The American Fire Service was born with the mission to save lives and protect property. Many in the service feel it is a privileged, noble calling; a chance to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Edward F. Croker (FDNY) put it most eloquently, “I have no ambition in this world but one, and that is to be a fireman. The position may, in the eyes of some, appear to be a lowly one; but we who know the work which the fireman has to do believe that his is a noble calling. Our proudest moment is to save lives. Under the impulse of such thoughts, the nobility of the occupation thrills us and stimulates us to deeds of daring, even of supreme sacrifice.”
Firefighting is an ultra-hazardous, unavoidably dangerous activity, there are few who would dispute this fact. Risk management is a necessary component intertwined into all of our operations. It is imperative that the risk management paradigm exists in the context of our priorities. Retired Delta Force Commander Pete Blaber discusses his priorities as the commander of an elite military unit in his aptly titled book “The Mission, The Men, and Me”. His philosophy follows my own where the mission is my first and foremost priority. This is followed by the well-being of those in my charge, followed lastly by my own.
I recently penned an article about bias. It was brought to my attention that the article is biased. I absolutely agree that it is clearly biased. It is biased for the fulfillment of the fire department mission, to save lives and protect property. There are no books written (to my knowledge) about the psychology of firefighters’ performance in life and death situations. There are however numerous books written about the life and death psychology of combat. From these works, it is expressed that a proactive, action-driven mindset is key to performance under the threat of serious injury or death. If we are not primed for action when facing adversity, our own self-preservation will render us ineffective.
It is the accomplishment of the mission that should drive us to take risks that ensure that all victims are removed if there is any possible chance of their survival. It is only once they have been removed from harm’s way that they can be properly assessed and their prognosis determined. It is a disservice to those we are sworn to serve if we do anything less than this.
In his book “Sources of Power”, Gary Klein discusses the concepts of Recognition Primed Decision making. Through his research, he has found that this is the most effective means of making split-second, high-stress decisions. In his work, “Seeing What Others Don’t” he states that a majority of firefighter’s decisions on the fire ground are made this way because the time doesn’t exist to weigh different options. Recognition Primed Decision making becomes more and more effective through experiences that can be recalled in the future.
It has been asserted that a firefighter primed for action with a “go” bias will ultimately fill his proverbial Rolodex with situations that will ultimately lead to a normalization of deviance and conditions similar to those leading to the loss of 2 space shuttles. In the two space shuttle missions, there was clear evidence that the missions were doomed to failure and that information was consciously rejected. In the fire service, we fall into a normalization of deviance when we do not do what we know is right. When we don’t use the benefit of hindsight to ensure we properly categorize our experiences as those we should repeat and those we should NOT.
On April 11, 1994, Lieutenant Larry Mathis and Private William Bridges responded to 750 Adams Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee for a trouble alarm on the 9th floor of the Regis Towers building. Upon arrival, Engine 7 reported “nothing showing” and began to investigate. The initial crew of 5 rode the elevator to the 9th floor where they encountered a heavy smoke condition and high heat. A series of events subsequently occurred costing the lives of Lt. Mathis and Private Bridges along with two civilians. The NIOSH report following this incident cites, “this location had been the scene of several false alarm calls in the past, and it was assumed this was another routine call” additionally the report cites the department policy that prohibits elevators from being taken directly to the fire floor. While I wish to take nothing from these men and their sacrifice, this is a normalization of deviance where firefighters weren’t primed for action and expecting fire. Despite this, 14 civilians were ultimately rescued, a majority via aerial ladder. See the full NIOSH report here: https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/hhe/reports/pdfs/1994-0244-2431.pdf
According to the United States Fire Administration, 3,645 civilians lost their lives in fires in 2017. 10 of the 87 firefighter fatalities occurred on the scene of structure fires. Of those, 4 were advancing hose lines and 2 were performing search and rescue operations. That’s 6 firefighter fatalities that occurred performing firefighting operations. Three times that number died from heart attacks after the incident. If we desire to make the fire service safer, we should probably focus more on our heart health and physical conditioning rather than neglecting our duties.
Now it is not my intention to encourage unnecessary risk-taking. It is to ensure we are primed for action when we need to act. We are ready when faced with a situation where immediate risk-taking in the face of adversity is necessary for the accomplishment of our mission. To ensure we are fulfilling our sworn duty to the best of our ability in FDNY Lt. Andy Fredericks said “When the garbage man turns the corner and finds garbage he doesn’t get excited. He expects to find garbage — he’s the garbage man!” He advocated that we approach our jobs in the same fashion, we should be ready when we encounter FIRE.