I’ve only been on the job for four years; one year as a volunteer firefighter and three years as a paid firefighter. In my book, I am still a rookie firefighter, even though there are eight probationary firefighters underneath me. I still have a lot to learn before I even consider myself a senior firefighter. I was lucky enough to have grown up in the fire service as a kid watching my dad and seeing how things should be done the right way. I was raised on how you would say, the “Old School Mentality”. Everyone is, “Sir” and “Ma’am”. Respect your elders, treat people and others with respect, and always help others when you see that they may need help. The same can be applied to the fire service. As a probationary firefighter, respect the senior firefighter and your superiors. Address them as “Sir”, or “Ma’am”, or FF Smith, or Lt. Smith. Treat your senior firefighters and superiors with respect, and listen to what they have to say. Always be involved with your crew and lend a hand when your crew is working on something in the station, even if you don’t know how to do it. This is how you learn by watching others and seeing how they do things. As a green, brand-new probationary firefighter with no fire background, it can be hard to know exactly what to do.
This would be where a good, quality senior firefighter, steps in and shows him/her the ropes. As a senior firefighter, show them what their responsibilities are each day they come onto shift. Show them how to take pride in their station by making sure everything is clean and presentable. If the public walks in, or a chief comes by the station, they can see that we’re not just a bunch of lazy slobs who sit on the recliner all day and watch Netflix. Show them how to take pride in their truck by cleaning all the tools, making sure the hose is loaded the proper way, making sure the nozzles and ladders are clean and in good working order. Show them how things run correctly within the department by going over the SOG/SOP’s and how certain paperwork gets done properly, how reports are written, etc.
Go over the unwritten rules of a probationary firefighter such as:
1. last one to eat, first to clean the dishes.
2. make sure all the chores are done promptly.
3. last one to bed, first one to rise.
4. make sure the station is secure at night.
5. arrive an hour before work so you can settle in and get ready to work before everyone else.
6. have the newspaper and coffee ready before everyone wakes up.
Remember, as the new guy on the block, there is a lot to be expected in your first year. First impressions mean everything. It’s how you present yourself that’s either going to make you a great firefighter, or a firefighter everyone regrets hiring. If you don’t know how to do something, ask your senior man, if he can’t help you then move through the chain of command. Always admit your faults and never try to hide them, it will only hurt you in the end and no one wants someone at their station that can’t be trusted. But more importantly, remember that this is the best career in the world and that you’re in this for something much greater than the money or benefits you may get. Always do your job, wear your department uniform with pride and stay away from the sour, negative people who want to tear their department down because they can’t get their way. As the new guy on the block, never be discouraged if you’re with a bad crew. We have all been there at some point in our careers; it’s up to you to do the right thing and not fall into the trap they have set up for you. Stand up and show them how great this job is, because it is the best job in the WORLD!
I want to apologize to all the Station Pride followers for the delay in my article. I have had writer’s block for awhile; I knew what I wanted to put down on paper but just couldn’t get it out. The last two weeks of teaching at our fire academy inspired me to get this article done.
I think about some of the greats in this profession; both still with us and those who are watching over us and what they have done to make this job better. I think about all the things that Lt. Andrew Fredericks did for the fire service before he was taken from us on 9/11/01. Even to this day, there are those of us trying to carry on his teachings and being “Ambassadors” for Andy. Some may not understand why we do this. It comes down to a fireman who made an enormous impact in the fire service, and we can’t let it die. I think of Chief Rick Lasky, who has inspired so many with his motivational “Pride and Ownership”. He has encouraged us to step up our pride game and take ownership in ourselves, our crews, our department and our community. There is Aaron Fields, who is creating a huge movement in the fire service with his “Nozzle Forward” class. Mr. Fields’ techniques are being taught all over the United States; from large metropolitan departments to small volunteer companies. These individuals are leaving this job better than they found it.
You don’t have to be a “big name” in the fire service to make a difference. Anyone of us can make a difference you just have to step up and be willing to take your lumps. Never giving up and continuing to push will make you stronger, and it will make a difference. I had a good friend and fellow firefighter from a neighboring department come visit me at the station some time ago. He explained how he was trying to get his department more motivated for training, trying different things and keeping an open mind. He left so excited and on fire. About two weeks later he stopped back by the station feeling totally devastated and defeated. Nobody was motivated and everything was getting shot down. We talked for awhile, and I explained to him that he can’t give up, people were watching to how he reacted to defeat. They were wanting to see if he was going to give up and roll over. Well, he didn’t give up. He called the other day to say there has been a huge turn-around in his department. The guys want to train. They are more motivated than ever, and they want to learn.
We hear firefighters complain all the time about their pay, benefits, crews, tactics, and training. Instead of sitting around complaining, step up and make a difference. One person can make a difference. It has been proven. One person can start a revolution. All it takes is the guts to step up and do it. At first, some may look at you like you’re crazy. They will tell you that things won’t change and that you are wasting your time. If you stay strong and don’t accept defeat, then good things will happen. I am sure that the first time that Aaron Fields showed guys his “Nozzle Forward” techniques they thought he was crazy and that it would never work. What about the first time Chief Lasky spoke of “Pride and Ownership?” People probably thought, “Who is this guy telling us how to have pride and take ownership?” There are so many people out there who have left this job better than they found it. It is up to each one of us to make a difference in the fire service. From the brand new firefighter to the Chief of the department. If we continue to complain and roll over, then I would hate to think of where the fire service will be in 20 years. We all have a love for this job, or we wouldn’t be in the position we’re in.
It is up to us to keep the tradition alive and keep it growing. Every day we need to think to ourselves; “What am I doing to leave the fire service better than I found it?” If you are not willing to make things better, then please do not stand in the way of those who are. Just remember that one person can make a difference in this job. Those of us who want more for this job are the sheep dogs, and we must stay vigilant. Stay safe and keep your heads up.
You will prevail.
Fear usually stems from a lack of understanding. It’s easy to be afraid of something unfamiliar. The term “fear mongering” is used in political discussions while discussing hot button issues these days. The Google definition is: the action of deliberately arousing public fear or alarm about a particular issue. This article will discuss how it is used to describe the modern fire service in some areas. Unfortunately, phrases like “Everybody Goes Home” and “Risk versus Reward” have been taken out of their common sense meanings and been used as an excuse not to do your job. How many times do you hear things around the kitchen table in regards to NOT utilizing a tactic due to its danger? Roof operations, for example, is a fiercely debated topic amongst departments – both volunteer and career. There are also way too many leaders who limit themselves tactically because of fear. This usually comes from a lack of experience and/or training in the particular tactic such as running an involved heavy rescue or sending a crew to the roof of a multi-dwelling to trench cut. Let’s break down some current trends and some possible solutions.
