By Bobby Halton
I received a phone call last night from a reporter friend who was covering a firefighting story in his city. We exchanged a few pleasantries, and then he got to his point: He explained what had happened and the story he was covering. The story concerned a firefighter who was injured. To the best of his ability, he gave details of what he saw and then asked, “Should firefighters …?” I get a lot of these calls.
I usually find myself talking around what I really think and want to say for several reasons. First, most reporters have no idea of what it takes to get the job done on the fireground. This makes what they tell you somewhat suspect. What appears straightforward to a civilian can really be very complicated. Often, it is sweeps week or ratings are low, and reporters may want dirt, stones, something to make a headline. Most importantly, I usually don’t have all the facts yet, and what they saw and often what they think they saw can be two entirely different things.
To keep things in perspective, I give them the “company line.” The lovely Mrs. Halton says that I “lie” to them. I disagree. I call it putting a good face on a bad situation. I try to ask questions that might explain why the crew did this or that. I look for reasons that would have made me take a similar course of action.
After these calls, I routinely make one or two phone calls. All begin the same way: “Do you have a minute? I just heard this. I need to talk to you about why we seem to be doing this or that over and over again.”
I know you all do the same thing: We firefighters call each other. We are comfortable sharing our most conflicted thoughts with one another. The people who study communication call it “insiders’ talk.” Insiders understand the bigger issues and systems, so a conversation with a fellow firefighter is safe talk.
When we look carefully at reports involving firefighter injuries or fatalities, we see patterns and similarities in the chain of events leading up to the tragedy. We call this “evaluated experience.” We take the time to analyze all of the circumstances; the experience does not have to be our own. Often when things go wrong, it is because someone did not recognize the pattern. That person may have never heard of Cherry Road, 750 Adams, The Family Dollar, Southwest Super Market, Waldbaums, or Hackensack Ford, and so he failed to see what may be a very similar set of events.
Many times we explain things away by saying that very little of what happens at a response is exactly like events that occurred at someone else’s response. Every incident has some, if not many, separate unique pieces. Plenty of what happens is very similar to hundreds of events that have happened before. No situation is exactly the same, but many are similar enough so that we ought to see “it” coming.
Risk management experts tell us, “The only time we learn from the experience of others is when it resulted in tragedy.” This does not apply to firefighters: Although we should certainly learn lessons when a tragedy occurs, it cannot be the only time we learn. Learning from tragedy alone is unacceptable. We are better than that. Our service, what we do, is so critically important to our customers and to each other. We can, we should, and we do learn excellent lessons from one another’s experiences. And no one has to get hurt.
The ability to notice changes in a building or the smoke conditions can alert a good firefighter to change tactics. The ability to read smoke, heat, buildings, roofs, and people all are part of learning from others’ experiences. Everyone has read dozens of stories about firefighters getting ill after a hard firefight and ignoring the possible worst-case scenario. I have a friend who “stopped reading those heart attack reports.” I disagree. Please read them all. Sometimes the gal involved is only 30 or the guy is a marathon runner. It will resound with someone; it will save someone-maybe you.
The senior firefighters pay attention to it all-time, seasons, weather, politics, crewmates, the phases of the moon, themselves. They know that the first hard freeze tells firefighters more than that it’s time to bring in the tomatoes. This attention to detail gives them an idea of the types of fires to expect-Fall Classics: chimney, heating system, windy day, exterior shed, and trash fires.
This business is all about paying attention to everything all the time. There is no small stuff in firefighting, no routine fires-they all are potentially deadly. The most difficult stories to accept are those related to training injuries or deaths. We should not hurt firefighters in training. My frustration and dismay are usually compounded exponentially when a firefighter is injured in training, especially in a live-fire scenario. The most reprehensible statement I ever heard came from a chief who said, “If they don’t get burned, I don’t want them in our department.” He said that after two probationary firefighters were burned in live-fire training. I am hoping this guy was off his medicine that day. I made five phone calls after hearing that one.
When someone gets hurt doing something that has hurt others before-and it happens over and over the same way-we have a problem. And no, it is not a cultural problem; it is a behavioral problem. We can change behavior. It’s messy, sometimes unpleasant work, but it’s doable. We must first recognize that we have a problem. Then we have to begin to consciously work to correct that problem.
The fires in the town next to you, the fires in the town across the country, all have lessons you can learn and apply in your town. To apply some of these lessons, you may need to slow down some of your actions or assemble more resources, but if you spend enough time looking at the issue, you will find a way to use the information. Reviewing or evaluating fires or responses others experienced does not mean criticizing-it means evaluating and learning.
We need to pay attention to the lessons that have come before us, some at a terrible price. We need to learn from the close calls and near-misses; they are just as important. We have excellent resources with which to construct meaningful and challenging training, training where no one gets hurt physically or mentally. We need to learn from all our evaluated experiences so we can avoid future tragedies. We need to pay attention to all the stuff.