week, a career firefighter would amass Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of “duty time” in about five years. Over that time, there will be many opportunities to practice the job skills necessary to become proficient. However, this is often quite different with the volunteer service.
New volunteers usually are required to take some form of basic training before they are “certified” to become interior structural firefighters. Following this training, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires annual refresher training that, because of a lack of aggressive enforcement by the OSHA, is often disregarded by many volunteer departments. Unless there is a firefighter fatality or a serious injury, OSHA requirements are practically invisible.
What Is “Training”?
Many volunteer departments hold monthly “training nights.” The actual hands-on training for structural firefighters that takes place is questionable. Sometimes, these nights are no more than “rig check” nights. If the rig starts, the lights and radio work, and all the equipment is in the assigned compartments, the department fills out a form, and the night is considered a success.
However, it may be better to require all structural firefighters to attend and demonstrate competence in the use of the SCBA, including emergency procedures. Assuming each training session lasts one hour, it would take more than 800 years (!) to accumulate the 10,000 hours needed to achieve the proficiency level suggested by Gladwell.
Let’s be more realistic: How many hours can a volunteer fire department expect from its members? We all know the demands made on our people’s time, which includes family, school, a second job, and so on. Each individual will be different; to put hourly requirements on a volunteer may drive him away from the job. Rather, make sure that every hour a volunteer donates becomes an opportunity to practice life safety skills. Do not waste his time with useless things. At a minimum, an interior firefighter should demonstrate proficiency in the use of SCBA while wearing full personal protective equipment (PPE) at least once a week (or more, if possible). SCBA and PPE are life-saving items for interior firefighters, so practice until you can demonstrate the skills quickly and properly every time. Then, continue practicing for as long as the individual is doing interior firefighting.
Our people are our most valuable resource. As a fire service, we are obligated to provide members with the best equipment available, training that results in demonstrable proficiency, and a welcoming organization of like-minded people to which they want to belong. Will our volunteer firefighters ever attain the 10,000 hours mark? Probably not. But make every hour of their time count.
RICHARD W. NAGLE is a 50-year member of the volunteer fire service and a deputy chief with the Croton-on-Hudson (NY) Volunteer Fire Department. He previously served as the director of the New York State Academy of Fire Science and was chief of the Ridgefield (CT) Fire Department for 11 years. He retired as a lieutenant with the Fire Department of New York.