The American Fire Service: We’re Just Not that Good

Yes, I hoped to get the, “What the f*** is he talking about?” response from you. I’d suggest, before continuing with this article, take a deep breath and get a fresh cup of coffee, or perhaps a fresh whiskey depending on your duty status.

“150 years of tradition unimpeded by progress.” A mantra echoing throughout my fire service career. We are humans and are uncomfortable with being uncomfortable, I get it. The problem is the fire service doesn’t even wish to consider change no matter the evidence supporting it.

There appears to be a divide within the fire service mirroring that of today’s political climate. That is scary, to say the least. Let’s agree we won’t discuss politics here. We should, however, discuss the polarizing viewpoints we have on the “hot topics” of today’s fire service and perhaps we can find some middle ground.

There seems to be strong polarizing viewpoints on personal safety and wellness. To me, I see this most often in my official source of continuing fire training, the Facebook machine.

The cancer prevention movement is being attacked by meme’s on the Facebook machine stating “Clean Cabs Don’t Make Grabs”. I get it, I’ve made fires more times than I could count returning from other runs or while out in our territory. What I see is a failure to recognize there is a dichotomy in the efforts of cancer prevention. While the ideal situation is a sterile cab free from all contaminants, that probably isn’t feasible. So how about we do our best to clean the cabs regularly to include a full decon of our PPE and equipment. I started my career in Interior, Alaska. I firmly believe there was a direct correlation between the dropping temperatures and the number of fires we made. The idea of a complete change of clothing after a fire a -40 degrees is so far from appealing I can’t even describe it. Is there a middle ground we can make here?



On to the Facebook Fire Department Incident Commanders…
I recently saw a picture from Memphis Fire Battalion 1 companies operating at an apartment fire. The opinions of their choice of tactics from Facebook Commanders were impressive given the millisecond in time “photo-op” depicted in the picture. Having worked in Memphis there are a few things I can deduce from the picture. First, those style apartments are largely made of concrete and more akin to ordinary construction then Lightweight Wood Frame. Next, plywood over an apartment does not mean the building is unoccupied. Un-rented units are often boarded up to prevent copper theft, vandalism, or squatting. Finally, the City of Memphis is largely an impoverished population and the firefighters there make a disproportionate number of grabs from “vacant” buildings.

In due diligence, I made a couple phone calls to confirm my suspicions. The picture is of the first arriving Truck company which by SOP is dedicated to Inside Truck functions namely Primary Search, almost exclusively conducted unprotected. A hose-line was in operation in the actual fire apartment. The pictured apartment is an exposure with the fire being almost entirely in the overhead leaving nearly the entire apartment habitable for civilians.

Me First….
There seems to be a strengthening “Me First” mentality which is at odds with the “For Them” mentality of the fire service I grew up in. Again, a dichotomy exists in this idea. Chief Dave LeBlanc said, “We come first when it comes to preparing ourselves, eating right, working out, training… right up until the wheels of the apparatus cross the threshold, we come first. The second our wheels cross that threshold, it’s all about them. It has to be about them because that’s the oath we took… that what the mission is all about.”

So here’s the dichotomy in this Me vs. Them attitude gaining prevalence. For as long as I have been in the fire service the goal has been to reduce LODDs. Me First occurs in the firehouse by preparing ourselves mentally and physically for the job. “Stress and Over-Exertion” continues to be the leading cause of LODDs. The second is motor vehicle accidents many of which result in a fatality because we can’t figure out how a seatbelt works. These are risks that can be reduced in the firehouse. While in the house it is incumbent on us to foster an environment that betters our physical and mental well-being. Cancer and suicide are blindsiding us like a freight train versus a Ford Pinto as we find the numbers of those of us actually affected. The value of physical fitness in cardiovascular health (Stress and Overexertion), Mental Well-Being (suicide), and cancer prevention (anecdotal currently) is hard to ignore. While you are in the firehouse, put yourself first and grab a workout beyond that of your thumbs on the X-Box.

Additionally, in the house spend time each day perfecting the little things and ensuring your equipment is in a state of readiness. In a career organization, you average 10 days per month leaving 20 days for your “Holiday Routine”. For the volunteer professionals among us, you are giving up your time to serve the community, put you first when you’re in the firehouse. Make every day a learning day preparing for the inevitable. Runs are going to happen, there will always be more fires, make sure you are ready.

So let’s flip the coin and continue. Once the wheels cross the threshold, you are second. It is at that point, We are here for them. (This means put your seatbelt on before releasing the parking brake). Next time you are putting your equipment on the rig flip your helmet over, read the label and remind yourself firefighting is ultra-hazardous and unavoidably dangerous. It is our job to make calculated risks and put them first. If we’ve put ourselves first while in the firehouse, this should be an easier task because we are prepared.

Survivability Profiling is bogus….
In full-time organizations, the average cost for a recruit coming through basic firefighter training is around $150,000 each! Add on top of that the $5000+ in personal gear, and $500,000-1,000,000 rigs we respond in. They didn’t invest all of that money in us to show up and make some guess as to whether or not there may be a victim inside. We should make an as informed decision as possible and that means assessing the conditions from the INSIDE!