There are an awful lot of people who are trumpeting the widespread use of transitional attacks (“hard from the yard”). At an acquired structure drill last year, I witnessed firsthand the tactic being put into play. The fire was lit in the Delta/Alpha corner in a living room and had self-vented through the large front window. Fire was rolling under the 8 foot porch roof but was fairly well contained to the room of origin. The first engine company stretched to side Alpha, the driver charged the line and secured water, and the officer did his 360 and established command. He instructed the second-due engine to stretch to side Charlie, proceed through the house, and extinguish the fire while his firefighter sprayed water through the window to keep the fire in check. After I playfully ribbed him for this tactical choice, he beat around the bush with his answer. What I got from his response was that he felt somewhat pressured into doing it because the current trend. This is a well respected man who is not afraid of fire; however he didn’t aggressively attack the fire because of what amounts to peer pressure. In 2005, I was taught the transitional attack as a tool for my toolbox and it has stayed in there as a viable option ever since. It was just common sense to me – if the fire is getting out of control, darken it down so you can advance to the seat of the fire. At the 2014 High Rise Operations Conference, Captain John Ceriello of the FDNY said it best: “…we didn’t need to call it something fancy, we just used common sense. If we needed to spray some water in a window, we did it and moved on.”
“I’m not risking the lives of my firefighters for someone’s house.” How many have heard this? How many were also taught that the fire service is here for life safety and property preservation? I, for one, am sick and tired of hearing cowards say shit like, “I’m not risking my life to save someone’s property.” If that’s how you feel, PLEASE set your gear at the door and get out. Our entire lives are represented in our houses and businesses. Irreplaceable items that are invaluable mean the world to people and it is our job to save them. Does this mean we act recklessly on scene? No, use your head for something other than a helmet rack. However, we have some of the best equipment, best PPE, and best training in the history of the fire service and yet we underutilize it. Get inside, put the fire out, and salvage people’s personal belongings. THAT is what we are here for.
Using the Words “Never” and “Always”
After a first due fire last July, a captain and I were having a talk about tactics. The fire was in a townhouse that ran the outside wall off the deck and extended into the attic. The Battalion Chief sent a crew to the roof for vertical ventilation as is common practice, especially on multi-dwellings/townhomes. The captain I was talking with has approximately 20 years of service in the northern Virginia area and is a volunteer battalion chief within the county. The phrase he said that really set me back was, “I will NEVER put a company on the roof for operations,” and then cited building construction as the factor in his decision. This is an interesting statement for two reasons. The first is that any leader should know that “never” and “always” are limiting in nature and should be used sparingly. I find that more and more, people use the word never with something this is, in fact, dangerous and then use firefighter safety as the guise to justify it. For example, “never touch a downed wire” is a common phrase we hear and for the most part it holds true. However, there may be a time when you must use your training and common sense when dealing with a downed wire. “Always use jack pads” is common despite rigs today whose jacks have large feet already. Jack pads were designed to increase the surface area and spread the load using something called the double funnel principle. It should be up to the operator to determine what the ground surface is and whether or not pads are needed. I once had an officer who said, “Always pull the 300’ attack line on any dispatched fire.” This I attributed to his complete lack of confidence in his firefighters; instead of training them on estimating the stretch, he gave an ultimatum. This standing order failed to make the firefighters think on their own, failed to allow the firefighters to make decisions based on training, and watered down yet another firefighter responsibility.
The second reason I found his statement interesting is because of the risk versus reward debate. Roof operations are a necessary tactic at some fires. Most of us that don’t hide in the front yard pretending to be busy understand that hot gas going up and out is better than running throughout the house. Something else to think of from a command officer’s point of view is a roof report. Structure fires have six (or more) sides and who better than to give you the roof report than the roof man? (If you said, “launch the drone,” stop reading and go somewhere else…this job isn’t for you). So by saying he would never put a crew on the roof, he limits his tactics. When I asked him why he felt this way, his response regurgitated half-truths about modern building construction and gusset plates and how lightweight construction kills. So instead of really diving into building construction and doing research on how little it actually causes firefighter deaths, he allowed fear to continue to rule his tactics.
Drinking the Kool-Aid
Having a discussion with a company officer this past weekend yielded some similar sounding scare tactics. This discussion involved a recent class I attended which was advanced tactics for heavy truck stabilization and extrication. In one scenario, we performed practical evolutions lifting a 53-foot trailer off of a car utilizing the ICC bar of the trailer. The captain said he was instructed to only lift using the bar as a last resort. “They are weak and can’t support the weight,” was what he was told. Nothing against this captain – he’s a good guy – but instead of doing research himself, he drank the Kool-Aid and thus limited himself on tactics.
Similarly, an instructor in the class asked us an important question after we had stabilized and lifted a large dumpster truck off of a car. He explained that at this point in the scenario, he likes to ask his students who would be comfortable sending their firefighters under the truck to complete the extrication. While all of us said that we were comfortable, he stated that a large majority of his students all over the mid-Atlantic region answered him with a no. The reason for that no answer was a lack of confidence in the equipment and capabilities. You can increase confidence by training and getting more comfortable with your equipment and their capabilities.
The modern fire service is comprised of all different backgrounds and people. Depending on how busy your jurisdiction is, there can be any number of types of people in your department. Some places are much easier to hide from work or hide from fire than others. Rumor has it that back in the day, DCFD had a phrase written in their applications that said, “No cowards allowed,” or something similar. Due to someone getting offended, it was removed. It brings up a valid point however that this job requires mental fortitude. If you’re not willing to sacrifice your safety for the safety of others then you are just a leech suckling at the teet of the fire service. This calling isn’t pretty and it isn’t easy. If you are more concerned with what NFPA/NIST has to say than the safety of the people you are sworn to protect, please remove yourself from our fire service. If you are more focused on following the regulations to the letter than completing the mission, please head for the door. Lastly, if you take more pride in not getting hurt and pushing paperwork than you do in the reputation and morale of your men and women, GET OUT. You are a dying breed and we’re here to see to that.
