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Eleven Years Ago

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Eleven years ago, the Amarillo Fire Department was forever changed. Eleven years ago we wept, we hoped for good news, and we prayed. We prayed and hoped that the brother, who was now living on life support, would somehow return to us. The hours slowly passed, and those changes never happened. Brian Hunton fell from Amarillo Fire Department Ladder 1, on April 23, 2005, and passed away on April 25, 2005. Eleven years ago, we grieved the loss of Brian and looked for the answers to ensure this tragedy would never happen to us again.

Ladder 1 was called to a structure fire on Polk Street the evening of April 23rd; this would be Brian’s last alarm. As the truck left the station, Brian was standing up in the cab. He was getting his turnout gear andimages (1) SCBA donned; preparing (like he had done numerous times before) to arrive on-scene and be ready to go to work. As Ladder 1 made a right hand turn on to 3rd Street, the rear door opened, and Brian lost his balance. Brian fell out of the truck and struck the back of his head on the roadway. He was rushed to Northwest Texas Hospital, where he died two days later.

The day of Brian’s funeral was surreal. He was laid to rest in his hometown of Lubbock, Texas. The funeral precession was truly amazing. Motorcycles, fire apparatus, and cars lined up as far as you could see down I-27. The interstate was lined for 120 miles with on-lookers, and uniformed personnel paying their respects to this 27-year-old Firefighter, who was killed in the line of duty. In Lubbock, apparatus were fitted with black mourning shrouds and staged outside of the church. Fire, EMS, and law enforcement personnel from all over the country were there to support the Hunton family and Brian’s fire service family. The funeral service was filled with stories and tears. The bagpipes played, ladders were tip-to-tip, and our fallen brother was laid to rest with as much honor, respect and dignity that any one person could ever hope. But what would be the lasting effect of Brian’s death? Could we change? Were we even willing to change?Image result for firefighter funeral bagpipes

We did change. The members of the Amarillo Fire Department did not accept the old theories of “firefighting is just dangerous sometimes” or “safety makes us slow”. Instead, the members made the commitment to change their culture. We started wearing our seatbelts – ALWAYS. We began to view safety as an integral part of our processes, rather than a hurdle that we had to jump. And we started to have real discussions about how to be better; how to operate more safely and efficiently, and how to give the absolute best customer service to those we serve; while still keeping our own safety as a priority. Seatbelts were only the starting point; as we have continually accepted the cultural change necessary to improve our department and most importantly – ourselves. We have implemented new tactics such as “coordinated PPV” and “transitional attacks”. Our incident commanders put a premium on having an available Rapid Intervention Team (RIT) and increased our standard response to a structure fire from 3 trucks to 4. Riding on the outside of an apparatus is a thing of the past. We now acknowledge the hard facts about the staggeringly high firefighter cancer rates and are working toward limiting our exposure to the substances that are believed to be its cause. Some may argue that Brian’s death had little to do with these changes. But the fire service culture can be hard to change, and we have readily accepted many changes in the way we do things since Bran’s death. Many believe this event was the catalyst.images (3)

Brian’s death has also made an everlasting mark on the whole fire service. In 2006, the National Fire Academy and Dr. Burton Clark created the National Seatbelt Pledge. The story of Brian’s death has been told to nearly every student at the National Fire Academy (NFA) over the past ten years. Every NFA student is given the opportunity to sign this pledge that states, “I am making this pledge willingly; to honor Brian Hunton, my brother firefighter, because wearing seat belts is the right thing to do.” Over 150,000 firefighters nationwide, have signed this pledge that honors our brother. The signed pledge, bearing the names of the membership of the Amarillo Fire Department, proudly hangs inside AFD’s Central Fire Station today. In the early morning hours of February 1, 2008, our department was rewarded by our new-found safety culture. Engine 6 was involved in an accident that resulted in the truck rolling onto its top. All four members of that crew were wearing their seatbelts and were thus left unharmed.Image result for Amarillo fire department

Brian’s death is a tragedy that has helped redefine the AFD. We will continue to honor Brian, and his memory, by being a safety-conscious department. We will continue to learn, continue to grow, and continue to be the absolute best fire department we can be. We will pass on the ideas of this culture to our newer, younger members. And we will never forget our fallen brother who makes us better.

Stay Sharp, Stay Safe

Vinny

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.

