BY MICHAEL S. TERWILLIGER
The fire service is getting favorable press as never before. A recent article I read alluded to this but, more importantly, stressed that we just can’t ride this wave of popularity; it will simply drift away like smoke and dust in the wind. After reading that statement, I wondered why. Why do we have to continue to prove ourselves? Why does it take a disaster for us to be appreciated, recognized, or supported, at least on the national level? For God’s sake, don’t we do enough every day to justify our existence and actions?
Knowing human nature and the “What have you done for me lately?” attitude, I suppose I should not be surprised. I do know that lawmakers around our country react to the current disaster before them, and we will always be pushing the proverbial rock up the hill. But what about locally? I thought about this and concluded that although we are very good at what we do, there are many cases in which we just flat shoot ourselves in the foot. I also believe that whatever a fire department does in one place is applied to the fire service in general. This is about our daily behaviors and habits. So, read on and ask yourself if any of this sounds familiar and whether it could have a negative effect on our profession.
The fire service is no stranger to alcohol. It is prevalent at many of our functions; devastating to many of our own; and yes, it is part of many of our daily routines. I can’t tell you how many fire departments I have been involved with that still have alcohol in their facilities (do you?), and it is consumed regularly. Many will tell you that the booze is separated from the fire function and anyone drinking is not allowed to respond. I also know this is not always the case; although it is primarily a volunteer fire department issue, many paid members indulge as well.
Now place yourself in the shoes of the citizens who are asked to spend large sums of money to support us. What goes through their minds when they see their firefighters drinking on government property while seemingly ready to respond to a call?
More bizarre is a house fire that is short on staff because the firefighters who were drinking at the fire station could not respond or they responded even after drinking! I did not see that in National Fire Protection Association 1710, Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments. How does that look to the layman? If I have to answer that for you, you should not be a fire chief.
When I became chief of my combination department more than five years ago, alcohol was part of the monthly volunteer meetings. I eliminated the program and lost a few volunteers, but ultimately the community thanked me for doing so. There is no place for alcohol in any fire station anywhere under any circumstances. To continue to have it present only minimizes our stature in our communities, presents a safety hazard beyond comparison, and is self-destructive. If you want to drink, do it away from the fire station, period. That’s what I do.
You are probably tired of hearing it, but the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department has got this figured out: marketing and customer service. It seems so simple.
When we leave the scene, I want the customer to say “WOW!” not because we are jerks but because we did good. I imagine Phoenix Fire Department personnel are nice to people all the time—I hope my personnel are. I was with my wife in a California city the other day and saw a heavy rescue vehicle cruising around the town. As it came up to a crosswalk that had people in it, the operator laid on the airhorn and the captain yelled out the window, “Get out of the way, you dumb sons of bitches!” They were not going to a call. I told my wife at that very moment I was embarrassed to be a firefighter. “So what!” you say. “That’s that city’s problem.” Well, I am a firefighter in a tourist community, and many of our visitors come from this city and own houses where I work. Can I count on their support the next time I have a public issue? I doubt it. What if one of the people in the crosswalk was Senator Bigshot, and he is deciding whether to shift the property tax from California fire departments to education this month? It’s the chief’s problem, right? With the condition of my state’s budget, we can’t take any chances.
This is probably just an isolated case, I suppose. Well, here is a more subtle one. One fire department has a policy that it will not train if the temperature is below a certain point or above a certain point. Now, I suppose I understand the concept, but the public probably understands that training is a major part of our preparedness. The more intelligent ones might even ask, If you don’t train in that certain environment, how will you be prepared for it in a real situation? But the point is, we create and implement this type of specialized treatment and wonder why the public raises its eyebrows at our seemingly outrageous requests. My area gets tons of snow. We train in it. Is it fun? Nope. Is it reality-based training? Yep. Do my customers notice? Without a doubt, and we might just do better when it snows.
We really blab about this every day in our business, and rightly so. The worst-case scenario is one in which we disregard safety and we hurt or kill firefighters. The unseen bureaucratic issue is the expense to our communities if we are unsafe because of the huge costs that injuries and death incur. Workers’ compensation concerns when talking about safety probably rile some firefighters. How can he be worried about money when life is in danger? Unfortunately, the two are linked whether we like it or not. One is immediate, and one is after the fact. A fire chief is many things, including a risk manager. An unsafe fire department is fiscally inefficient, not to mention cruel.