My overarching plan to combat fear mongering is to train. Yes, we hear people preach training everyday, but it is important to train for the right things. If you are unsure of certain abilities or capabilities, train until you are sure. There should be no second-guessing of tactics in your tool box. If there is, you need to train on those tactics. Likewise, once you’ve topped off your toolbox, seek out more knowledge to expand your strategy and tactics. I’m not an expert on any tactic but I constantly strive to be better. I also get my inspiration from guys like Battalion Chief Nick Martin, Fire Chief Tony Kelleher, Lt. Ray McCormack, and a few others who publicly express their feelings on aggressive tactics and getting the job done. Technology and knowledge are at your fingertips so there is no reason to be using scare tactics to train people. There’s no excuse for failing at your tasks because you let fear dictate to you. Expand your horizons, trust your training, trust your men and women and join us in taking back the fire service.
It’s Sunday 4pm. I think I’ve slept all day just recovering from the Firehouse Expo weekend in Baltimore. I speak for us all when I say we had an amazing time. This was our first dip into the proverbial public waters of the trade show circuit. As newcomers, there were a lot of lessons learned for us. We weren’t exactly sure how we’d be received or if anyone had even heard of our movement.
As a group, the Contributors of Station Pride had invested a lot of time, energy, and resources to create this ever-evolving organization. We were excited, nervous, confident, and unsure of what might happen. The leaders of Station Pride were confident that the cornerstones of our movement were on the proper side of any debate. ie: assisting struggling Fire Departments with grant funding, assisting Firefighter owned small businesses with low-cost advertising, promoting health and wellness resources, as well as providing content to help leave the fire service better than we found it.
We met with many different organizations and planned for the future. I geeked out for a fair amount of day three after sitting with Dr. Harry Carter for about an hour and hanging out with Mike from Grant Masters. We were happy to meet our friend and Wellness Partner Chaplain Richard Phelps of FirefightersWeightloss.com
We finally met Lori Mercer from Firefighterwife.com. Her family is an absolute delight. If you’re not following all of the amazing resources she provides for Firefighter families, you should definitely give her a look.
During our trip we visited the National Fallen Firefighter’s Memorial and paid our respects to those who gave everything they had for the cause. We also made a stop to check out our newly placed brick on the Walk of Honor. After the visit we, of course, had lunch at the Ott House.
While in Emmitsburg, we happened upon the National Fire Heritage Center which nearly brought me to tears. The sheer volume of historical fire service literature they are amassing is mind boggling. I was ready to move a cot and sleeping bag into the building and make a home there for a while.
Our first night at the Inner Harbor, 6 members of the Station Pride invaded Tir Na Nog Irish Bar and Grill next to the USS Constellation. We had an awesome time with Rachel (our server) who flew all the way from Ireland just to serve us a few brews.
On Friday at the Power Plant Brynn Marie slapped a Station Pride Lid sticker on her thigh during her concert and later on Saturday, Instructor Ken Burson and Station Pride colleague Chris McAndrews attended the Drop Kick Murphy’s concert where Ken Casey gave us some love.
It was a remarkable weekend. The Firehouse Expo was a bit of a whirlwind. We met so many people and exchanged so many incredible ideas, it may take months to execute them all.
The Station Pride crew had a chance to collaborate face-to-face on the future direction of Station Pride. Many thanks to all of our friends, supporters, and followers. We’re here to do good things and that will always be our mission. We’ll see everyone next year in Nashville. As well as Firehouse World in San Diego.
The volunteer firefighter problem in America may appear to be a massive one, but its entirety is made up of small issues that smoosh together creating the illusion of one large problem. It’s a cultural and systemic situation that is further complicated by industry regulation, standards, and state/local government laws. The system, as it’s currently designed, actually makes it difficult for people to be volunteers. There are definite actions that can be taken to ease the burden and bolster your numbers. The entire premise is to make volunteering easy and fun while still maintaining a respectable level of training, participation, and professionalism.
We polled our Facebook followers to see what kind of things would make it easier for them to be a volunteer. From the east coast to the west coast and everywhere in between all of the answers appeared to echo. Here is a short list of the issues we’ll tackle:
- The voted-in Fire Chief
- Training overload or willing to volunteer but no time for the required FF1 or 2 and other classes such as Hazmat, CPR, and extrication…
- Employers that don’t understand the
- If the need for fundraising weren’t so great there would be more time for training.
- Drama/Lack of Respect
- Gasoline expenses
- Lack of funding for necessities
- Lack of manpower/members
Perhaps this short list is a little longer than I had anticipated but that’s okay, I’m excited, so let’s get started.
The Voted-In Fire Chief
First and foremost, one common thing among most “Roberts Rules of Order” fire departments is the “voted-in” or elected Fire Chief. While this practice tends to be the standard among volunteer fire departments it can have dramatic and even dangerous outcomes. Volunteer Fire Department’s are like miniature parliament’s that run a democratic process and as such is imperfect. The voting outcomes always tend to fall on the side of the “popular candidate” and not always the most qualified one. This is the rawest form of democracy and with it comes inherent drama. The elected Fire Chief usually knows who voted for him or her and who didn’t. The vote itself is one place that can breed favoritism.
If you are a Volunteer Fire Chief it’s important to realize your job isn’t just “managing” the fire department and taking command on scene. You are in charge of fostering your volunteer workforce, the entire volunteer force, in a fair, consistent, calm and pragmatic way.
Finding solutions, keeping the peace, and creating an energy and atmosphere that volunteers WANT to be around, not just your favorite people, but all of your people. Every person, including those you consider undesirable, who continue to show up for work assignments, calls, administrative stuff, are you’re only people. You have to deal with the volunteers your community has to offer.
As an elected Fire Chief you cannot allow nepotism, favoritism, or a power trip to be your legacy. Create and enforce a code of ethics within the firehouse. A great one can be found here on the US Fire Administration website.
You can have the nicest trucks and equipment in the world but if you don’t have volunteers who are happy to show up then you’ve got nothing. Without firefighters, there is no fire department. You have to take care of them first. Spend more of your budget on your people rather than buying new stuff. (This could be a whole article in itself) If you’re doing it right, people will be knocking down your door to volunteer. If you are doing it wrong you’ll be raising your voice at members and creating rifts.
