Tradition: Thinking Firefighters

By Billy Jack Wenzel

I am recharged whenever I get the opportunity to attend a gathering of firefighters like at FDIC, the National Fire Academy, or one of the other large regional industry shows. To join firefighters from around the nation–paid, volunteer, or combination–all training and networking, learning from each other, is something special. After one of those special times, I was stranded at the airport and had a lot of time (about six hours ) to reflect on what I saw, what I heard, and what it feels like to be a firefighter in 2007.

I have been in the fire service since 1981. The fire service has made and defined who I am as a person in those 27 years. I am proud to be a firefighter, and training and attending these events is part of the deal. In addition to the training, I always try to spend some time with the vendors to experience the new tools and technology shaping the fire service. In a show of love and support for fallen members and their families, I met firefighters selling T-shirts to raise money for their fallen brothers and sisters.

I sat in a room with 50 other firefighters from across the nation. When asked about the 16 life safety initiatives, only two people were aware they even existed. How can this be? We must realize every three or four days a firefighter will die in the line of duty, and approximately 80,000 more will be injured this year alone. These are astounding figures. The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation has devoted considerable time and research into addressing this issue. The blueprint to save firefighter lives is available, yet obviously a large number of our members are unaware it exists. Why do these incidents continue to occur? Are company officers aware of the root cause of injuries and deaths? Sure, there are unpredictable events–we work in a dynamic and dangerous profession. But truly unpredictable events only account for a small portion of firefighter deaths and injuries. What are the root causes?

Lack of Effective Policies and Procedures

When were your policies and procedure last updated? If it has been more than five years, they have probably expired. New technology, tactics, and strategies continue to redefine our response. Policies and procedures should indicate and incorporate these changes.

Take the guesswork out of initial operations. Make riding assignments. Every member should know his responsibility and required tools before the incident. Use unit arrival assignments for the first three units. Initial tasks are usually the same and a company officer shouldn’t need an incident commander (IC) to direct those initial tasks. Get ahead of the job.

Lack of Leadership

What happened to our fire service leaders? Training does not equal leadership. Experience equals leadership, but our experienced members need to step out of the crowd! Leaders teach by example. They motivate their companies to do the right thing. They hold company critiques after each incident. Critiques are critical for company improvement, since this where training ends and experience begins. Company officers should either be leaders or hand the bugles back, because they have been obtained under false pretenses.

Lack of Preparedness

There seems to be some fear of embarrassment in training, the fear of not knowing all aspects of the job or not knowing all the tools and tactics. I have a news flash for you: Nobody knows it all. The truth is the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know everything. This is why the training never ends. Training is the beginning, middle, and end of preparedness. We don’t seem to have the same fear of embarrassment on the fireground, when the consequences are life and death. When did it become our tradition to stick our heads in the sand?

Lack of Appropriate Decision Making

The lack of experienced leaders has lead to a crisis in appropriate decision making. Risk analysis must be taught not only to company officers but all members. Put it in recruit curriculums. Risk analysis must become a part of our tradition and culture. Know what your objective is at an incident. Break it down into steps. There is a five-step process to risk management: risk identification, risk evaluation, risk prioritization, risk control, and risk monitoring. Learn it, know it, and use it. We are and should be risk management experts. Risk management experience will yield risk management improvement.

Lack of Personal Responsibility

What happened to the ownership? We have pride in being firefighters, but it is hollow pride if there is no real ownership. You may not like it or want to accept, it but firefighters have a personal responsibility to past members, the family, the family at the station, and future members. That means a number of things: Stay fit, know your job, maintain your equipment, wear your PPE (all of it), drive like your life depends on it, buckle up, and stay together. That is a good start on personal responsibility.

These observations are not meant as an attack on anyone specific or the tradition of the fire service, but rather represent a realization that the best parts of our long and historic tradition have a chance of slipping away from us. The tradition of brotherhood and sisterhood, helping anyone who needs help, pride and ownership in our profession, and tools of the trade could be replaced with the legacy of one death every three or four days, 80,000 injuries each year, and responding with dirty apparatus and broken equipment. A collective of highly motivated persons who were willing to be there for their neighbors built our tradition, and only a collective of highly motivated persons who are willing to be there for their neighbors can maintain it. Our collective experience should mean constant improvement. We can meet the goal of reducing fatalities and injuries by 50 percent in the next 10 years. For over 200 years we have accomplished every task set before us. Quit dumbing down the fire service. Create a culture and a tradition of firefighters who are adept in the risk analysis of emergency response. Thinking firefighters, saving our neighbors, and coming home–that is our tradition.

Billy Jack Wenzel is a 25-year veteran of the Wichita (KS) Fire Department. He is a past member of the department’s hazardous-materials team and has a hazardous materials technician level certification. He has been a member of the department’s technical rescue team for 15 years and is certified in many areas including: high angle, trench, SCUBA, and confined space. Wenzel is an NFA adjunct instructor, an EMI adjunct instructor, a past instructor at FDIC, and an instructor for KUFRTI. He has a bachelor’s degree in business administration. He is also a published author of several fire-related articles including, “Kansas Grain Dust Explosion” in Fire Engineering.

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