Fear Mongering in the Fire Service

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.

Risk vs. Rewardroof

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.  01297490595_origThe 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. trailer1The 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.

Safety Sammie/Sally

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.roof