It’s unfortunate that fire department taxes or municipal funding isn’t enough to cover expenses but that’s the reality of almost every volunteer fire department. There have always been pancake breakfasts, spaghetti dinners, and special events; it’s almost the volunteer way of life. The burden of fundraising doesn’t have to be a heavy one. One solid solution to this problem is to give the responsibility to someone else. Create an auxiliary organization whose sole focus is fundraising. In the past these organizations were called a “Ladies Auxiliary” but I doubt that’s PC any longer. One organization I was privileged to be a part of had an auxiliary organization of mostly elderly folks coupled with high school kids and a few firefighter spouses. The fundraising events they were able to plan were amazing and the turnout was always high. From dirt bike races, marathons, a rodeo and even an antique car and airplane show, the possibilities are endless if you are creative and you can pull the resources of your jurisdiction together.
Another way of raising funds is less traditional and more business oriented. Billing. Yes, the dreaded “B” word. But it’s not as bad as it sounds. Motor vehicle accidents or traffic collisions (depending are where you live) offer a chance to recoup money spent responding to the call. The good thing here is that you are not billing the individual. All car insurance policies have a $5000 chunk set aside for emergency response. You can usually charge per truck, per person, and mileage, as well as any equipment needed to mitigate. Gather the car insurance info before the vehicles are towed. Hire a 3rd party biller to handle the paperwork, they’ll take 10-15% off the top and you get the rest. In a department I was an officer for, billing for accidents used to cover our entire years worth of fuel with extra left over for equipment purchases.
Less time spent fundraising means more time to train.
As mentioned earlier, if the Fire Chief has created an inviting atmosphere, people will be showing up from everywhere. It’s important not to turn people away. Not every volunteer has to be a firefighter with fire gear, hoses, and SCBA’s. Why not seek volunteers who can do ancillary work like creating or managing a website or Facebook page, seeking out just drivers or elderly residents who are willing to do administrative tasks, operate as traffic control also known as Fire Police in some areas. Everyone should be welcome to volunteer including special needs individuals, there is plenty of work to go around and not everyone needs to end up on a fire scene.
When it comes to recruitment social media is where it’s at. Maintain an active Facebook page that highlights all of the awesome things your volunteers are doing and post pictures of all the “fun” they’re having and the good deeds they’re doing. The people you want to recruit are probably on Facebook. Likewise, partner with the local high schools marketing teacher and inquire about the possibility of having students create a fire department marketing strategy for recruitment. The idea gives students practical experience in marketing while helping the community. Hang recruitment posters at gas stations, local restaurants, libraries and so forth.
Furthermore, the kids and young adults who are the perfect age to perform work are not out and about like we were. They’re likely sitting on their computer or playing video games. This generation of kids is not brought up with a sense of community and they are rarely seen swinging from trees. A robust explorer/junior program is a great way to get young adults off the couch and into the fire department. Replace the excitement of their virtual world with the excitement of firefighting reality as long as they feel encouraged they’ll keep coming back. When these explorers turn eighteen, you have a trained valuable member whom you were able to shape and mold over time.
Another way to bolster your roster is to link with a local community college that offers Fire Science. Offer to create an arrangement with the school to have the students gain practical knowledge and earn credit by spending 2 or 3 eight-hour days (shifts) at the fire station “on-duty” so to speak, you end up with staffed engines. Likewise, a live-in program can offer incredible value.
The Volunteer’s Employer
There are many things that can be done to raise understanding among employers of volunteer firefighters. Sometimes a visit from the Fire Chief and general conversation can solve the issue. This is where and why it’s important to elect a Fire Chief that can represent the Fire Dept. as a Diplomat. All you really need to do is get out there, smile, meet people, and shake hands.
A proactive Fire Chief has the ability to create a network of businesses that are willing to support the mission of the fire dept. A common line that can be used is, “If your business was on fire at 10am on a Tuesday, who would respond to your fire if every employer in town refused to allow the fire dept’s volunteers to leave work to extinguish the fire and potentially save someone’s life.” This line usually helps paint the gravity of the situation in terms that they are affected by.
Furthermore, a proactive fire chief could work with the municipal government or representatives to create an ordinance or legislation that mandates all businesses must support the community they are a part of by allowing firefighters to respond to emergencies as long as it doesn’t create an undue hardship. If you are the only employee working at a gas station, it’s not likely you’ll be able to close up shop and take a call. That wouldn’t be fair to the business.
Another way to engage businesses is to include them in emergency response plans. Sometimes emergencies can require the effort of a community to mitigate. A handshake or official agreement can be made for services should the fire dept. need a backhoe, food, water, a crane w/operator, dump-truck, sand, fuel, electrician, plumber and so on. The agreement should include a Claus where the services are provided forthwith and the money is worked out afterward.
This is getting rather lengthy so I’ll break here and we’ll address the remaining concerns in Part II. If you have any thoughts or ideas about providing solutions please address them here and share them with our followers.
It’s 3 AM on Sunday morning, you are sleeping soundly, in your bed, at the firehouse. At 03:01 you are very loudly awoken by tones that tell you a fire is burning, and you need to go. You put your feet on the floor, make your way to the truck room, and begin to don your turn-out gear as the driver opens the overhead door and starts the diesel engine that powers your fire apparatus. All four members of the crew take their place on the rig, buckle their seatbelts, and begin to think about what part of their district they are running to. As the truck makes its way toward the dispatched address, that familiar glow and smell of smoke tell you that you will be working soon. Around the corner, flames are visible, alpha/bravo corner of a single story, single family residence in a newer sub-division. The officer assumes command and begins his risk-benefit analysis, makes a tactical decision based on that analysis and begins to issue assignments to his crew and the other trucks arriving to help. You have done this many times; your crew has done this many times. This is a scenario that can happen to any of us, anytime. We will, no matter our position on the crew, begin to address the scene priorities the way we have been programmed. Life safety (ours – theirs), incident stabilization, and property conservation. I would like to discuss some things to consider in these “bread and butter” type fires that may have changed over the last decade.
One of the very first “case reviews” I remember being exposed to, was about a fire that is still studied today. Twenty-Seven years ago this month five firefighters lost their lives fighting a large fire in a Ford dealership in Hackensack, NJ. After the fire, an investigation showed several mistakes that had been made. Mistakes in communication, command, and recognition of construction type were sighted. Hackensack Ford was a large, commercial building, of bowstring truss construction. The failure of the truss system led to a collapse that ultimately cost these men their lives. This tragic loss of life brought about sweeping changes in how we set up IC, and made basic knowledge of building construction priority on the fire ground. If you have been in the fire service very long, you know this case, you’ve hopefully read about it, and the dangers of that bowstring truss are burned into your brain. Traditionally we have thought of truss systems as being found in commercial structures. We all have heard the phrase “never trust the truss” and most of us show an extra degree of caution when dealing with them. However, it seems that more and more of these lightweight construction features are being found in homes.