The fire service is largely reactive rather than Proactive. We are reactive by necessity. That is why we exist. As Chief Brunicini noted, “No one calls the Fire Department because they did something smart.” The problem is this type of mindset resonates through our entire existence.

Let’s talk RIT. I remember my first firefighter survival / RIT class in the early 2000s. As the RIT concept gained traction, I could never shake the thought that RIT doesn’t make sense and isn’t an effective use of resources in an already resource-limited situation.

We have some pretty cool crap if you want any!

The study by the Phoenix Fire Department following the Line of Duty Death of Bret Tarver at the Southwest Super Market revealed the resources that would have been required to rescue Brett outnumbered the first alarm assignment in its entirety. In the hundreds of drills, they determined it would’ve taken 12-15 firefighters to rescue Bret. This is in addition to continuing firefighting operations.

Fast forward over 10 years, David Abbot’s study on Mayday’s reveals that RIT rescues the Mayday Firefighter about 2% of the time. Mayday situations most often occur to the first arriving companies (before most of us have established a RIT).

Even if we function as a Proactive RIT, we are often checking a box. We often understaff RIT. A single company softening a commercial structure is inappropriate for the volume of work in that task alone. Heaven forbid an actual MAYDAY occurs and RIT is activated. Think back to Bret, the single company we have designated as RIT isn’t going to cut it.

Today’s concept of RRR highlights this concept. Under this paradigm, we are utilizing 3 separate crews (12 people) to affect the rescue of a downed firefighter. Does this seem realistic with our current staffing models while simultaneously continuing suppression operations?

What if we leveraged some of the time we spent RIT training toward the basics like recognizing hostile fire behavior? Self-rescue techniques? Appropriate risk-benefit analysis? Now leverage those crews to support functions that aid self-rescue or (as statistics indicate) rescue by other crews operating in the same area. Put those crew to work accomplishing the critical fire ground tasks, make the fire go out, and make the problem go away.

Look at the research, it only makes sense. The Mayday Project is self-reported. While purely conjecture, I would speculate that only the more successful MAYDAY incidents were reported. The result is RIT doesn’t rescue firefighters.

Speaking of research, we really don’t like research. Again a dichotomy exists in implementing what research suggests. We talked a little about RIT above so let’s move onto another hot button for today’s fire service. Hit it hard from the yard, uh I mean, SLICERS. (yep, I said it). Anchorage Fire Department Assistant Chief Alex Boyd told me, “If you find yourself in a fair fight your tactics suck”. Well, the research shows us that resetting fires APPROPRIATELY gives us AND our victims a better chance of survival. The key is implementing this TOOL properly. That’s right it’s a tool and not some kind voodoo designed to kill the fire service. Tools should make our jobs easier when used properly in the right situations. The purpose of having a toolbox full of tools goes back to the old adage. Everything is a nail if you’re a hammer. If you have a box full of tools at your disposal, implement them when appropriate to ensure you tip the odds in your favor. I am a huge proponent of a preconnect through the front door and water out the window but if I can make the fight easier I will. Full disclosure: if we’re going to fight, I’d prefer to gut shoot you first. It’s not personal, it just tips the odds in my favor.

As I wrap this up I want to spend a little time talking about the idea that we are not very good at asking for help. I believe this is contributing to our current mental health crisis and our astronomical suicide rate. At one point in the fire service we could “play” in the firehouse. As society has changed, this practice is frowned upon in today’s firehouse. I believe this was one outlet we formally had for emotional stress that has not been replaced. Since we are not good at asking for help, we can’t even ask for help to attempt to make up for this deficit. Let’s make sure we are caring for ourselves and each other. Remember time in the firehouse is for you and for we.

We are also not very good at saying we are not very good. We preach to ask for resources before you need them when responding to emergencies. Always have an “on-deck” company available. Remember travel time for mutual aid companies. Most of us are under-resourced, its no secret. We spend a lot of time lobbying for more funding, staffing, companies, or firehouses. We fight tooth and nail to keep from closing companies. The problem is we always get the job done. Do not mistake what I am saying here, I am not saying we should intentionally not succeed. We do however need to be better at talking about our pitfalls and inadequacies. It is not uncommon in the fire service for us to succeed by the skin of our teeth. We receive praise in public by the public and politicians for significant events including natural disasters praising us for the way we managed the incident. We accept the praise gracefully knowing full well we barely succeeded (if we even consider it a success despite its outward appearance). One additional complicating factor would have completely changed the outcome. This is the time to talk about the fact that what we are being tasked with is unrealistic. The staffing and resourcing of the fire department is for the extraordinary not the ordinary. If the public sees us succeeding without comment at the extraordinary, bolstering resources for the ordinary is a hard sell.

I dearly love the fire service. I grew up in the firehouse. It’s the only real job I’ve ever had. I am not down on the fire service but rather the opposite. I am optimistic and wish only the best for the family I wouldn’t trade for anything.

About Jon Misewicz 13 Articles
A 17-year student of the fire service, Jon most recently served 8 years with the Memphis (TN) Fire Department as a Firefighter / Paramedic and Instructor. He is completing a Master's Degree in Education. His passion is training that translates knowledge to real world applications.