HUNTON BRIAN

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We’ve Always Done it That Way

Image result for Old FirefighterNot long ago I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with an “old” firefighter. Being able to visit with a man who worked as a career firefighter before I was even born was a real treat. During our talk, I started to realize something that I had known all along, but had never really thought about. The fire service has changed. The fire service will keep changing, and I had better learn to keep up.   In the 1960s and 1970s there were more fires to fight due to weaker building codes as well as a lack of fire education and prevention programs. Structure fires were a very common occurrence and these guys did the job without the aid of thermal imaging technology or an air pack on their back. In the 1980s, some of the SCBA technology we have today was beginning to become readily available in its “generation one” form. It was expensive, and wearing an air pack was not looked upon favorably by the culture at the time. And yet we still have all heard the old saying, “we’ve always done it that way.”

Chiseling-Caveman-e1295104424454 copy We’ve always done it that way. That statement seems so archaic to me. It sounds so closed to new thinking. It doesn’t allow for technology or science to make good changes in how we operate. It is almost a good way to say, “I learned it this way and I refuse to change. And by the way, kid, I’m taking you with me.”   Well guess what folks, we haven’t ALWAYS done anything that way. As a matter of fact, we are doing it much different from how it was done just 20 years ago.

Listening to stories of riding on the tailboard of a fire truck as it responds code 3 to a call is awesome. Knowing people who fought fire wearing rubber coats, and day boots, is at the very least educational for me. Holding your breath as you crawl through a smoke-filled house, waiting for your ears to heat up and tell you that you were close to the fire really sounds like a rush. I am privileged to know some of these men, and I have the utmost respect for those who fought fire and lived through this era. But there is no place for these things in today’s fire service.

  In 2005, I lost a friend in a LODD because he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. I think about that event, and how it could’ve been different every day. Shortly after his death, the culture in the fire service took notice and the National Seatbelt Pledge came into being. Yet, even in 2014 a firefighter was killed when he was ejected while responding to an incident, NOT WEARING A SEATBELT. How is this possible? “We’ve always done it that way.”

I am privileged to be an instructor at our local fire academy. One of the subjects that I teach is Firefighter Safety. During this class, I try to explain this concept: Our perception of what is safe is bred by our experience. That means if you are a 35 year veteran of the fire service and have ridden the tailboard to every call without incident, then you probably hold the belief that riding the tailboard is safe. The same thing is true of many parts of this job. Freelancing, improper use of PPE, seatbelts – the list goes on and on!

Two examples of the “we have always done it that way” attitude scream out at me: Detroit MI, and Hartford CT. I am using these two examples only because of the very high amount of media coverage given to each.

  First, let’s look at Detroit. The highly popular movie filmed in this city called “Burn” was brought to my attention about a year ago. A very young member of our department was speaking highly of the movie, had a copy of it with him, and offered to let the crew watch it. As the movie unfolded I saw a department unwilling to change how they operated no matter what. Injury of personnel, loss of equipment, and even direct orders from the Chief were not enough to override “we have always done it that way.”

Hartford, CT was in the news not too long ago. It has been credibly reported that the use of a Nomex hood in HFD was optional. OPTIONAL! WHAT? How does an essential piece of firefighting PPE, widely in use since the 1970s, and mandated by NFPA standards become optional? The answer to this question is the same as the answer to so many of the failures that we continue to embrace in the name of tradition. “We have always done it that way.”

I truly love fire service traditions. I am an active member of our department’s Pipes and Drums Corps; its purpose is to honor the memories of the fallen, and to uphold the traditional values that make the fire service the best job in the world. I enjoy washing a brand new apparatus for the first time, and pushing it back into the station. I support having logos that set fire stations apart and give the crews working there a feeling of pride and honor. Class A dress uniforms being available for members to purchase is another traditional fire service “thing” that I love. I love lighthearted pranks or jokes that make 24 hours pass more quickly, or a bowl of ice cream eaten because the rookie made his first interior attack. Those are the types of “traditions” I hold dear. However, I want no part of the irresponsible acts that some of us call tradition. We all need to step back, and take a hard look at our department’s specific culture. The things that we do in the name of “tradition” must be able to pass the test of “reasonable and responsible.”

The next time you are asked, “Why do we_____?”, think about your answer.

I challenge you to remove “We have always done it that way” from your answer bank, and find the real answer to the question. I also challenge you to be wary of this answer, and the people giving it.

 

Stay Sharp, Stay Safe,

Vinny

 

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.