In this article, we will take a look at what I call traditional construction vs. newer construction and see pictures of each. Once again, I am not Frank Brannigan, but these differences are worth a look.
We see a trend of open spaces and less compartmentalization in today’s newer homes. This change is largely due to builders using open web trusses and engineered wooden beams, rather than dimensional lumber.
The difference in fire control and extinguishment between these two types of construction is miles apart. However a fire in the truss void space yields very different results. This fire would have access to more space, more oxygen, and LESS MASS. The “less mass” part of that scenario is the one fire crews must take into account. Less mass=faster collapse. Another building component that has been used for years, but has made substantial gains in recent use is the “Engineered Beam”.
You must also remember why these types of structural members are being used. Cost is a factor, but the main reason is to create larger open spaces inside the home. These large open areas, taller ceilings, and fewer compartments need to be planned for. Fires in larger spaces, filled with synthetic materials, that produce a higher HRR (Heat Release Rate), that are attacking structural members that have less mass could be a recipe for disaster.
Another feature that is worth a mention is what my department calls “bricks on sticks.” This refers to a faux chimney being built above the roofline and is supported by 2×4 “stilts” in the attic. When we see a brick chimney coming through the roofline of a house, the natural assumption would be that the chimney is made of masonry from bottom to top. While fighting a fire in a newer home, we experienced an unexpected collapse of a chimney, which led us to find out why. Here are some pictures of the type of thing we found to be common in newer homes.
The only time that any of these (or other) lightweight features can be seen with little effort is during the construction of the structure. Once the building is complete, interior and exterior finishes will hide these construction practices. I have always enjoyed watching things being built. Houses, apartment complexes, shopping centers, warehouses, it doesn’t matter, I like to see the various stages of how things are built and how it may affect me or my crew. I am not an engineer or an architect, but sometimes I see things during these construction phases that make me ask questions. Lately a trend of lightweight construction in homes has caught my attention. There are some tactical considerations that must be made for any lightweight construction building, especially residential. This is why a pre-fire planning program has become even more essential to what we do. Keep in mind, getting on your truck and going out to look at buildings being built is pre-fire planning. While significantly less formal than showing up to do a hazard inspection and draw a plot plan, I find this method to be equally or even more helpful.
So, it’s 3 AM, and your crew has been toned out to fight a fire in a single family dwelling. Be sure that you have educated yourself and are prepared if this “SAME FIRE” you have fought 25 times, happens to throw you a curve ball.
Stay Sharp, Stay Safe
John 15:13 Greater love hath no man than he who will give up his life for a friend.
Firefighters, all too often, may lose their lives protecting the lives of total strangers.
I stopped at a Moe’s Southwest Grill for lunch today. For those unfamiliar, Moe’s is a fresh, fast-food place with burritos and tacos. They greet every customer with a resounding, “WELCOME TO MOE’S!” as you walk through the door. From there, you are whisked through the line while the smiling employees make your food.
On this particular day, I was assisted by an energetic and friendly bilingual lady whose hat was adorn with pins. (pieces of “flair” for those of us old enough to remember the movie “Office Space”). After sitting down, this same woman walked the floor asking if everyone was doing well, all the while, yelling their trademark greeting as customers came into the store. This waitress was a proud, strong woman in a position many would consider a starter job or an “unskilled position” who has a great positive attitude. It was obvious that she took pride in her work ethic, her customer service, her appearance and her job. As I sat there eating my chicken taco, it dawned on me that this woman was an outstanding example of what every working person in America should strive to be.
The work ethic of the Moe’s waitress is the kind of attitude that’s especially important in the fire service. Every single day we are on display for the public at their worst time. How we look, act, and treat others is incredibly important. We all know the men and women on the job who have gotten bitter. They usually slack with the uniform, slack with responses, and slack with customer service. They gripe about policy, leadership, change, and training. They embody someone who is just there for a paycheck or the T-shirt. Think about it every time you go to a place of business, be it a restaurant, mechanic shop, mall, or whatever and observe the employees. Usually, one can pick out the slackers or the lazy, i-don’t-want-to-be-here-but-need-this-paycheck people. I quickly lose respect for workers who wear their unhappiness on their sleeve. Now consider yourself when you interact with the public:
-Is your uniform presentable or do you look like a bag of warmed-over assholes?
-Is your attitude positive and inviting or do you looked pissed off because you’d rather be on the couch at the station?
-Do you make an effort to interact with your customers (the public you swore to protect) or does your facial expression say, “I hate Pub-Eds?”
-Do you strive to set a positive example or just go with the status quo?
If an employee of a fast-food joint can set a positive example, so can you. Now, before everyone gets butt hurt, I understand there are times when you do not look your best; post workout, post fire, or chilling in the recliner with some house shoes on are a few times I myself don’t look the most professional. However, a personal attitude adjustment is easy and so are small acts of kindness like waving to children or assisting someone with their groceries. My point is that there are a lot of firemen and women who could use some remedial training in respecting the job including attitude, behavior, and appearance.
I’m willing to bet that a lot of these sloppy Joes deep down still have that pride. It’s up to the leaders of the rig/station/department to inspire them and make them want to find it. Once they take pride in themselves, they’ll take pride in the job. Once they take pride in the job, they’ll take pride in the department. Respect yourself, your house, your job, and your community.
Station Pride posted a blog about the importance of uniformity and professionalism in today’s fire service called “Stay Classy, Fire Service.” This article is a rebuttal that both authors have, kindly, spoken about and respectfully understand one another’s points, with a few minor disagreements. The concept of uniformity and discipline within our occupation has certainly been a hot topic of debate, both in social media and at firehouse kitchen tables alike. While I do not agree on the “T-shirt” is not a uniform, I do agree that members should look and act like reasonable adults when dealing with the public.