But sometimes I don’t think safety is a consideration when tradition is threatened. Need some examples? Here is the extreme. I responded to a structure fire with a volunteer fire department as a battalion chief. I found a small attached building in the back alley showing heavy smoke out the front door. The engine was on-scene, and an attack line was in the front door. I thought, “All right, good aggressive attack.” I squatted down and looked under the smoke and saw bare legs, sandals, a turnout coat, and an SCBA all attached to the nozzle. I left. Now that is strange, right?
We never attack fires without complete personal protective gear—that’s dangerous and irresponsible. We know that. Then why do we still read about volunteer departments that don’t have all the protective gear responding to calls? Who sanctions this operation, and why is it allowed to continue? Because there is nothing else available, right? Well, sending people into the fire environment without the right gear is worse than doing nothing at all. More importantly, this hurts those of us who are doing it right. The result: A city councilmen might say, “I have a friend in Smithville who has a 1963 fire truck and is very happy. Why do you need a new one?” If you can’t do it safe, don’t do it—ever!
Sometimes our disregard for safety is less obvious. The two fire departments I mentioned above both allow the firefighters to stand up in the back of the engines and rescues, unrestrained by seat belts. In fact, the rescue that blasted the people out of the crosswalk had four firefighters standing up in the back looking over the side to see what was up. I asked, “Why, isn’t that dangerous if there is a wreck or a sudden stop?” “Yes it is, but it is a union issue, and they are allowed to do so.” I guess it’s the same reason a dog likes to hang its head out the car window going down the road!
I read about firefighters being injured and killed in vehicle accidents all the time, many of them having been ejected from the vehicle. How in the world can anyone allow firefighters to respond in vehicles while not restrained and in the same breath jam a governing board for not supporting two in/two out? The most recent excuse I heard was so they can get dressed en route. What? I still think it’s the dog thing. In my department, you get dressed before you get in the vehicle, but we only go to 2,200 calls a year, so heck, the big-city stuff is more urgent. Did you know it is the tradition in some departments to drive off and have firefighters run to get on the apparatus? Bet that same department insists on four-person engine companies. Kind of a 4 2 4 relay, I suppose. Is safety a consideration? Not really. I don’t think so.
STANDARDS AND GUIDELINES
I read editorials and opinions all the time about various laws and standards we must follow to ensure the safety of our firefighters. I agree with them all and strive to meet them. Two in/two out and NFPA 1710—the intent is fabulous! But, we need to recognize the diversity of our nation and realize that some departments are there, some are on their way, and some will never get there at all. Either way, if we are going to toss these standards and guidelines out as a funding mandate, then should we not also strive to respect the entities that must cough up the bucks? How can we tell the board of directors of a special district that it is negligent if it does not allocate the dollars to meeting minimum fireground staffing when we allow our firefighters to consume alcohol, ride in engines unrestrained, ignore personal protective gear policies, and chase a ladder out of the apparatus bay while getting dressed? Isn’t dead dead, regardless of the cause? More importantly, when did we decide to be selective in the application of safety? How can we demand that a community pass a special tax on improved parcels to support increased staffing when we won’t train when it is hot or we shout out obscenities at our community people when they are in the crosswalk? I have no problem at all linking these issues. None at all.
The fire service is all I know; I’ve been in it for 31 years. I have watched us ride the roller coaster of popularity up and down many times purely on what catastrophe is happening. After 9/11, I can only hope we have seen the worst one we will ever see, and the roller coaster is starting back down. Getting the energy to get it back to the top again may be impossible, and the event needed will be a burden none of us can withstand. Just remember that the actions of every fire department in our nation reflect on all of us, good or bad. The ball is in our court to do with what we can, and that court is our own backyard. Let’s do it right.
MICHAEL S. TERWILLIGER is chief of the Truckee (CA) Fire Protection District. He began his career in 1972, spending 24 years with the California Department of Forestry and the last eight years with the Truckee Fire Protection District. Terwilliger is a certified fire behavior analyst and has served as a plans chief and operations section chief on Type I Teams and as a Type II incident commander in western Nevada. He also instructs operations section chiefs, division group supervisors, and strike team leaders. He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering.