By Kim Fitzsimmons
Anytime we want to know the “why,” we have to look for the causes and motives that took shape earlier. We have to go back to the complex and challenging issues the fire service has faced and overcome. In the past, the fire service was primarily reactive and not preventative. Consequently, there have been numerous fires over the years that have given us the “why” for some of our current strategies and tactics, life safety concerns, and even firefighter survival.
Identifying and comprehending these causes of change are paramount for continuous improvement within the fire service. We owe it to each other and the next generation of firefighters to study these tragedies and learn the lessons. Just as architects use a blueprint to communicate necessary details, the fire service has a blueprint with necessary lifesaving details, and learning how to read and follow that blueprint is essential.
A Firefighter’s Blueprint
Every design starts with a blueprint, whether it is a building, an electrical grid, or a parking lot. The people responsible for constructing the building, making sure that the electricity flows properly, or that the cars enter and exit the parking lot with ease rely on plans, or blueprints, that communicate the necessary details on exactly how the work is to be done.
This premise inspired me to look at historical fires in the same manner–that is to say, look at historical fires as part of the blueprint for guiding us in the present and the future and building ourselves up to do better and not to repeat the same mistakes over and over as we seem to do.
As you start to examine the blueprint, you will find tragic fires that have shaped today’s fire service–fires where our brothers and sisters learned lessons, both easy and hard, not only in tactics, but also in identifying critical hazards and developing ways of protection or mitigation. You’ll see how blood, sweat, tears, and last breaths have brought us to this point, and you’ll realize that we need this blueprint because working without it will cause us to continue to repeat the same mistakes–mistakes for which our brothers and sisters have already given their lives.
Firefighting is a skill that requires us to learn by training, but it also requires us to learn by the disciplines of reading and studying. We should know that this requirement is necessary because the consequence of incompetence is so final.
Reading the Fire Service Blueprint
Whether you’re a firefighter, a line officer, or a chief officer, knowing how to read our blueprint is critical. Just as there are some basic steps to learning how to read construction blueprints, there are a few basic steps in learning how to read our fire service blueprint. Through research, study, reading, and word of mouth, you will hear stories about significant fires of the past. When you do, it is your responsibility to take the time to examine the details and apply the lessons.
Read the title box. This is the beginning step. Read it thoroughly, paying attention to the details. The title box lists the name of the incident, the date it occurred, the location/site, and the fire department involved.
Overview. Similar to following a building construction blueprint, scan the entire incident for an overall impression and then start to drill down on the specifics.
Read the notes. To fully comprehend the incident and the outcome (death, collapse, bad tactics, for example), research and read multiple references on the incident and study each.
Establish the scale and adjust accordingly. We can look at an incident and say, “That can never happen here.” But, if we study the incident, establish the scale and the variables, and adjust accordingly, we will see that the blueprint is telling us that a similar incident, maybe on a smaller or even a larger scale, can happen to us.
Inspect the grid. Use the information from the title box and place the incident on the cultural grid. Keep in mind that culture includes time in history; urban or rural; and even north or south, or west coast vs. east coast. On a Firefighter’s Blueprint, the grid location of an incident gives us a reference point relative to the time and place.
Look over the lines. At first glance, all of the lines may seem overwhelming, but the lines are drawn with purpose, and each line is telling us something:
• Object lines represent what’s visible to the eye–the obvious of what happened.
• Hidden lines reveal what the complications were, where the changes needed to be made.
• Leader lines reveal similar incidents. They indicate if any part of the incident is associated with a previous one. So, when you follow a leader line, it will lead you back to an original incident. Unfortunately, our blueprint has too many of these leader lines. We didn’t always take heed the first time.
Determine the view. There are three common perspectives for incidents and their outcomes: Life Safety and Fire Prevention, Tactics and Strategy, and Firefighter Safety.
Determining into which perspective the incident/outcome falls is an important step to reading the blueprint.
After completing the above steps, study the incident and examine what happened (the incident), the results (firefighter and/or civilian loss of life), and any changes made in the aftermath of the incident.
It is for us, individually and collectively, to study a fire as part of our blueprint and to use that information and knowledge to better ourselves and our departments and to lead the fire service towards improvement.
We need to formulate a plan and build a foundation to implement the recommendations of any reports associated with the fire and our examination of those same reports and, of course, all facts associated with the fire. Once we have concluded these steps, we have begun the process of consciously identifying the problems of the past and following the blueprint to reduce the chances of these problems being repeated in our organizations through training, standard operating guidelines, and policies.
Through tragedy comes change, and that change is our blueprint. Our brothers and sisters have given us what we need for continuously improving our future. We need to study that blueprint and not let the lessons of the past become lost to each new generation of firefighters. It will take time, talent, and diligence. But the rewards will be well worth the effort.
So that means that we as a fire service are faced with a challenge to preserve what we have rightfully earned through change, hard work, and lost lives. Choosing not to use the blueprint, not to learn from our past tragedies–although it may be the least expensive option for the moment—can cost dearly over time in both the loss of lives and property.
How can we “leave it better than we found it” if we never leave the drawing board?
Kim Fitzsimmons is a program manager/training technician for the Missouri Fire Marshal’s Office and has been a firefighter for more than 36 years at the volunteer and career level and is an instructor and a course evaluator.