According to the United States Fire Administrations 2013 annual report, there were 106 firefighter deaths while on duty in 2013. Of the 106 firefighter deaths, 36 (34%) were attributed to a heart attack. The ages of firefighters suffering heart attacks are ages 41-45 (45%) ages 46-50 (42%) ages 51-60 (75%) ages 61& over = 80%. With the above statistics, it is reasonable to assume that Heart Attacks are a significant hazard to firefighter safety. Why? According to National Center for Health Statistics, 68.5% of adults are overweight or obese. Think carefully about firehouse and fire service culture and you will find some obvious and other not-so-obvious reasons that we are at such a tremendous risk.
Throughout the United States and Canada, fire departments of all types (career, combination and volunteer) are becoming increasingly aware of the hazards that firefighters face. However, due to a steady increase in workload besides structural fires, it is not necessarily just the “fires” that are killing us. Research has shown that the physical conditioning, as well as the clothing worn underneath a firefighter’s turnout gear directly, affects the cardiac health of the firefighter. Studies such as, “Evaluating the Results of a Modified Bunker Gear Policy”(David Mager, 2002) and the “IAFF Thermal Heat Stress Protocol for Firefighters and Hazmat Responders” have proven that the exertion of firefighters, in conjunction with total body encapsulation and non-compliant work clothes, increases the core temperature of the firefighter. This fact results in a 200% increase in the rate of oxygen absorption in the body, which affects cardiac output and brain function due to deoxygenation thus resulting in heat stroke and ultimately death.
Recently, my department received correspondence through department email in regards to adhering to our uniform policy. Amongst several pages, the email talks about wearing our issued clothing (not NFPA 1975 compliant.) Our uniform is a polyester/cotton blend that is against several studies as well as NFPA 1975.
As I am sure you have all seen and felt, morale can become toxic very quick over issues that some may deem insignificant. Uniforms are one of those issues, but it is more than just morale; it’s also your long term health. Many of these issues, including uniforms, are the result of decades of appeasement to politics resulting in closed-mindedness and falsely educated administrators creating policy with no basis for comparison.
What exactly does that mean? Let me explain. We are relying on leadership that has only ever been taught to look out for themselves and not the men and women they were sworn to lead. They are concerned with meeting quotas, proving successful statistics and “looking professional.” We are following the examples of leaders who are not well rounded enough to understand the concerns of the entire fire service. They make policies based on what they perceive is important as told to them by other closed-minded leaders who happen to have gained fanfare. We are becoming a product of the environment that the guys before us fought so hard to overcome.
In the latest addendum to our uniform policy as discussed in the previously mentioned department email, we are reminded that golf shirts on day works are not allowed until a 105 degree heat index has been reported by the city health commissioner, at which point the shift commander “may” allow members to remove the non-compliant polyester uniform shirt. Can someone explain the scientific reason behind 105 degrees? If you do your research, you’ll find the temperature scales that prove we should not be wearing our current uniform at all in any temperature due to its thermoplastic construction, let alone at 104 degrees.
Frequently, we make comparisons of our department to other departments and yes, there are pro’s and cons to every agency. There are also a lot of people out there who will very quickly say “forget (insert agency name here) they ain’t us, they don’t know anything” and subsequently write off any idea presented to improve conditions simply because they are ignorant and jaded. “We’ve always done it this way.” “Suck it up.” “You like the way they do things then go work for them.” All cop outs. If you listen to Baltimore’s most successful businessman, Kevin Plank (owner of Under Armour,) you’ll hear him say that the quickest route to failure is to say “we’ve always done it this way.” You have to be able to mold to the times. In an agency that has recently decided to take such a large stance on safety, we’ve missed the boat. We’re protecting ourselves from incidents that are of some of the lowest frequency while ignoring a major contributor to the number one killer of firefighters. Why? Because of opinion. A subjective statement that is “this uniform makes you look professional” (regardless of the fact that it is slowly contributing to your death.) I don’t know about any of you, but I would be more inclined to learn about success from Kevin Plank.
“What is the price of professionalism?”
Contrary to the title, this is not a debate on career vs. volunteer, nor is it a comparison of budgets and who is equipped with what amongst several jurisdictions. The price of professionalism is so much more. It is deeper, more relevant and affects the membership and civilians alike.
In the fast paced, dynamic environment that is the new American fire service countless numbers of our command staff leaders are cracking down on administrative and operational issues that they deem imperative to achieve a goal of social acceptance. So, what exactly does that mean, “social acceptance?” “Social acceptance” is merely two little words that I randomly picked to describe a theory that has been blindly accepted throughout our profession. Fast-paced and dynamic, yes, progressive and professional, not so much.
There are two sides to the new American fire service. I will refer to these two sides as “Us” and “Them,” and no, this is not sang to the beat of Pink Floyd. So, who are these characters “Us” and “Them?” “Us,” are the members of the fire service who love this job. We love coming to work and everything that goes along with it. “Us” lives the sense of brotherhood (which, unfortunately, has become more of a cliché than a lifestyle in many places.) “Us” lives for the firehouse life of training, going to fires, being aggressive and getting the job done at any and all costs. “Us” enjoys prepping and eating the meals with his co-workers, taking pride in the cleanliness of the tools, the rig, and the station. “Us” goes home at the end of his tour and while driving home is going through scenarios in his head because he wants to be better prepared for the next one. “Us” attends the “hot” classes at fire conferences because he feels as though the real world training he will get may save his or his brother’s life someday. “Us” is constantly watching videos or reading trade magazines trying to better himself as a knowledgeable and effective fireman. Then there is “Them.” “Them” is the guy that is here because he needed a stable job with benefits that also had room for advancement. “Them” believed the stereotype that all we do is sleep and play cards and thought “hey, I’ll take a paycheck to get a nap.” “Them” has an education, but isn’t here to be an aggressive fireman, and yes, there is a difference between firefighter and fireman, and no, I’m not talking about the man who stokes the boiler of a steam engine locomotive. Fireman vs. firefighter is truly the same comparison as “Us and Them.” “Them” is the guy that comes to work and brings his own food and is never in on the meal. He is, generally, not a good relief. He is the guy that becomes a commanding officer without ever taking the time to truly learn what the job is all about. “Them” is more familiar with buzz words such as “safety initiatives” or “survivability profiling” because they heard them in a lecture than they are with “gap, set, pry” or “vent, enter, search.” “Them” didn’t go to the “hot” classes because they aren’t geared toward promotions or making more money. “Them” wants to be in charge but has never had consistent fire duty to back up his decision-making process because he avoided transferring to that busy company across town to gain real experience. “Them” “doesn’t get it” but thinks he does because he has the t-shirt and the sticker that affiliates him with the guys that do “get it.” “Them” is the staff chief who truly thinks that it is his job to make his men be as “socially accepted” and professional as possible.
