By David Griffin
When you think of fireground survival skills, what do you think of? Entanglement hazards? Breaching walls? Collapses? Being lost or disoriented? Well, you should think of all of the above. If you don’t practice skills repetitively to remove yourself from these situations, you will not perform them in a stressful environment. If you think you will “figure it out when the time comes,” you are sadly mistaken. If you think you will never be put in this situation, think again. If you don’t practice how to call a Mayday, you will not call one when your life depends on it.
So, are you prepared, or do you just think you’re prepared? Do you test yourself in uncomfortable situations to see how you will respond, or do you cower away from them so as to not show weakness? Think about, it because this article will provoke some soul searching.
Have you ever seen someone that is not comfortable performing a tactical drill? His hands are shaking, he isn’t processing his thoughts in a timely manner, his motor skills are reduced, and he begins to fold. When a major piece of our job is to wear a mask and move through tight spaces with ease and confidence, how is this possible?
Following are six thought-provoking questions you may ask yourself involving your drilling and training life.
Question 1: When you are about to perform a drill of any type, do you question your ability to perform that skill? I’ll bet some of you do. Why? Do you think that Derek Jeter questioned his ability before he stepped to the plate? Absolutely not. He was excited to step in the batter’s box and prove he was the best because he knew he was prepared. He also knew that even if he failed, he would be better in the long run because he was perfecting his skills every day. Do you have the same kind of attitude?
Question 2: Have you ever called out sick when you find out there’s a drill that you have to complete? I’m sure some of you reading this have actually done that. If you’re an officer that’s done this, you have some serious soul searching to do. Why would someone call out sick rather than go to a drill where: (1) His skills are being tested, and (2) He learns information to make himself a better firefighter? I cannot comprehend this.
Question 3: When you finish a drill where you have had your mask on for an extended amount of time, do you simply remove your helmet, your flash hood, unclip the regulator, calmly loosen the straps on the mask, and remove it, or do you rip the entire face piece ensemble off as soon as the instructor says, “You can come off air”? Again, some of you reading this have done it. Understand that you appear to not be in control of your emotions, because you’re not. It is unacceptable to get stressed while wearing a device that is made for you to perform the PROFESSION of firefighting. Do you think a doctor has reduced motors skills when he grabs a scalpel to perform life-saving surgery? No; he performs in the profession to which he has dedicated his life. So, have you dedicated your life to being a firefighter or the IDEA of being a firefighter? These are two totally different concepts.
Question 4: This is for the company officers—Do you make all of your firefighters perform hands-on drills as you just supervise because you’re the company officer? Well if you do, it’s time for a change. Doing the skill first yourself to show members how it’s done; you’re the officer, and you should be the boss when it comes to doing work. When throwing ladders, be a boss; grab the ladder and throw it as one man. Doing ropes and knots? Be the first to grab the rope and show them how it’s done! Doing hose deployment? You think that’s just a firefighter’s job? Wrong! Firefighters learn from you. Stretch that hose like a champion.
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Question 5: Do you say to yourself, “I’m the officer, and I’m too old for that. My body doesn’t work like it used to.” Again, wrong answer! It doesn’t work like it used to because you don’t take care of it with functional fitness, proper nutrition, and the appropriate amount of rest. Do you think the fire cares how old you are? Do you think the citizens you’re supposed to protect want to hear that you’re too old and can’t perform your job? If you’re riding the rig, the citizens expect you to be the best…period! Either do that or move on.
Question 6: For chief officers…do you set an example in your interaction with the troops? Do you keep yourself in functional shape that indicates you can still do the job, or do you think it’s okay to be out of shape because you don’t ride a rig anymore? Think again. People look to you to lead the way. Is there a new drill that people are apprehensive about? No problem, chief; grab your gear and show them how to do it. After all, you’re a chief, the best of the best, right?
For example, my new deputy chief of operations, then in his late 50s, was one of the first of us to perform our new department-wide physical agility test. He hadn’t ridden a rig in more than 10 years, but he wasn’t scared to fail. He did everything he could to lead the way, and he finished with a better time than some firefighters on the line. That’s a chief! That’s a boss! Not a “boss” in the traditional sense, but as in the best of the best, and he was not scared to prove it. This is leading by example with actions—not words or the color of a shirt.
If this article rubbed you the wrong way, that’s fine by me. Sometimes, you have to throw some punches to get a response. Harness that feeling you have and turn it into positive energy that makes you a better firefighter and officer. It’s easy to sit back and say, “This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He’s a captain that’s only been on the job 11 years.”
My 11 years have included losing nine firefighters in one incident (the Charleston Super Sofa Store Fire) that involved me and my department making huge mistakes that led to their deaths. I live with that every day I wake up and each day I get on the rig. It has changed my outlook on life and the profession of firefighting. It has brought me to higher education and training I thought I would never experience. It makes me understand the gravity of my responsibility to protect my crew so they can return home to their families. My 11 years of service is full of 30 years of progression. After all, we had to do that to bring our department up to national best practices and help shape the current fire service culture.
As Chief Thomas Carr said before he passed away in 2012, “We will not be defined by the Sofa Super Store Fire. We will be defined for what we accomplished following that incident.” Well, Chief Carr, you were right. We will be remembered for what we did to change the fire service culture. What will you be remembered for: Faking it until you make it, or working nonstop to be a PROFESSIONAL FIREFIGHTER? The best of the best. Look in the mirror and ask yourself, what do I see?
DAVID GRIFFIN, a member of the Charleston (SC) Fire Department’s Training Division, has a BS degree in education, a MS degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctorate in organizational leadership and development. He is a certified fire officer and is enrolled in the Executive Fire Office Program. He is the owner of On A Mission, LLC.