Here we are, it’s 2015. The American fire service has had arguably 335 years of experience, training, success and failures of all sorts since the first publicly funded fire department was organized in Boston, Massachusetts in 1679. Since then, we have gone from leather buckets to million dollar apparatus. We’ve been assisted by institutions of higher learning, scientists and doctors, just to name a few to evaluate data compiled by us in the fire service to give us
the best equipment, training, standards, staffing models, tactics and communications that is available for us.
As a direct result of the hard work just mentioned, we have become organized, (both union and operationally) and “professionally” and “socially” accepted throughout this great nation. We have earned accolades and even an endearing nickname, “The Bravest.” We have learned countless lessons at the mercy of our brothers & sisters blood and, as a result, have initiated change to attempt to prevent more brothers and sisters from achieving that same fate.
Herein lies the problem. The problem is not simply defined in a dictionary style explanation. The problem is much more deep-seated, like the fire burning in that middle room that the “Them” incident commander won’t let you go in and put out because it’s too dangerous in there and continues to flow master streams at thousands of gallons per minute with no change in conditions. Yes, it’s that deep.
Our current issued work uniforms do not meet current fire service standards. We are wearing the same old light blue button down shirt with navy work pants. Generally speaking, it does not seem like that big of a deal. However, this issued work ensemble is constructed of a 65% polyester 35% cotton blend. The question frequently arises “with all the scientific data that our peers have proved over years of research linking heart attacks, heat-related injuries, cancer and more, why are you wearing that?” “Why are you wearing a thermoplastic work uniform that traps heat close to the core of the firefighter when you know it could potentially kill you? The simple answer provided is because “The chief thinks this looks professional and that this uniform is what the taxpayers expect us to wear because it is what we have always worn.” Once again, we find ourselves in 2015. 335 years of experience, research, successes, and failures within our craft and we have leaders that do not see any issue with this. Apparently with all the degrees they’ve earned, they never majored in common sense.
A man named Steve enters a bank to apply for a loan to open his own business. Steve has a Masters degree from a prestigious Ivory League school that has left him with student loans and credit card bills resulting in less than perfect credit. Steve is greeted by the bank manager who by definition exudes the theory of professional. The bank manager is a tall middle-aged Caucasian man dressed in a dark navy pin striped suit with a perfectly starched white shirt, red tie, cuff links and is clean shaven and well groomed. His office is lined with framed degrees from the universities he’s attended and accolades from the bank for his outstanding performance. Over the course of the loan application, The bank manager speaks to Steve in a condescending tone and makes reference to his credit and how it relates to his blue collar appearance of a sweatshirt and blue jeans. He goes on to indirectly criticize Steve’s debt and make a mockery of his business idea. Approximately an hour into the process, Steve decides to leave the bank and terminate his loan application. Steve can’t believe what a jerk this bank manager was and how he treated a potential client. The following day, Steve decides to try a different bank around the corner. As he walks in, he is once again greeted by a bank manager. However, to Steve’s surprise, this bank manager doesn’t come off like the other guy. The bank manager is a young middle eastern man dressed casually in a red golf shirt with the banks logo embroidered on the left chest. The bank manager greets Steve with an energetic handshake and offers him a bottle of water while welcoming him into the office. The office is tidy and is adorned with local sports memorabilia and pictures of the bank managers family. After a brief conversation of the “what brings you in today” type, the bank manager abruptly replies to Steve, “I’m very sorry about your experience with the other bank. Not to worry though, we can help you out. The loan application was difficult, and the process had its flaws. With all that considered, Steve got his loan and developed a business partnership with the bank. This was all made possible by the relaxed approach of the bank manager who employed a theory that his mother taught him as a small child, “don’t judge a book by it’s cover.”
In an era where the American fire service has gone through a drastic cultural and theoretical change, I constantly find myself replaying the FDIC opening ceremony speech of FDNY Lt. Ray McCormack titled “True values of a fireman,” over and over again in my head. We find ourselves being brainwashed with the concept that our safety is more important than that of anyone else. Regardless of opinion on that topic, I find it ironic that with this safety conscious era we are working in, we find many fire departments not heeding the advice or following the lead of other jurisdictions on simple ideas and concepts. We have become subjected to what I call “gold leaf rules and regulations.” What that means is an administration creates rules and regulations simply to get their name and title signed on a department order based on what their opinion is of the subject matter. The frivolosity of the order is irrelevant. All that matters is that “Them” got his name out there as accomplishing something on paper that everyone must abide by. “Them” is sitting in his climate controlled office with his starched white uniform shirt and his shiny gold collar brass on far from the hot, dark and smoky danger of his subordinates (“US”) and even further from reality.
In an era where the masses are tremendously supportive of causes like cancer awareness, heart and lung disease and other major health issues, why is it that “Them” is ignorant to how these causes directly affect their own members? Did the memo about decades of research by educated peers which proved how toxic things are to our health not make it through the department mail? Did they never read an IAFF newsletter when they were still a member of the local? I’m willing to bet that “Them” owns a fire department pink ribbon shirt of one form or another and he also owns a shirt that says “In Loving Memory of Firefighter…(insert deceased members name here)…” on it. “Them” probably wears those garments while off duty and talks a big game of heartfelt praise and sense of tremendous loss in the grocery store when approached by the old lady who inquires about the name of the fallen. I’m also willing to bet (a bet that I would be happy to lose) that at some point in history, a member of their extended family has fallen ill to one of these horrific illnesses and may have passed on.
So… once again we find ourselves in 2015. Centuries of hard fought battles behind us. Centuries of our peers dying in the line of duty from injuries sustained while operating at fires & emergencies, contracting communicable diseases, and occupational cancer. Occupational cancer. A term that is only relevant if you are an active member or within the first five years of your retirement. How many of you knew that fact? The presumptive cancer bill only covers you if you are within those parameters. I know that all too well because my father, a 34-year career fireman before me was misdiagnosed with Adenocarcinoma last year. At 63 years old and a lifelong non-smoker, he is seven years into retirement and thus NOT covered. Fortunately, after extensive testing he was cleared of that diagnosis, but not of the stress and worry he endured. How is this relative to everything you have read so far one might ask? It is relative because the risk of cancer in firefighters is 250% greater than in people not in our line of work. 250% is a number that as educated professionals, we should be taking every step, every precaution and reading every study possible to reduce. Is that not what an educated, responsible, proactive, prudent and professional leader would do?
We spend money on SCBA’s that are certified at the CBRNE (Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear and high-yield Explosives) level and on effective diesel exhaust mitigation systems to protect our respiratory system. We spend money on the newest turnout gear to protect us from the harsh environments we enter. We spend money on computer record keeping and scheduling software to effectively manage our department. We spend money on expensive ALS medications to stock suppression units first-in bags only to be replaced after expiration thus requiring more money to be spent. We spend money on DriveCams not just to save money when apparatus is involved in accidents by reducing the liability in the claim, but also to institute a safer more defensive driving culture amongst our members. We spend money on take-home vehicles for administrators to drive as a perk of the job. We spend exorbitant amounts of money on new apparatus equipped with all the latest technology to help us save lives. So why, in 2015, are we not issuing our members uniforms that are compliant with current fire service standards and help reduce the percentage of firefighters contracting occupational cancer? It is because “Them” thinks they don’t look professional.
“Us and Them.” They always are and always will be at odds. One group claims to lead professionally while the other group carries out the mission bravely, diligently, honorably and professionally.
If you find yourself offended by this article, then I have partially achieved my goal. I have given a slap to someone who falls into the “Them” category. You may ask why I did not address any of the “Us” leaders. I did not have to. The “Us” leaders are the ones who have done all the research. The “Us” leaders are the ones who have spent the long nights awake reading study after study and making decisions based on their real world experience as well as scientific data which has resulted in the advances this job has been afforded. The “Us” leaders generally don’t make it to the top anymore. The “Us” leaders don’t make it to the top because they refuse to give up on their men and will always lead by example. The “Us” leader will not bow down to a politician for the sake of “social acceptance.” That is what “Them” does.
I was recently transported by medic unit to a local hospital for a heat-related emergency. I was operating on the roof of a 4 alarm fire in row frames for approximately 40 minutes while wearing my non-compliant uniform under my turnout gear in a heat index of 104°. As a result of that, I ended up in SVT for four hours and took 6 liters of fluid via IV before my SVT broke, and I was finally able to urinate. My initial blood pressure was 168/90; room air sat was 90% and my end title CO2 was 27, thus causing respiratory acidosis, just like all the scientific data said would happen. The subsequent stress test that I completed a week later proved that my health is excellent. My resting heart rate was 68; my blood pressure was 102/62 and my room air sat was 98.
In a time where education is vehemently recommended in our profession, why are we constantly seeing leaders falling into the category of what I like to call “Subjective over Science:” personal opinions superseding research and data that has been tested and proven; merely because “I don’t think that looks good.”
If you are not convinced of my standpoint, allow yourself an open mind. After all, we were all told as a young firefighter that we will never stop learning, thus making us a student of our craft. Well, as a student, do your homework and research the details. I’m certain you will come out with an educated change of opinion.
This link is for a study called “Evaluating the results of a modified bunker gear policy.” By David Mager of the Boston Fire Department (in conjunction with Phoenix FD and FDNY.) Out of the 52 page document, pages 17-25 are the most relevant including statistics, recommendations and quotes from Chief officers.
This link is bi-lingual (English and French) and is to a study done for the Toronto Fire Department. It’s data is strikingly similar and concludes with similar suggestions for changes to operations and clothing.
This link is to the International Association of Firefighters Thermal Stress Protocol, which evaluates the effects cardiac stress as a result of several factors including core temperature regulation, clothing, and the environment.
This link is from the turnout gear manufacturer “Globe” and discusses how turnout should be worn and related it to the health of the user.
Based on the years of research and conclusive evidence found in “Evaluating the Results of a Modified Bunker Gear Policy” as well as the “IAFF Thermal Heat Stress Protocol for Firefighters and Hazmat Responders” the fire service now has free industry tested research at its disposal. This information can create a safer working environment for its members while maintaining fiscal responsibility and continuing to deliver exemplary service to the citizens we were sworn to protect.
Suggestions for helping create a safer firefighting force:
1. Reference the “Evaluating the Results of a Modified Bunker Policy” study (https://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/tr_02dm.pdf) and heavily consider the content of the document and how it relates to your agency. There is cost saving measures identified in the study that are not clearly labeled as such; one must be able to decipher content to maximize the theories discussed.
2. If not already in existence, create a research and development division of your agency to effectively compile data on firefighter injuries based on the activity engaged in at the time of injury. Additional focus will be placed on field testing of fire service products prior to purchase. Research & development will also apply for grants to procure equipment or other materials they believe will be beneficial to the membership.
3. Conduct continuing education to officers and acting personnel on the importance of proper report writing and coded entries. Proper disposition codes used through NFIRS will provide much-needed data to translate to operational need. For example, Code 600 (good intent) should be discouraged from being a catch-all disposition code.
4. Allow for members to work and conduct business in attire that is ergonomic and promotes core temperature regulation in both hot and cold environments. The term “professional” attire is subjective (definition: based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.) An overhaul of work uniforms is necessary with regard to materials to which the garments are constructed (thermoplastic and flammable uniforms cause reduction in the body’s ability to regulate its core temperature.) In the interest safety combined with cost saving measures, uniform policies should include uniforms of the right material (100% cotton) and in the interest of “professionalism” outlining a short sleeve collared shirt and shorts combo to be included as acceptable attire. (Potentially at the members expense.) This will accomplish member cardiac safety while maintaining a clean appearance and potentially reducing overhead from the uniform budget.
Reference Fairfax County, VA. uniform initiative: http://www.nbcwashington.com/news/local/Fairfax-County-Firefighter-Uniforms-Get-Facelift-212072171.html
5. Maintain a stance of employee satisfaction in order to maximize return of investment. Employees who are reasonably accommodated will generally exude confidence and display a sense of pride and ownership in the profession they have chosen. “A happy employee will do whatever you ask of them, a jaded employee will continue to buck the system.”
In conclusion, I ask you, truly… “What is the price of professionalism?”
Jack Dewan Jr. (4th generation and the 10th in a family of “Firemen”)
Baltimore City Fire Department
IAFF Local 734
You can Read “Stay Classy, Fire Service” Here.