"The Cultural Divide": Exploring the Unknown

Culture is defined as the beliefs, customs, practices and social behaviors of a group of people. We would all agree that the number of folks who have sacrificed their lives for the cause of democracy, civil rights and religious freedoms is...


Culture is defined as the beliefs, customs, practices and social behaviors of a group of people. We would all agree that the number of folks who have sacrificed their lives for the cause of democracy, civil rights and religious freedoms is overwhelming, yet any attempts at changing that...


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Simply put, our end goal should be to provide timely and aggressive incident mitigation and to do it safely. Currently, the biggest obstacle in achieving this goal is the safety part. For many reasons, we continue to see an increase in needless injuries and fatalities to our members. Unfortunately, making the obstacle the focus of your attention means you have most likely taken your eyes off the goal. Here is an example: as a young firefighter, it was evident early on that driving apparatus was not going to be my strong point. There was a certain public housing building that we would run every shift, sometimes two or three times. It was within six or seven blocks of the firehouse and the running route was very simple — a right, a left, another right and you were there. I made that trip daily with little to no problem, with one exception. That time, as I was going to make the first left turn, I noticed a brand-new concrete Jersey barrier just ahead of me. I couldn't stop focusing on the wall and how it would affect my ability to make the turn. As I approached it, the barrier got bigger and bigger, closer and closer, and it seemed I couldn't focus on anything else. You know what happened next. The very obstacle that stood between my company and the building fire became the object of my focus and the rest of the story was not pretty.

In Enlightened Leadership, Ed Oakley and Doug Krug offer this explanation:

  • We tend to move toward what we focus on
  • When we focus our attention on the obstacles in our path, we spend time and energy dealing with those obstacles rather then getting where we want to go
  • When we are clearly focused on where we want to go, we do whatever we need to do to get there with minimal wasted energy

Traditions, Values And Behaviors

Traditions, values and behaviors make up the foundation for my great department, the District of Columbia Fire Department. Starting with the first days of rookie school, members are indoctrinated to the pride each company takes in being the best and most aggressive, as well as the "team's" ability to effectively put out a fire, stretch a 200-foot attack line, open a roof and ladder a building. Countless hours spent running hoselines through and around the firehouse focus on speed and efficiency; days and weeks spent drawing maps of streets, alleys and hydrants; developing an understanding that each company has a specific job to do and a focused commitment on doing its part; the synchronization of the way engines aggressively stretch their lines while trucks open up roofs and windows and the rescue company systematically performs its search are but a few examples of what I am so proud of.

The strengths of the DCFD focus on four guiding principles to achieve the goal of timely, aggressive and safe incident mitigation: appropriate staffing of apparatus; overwhelming an incident with resources; adherence to SOGs; and strong command and control from our incident commanders. This doesn't mean that all of these elements always add up to the perfect incident. What it means is that we recognize our strengths and focus our attention and efforts on fortifying and building off of them.

The fire-rescue service is filled with the brightest minds available, but potentially focusing on the wrong things. Now, this is really going to drive some folks crazy, but hear me out. Are wind-driven fires new? Have we experienced stronger, more intense winds in the past five years? The answer is no, wind's effects on fires are dangerous, but have always occurred. While there is great ongoing research on how to reduce the effects of wind speed, it will have no consequence if our members continue to operate above an unknown and unchecked fire or if we leave an apartment door open in a public hallway while ventilating the apartment before a charged handline is in place.

How new is "new" construction? In general, non-dimensional lumber, unsealed pipe chases and truss construction have been around for more than 30 years. Lightweight construction is no more or less dangerous than initiating an interior attack with only four personnel on the scene.

Has the color of smoke changed? Is brown smoke more or less dangerous than black smoke? What difference will it make if we fail to send properly staffed ladder trucks to the scene because we are afraid politicians will challenge our use of taxpayer resources?

We are better and smarter than this. I am in no way discounting the seriousness of the effects of wind on fire; I have witnessed it. I am not discounting the extreme dangers of lightweight construction, nor am I saying that knowing what is going on inside a fire building by monitoring smoke conditions has no value. What I am saying is we are taking our eye off the ball!

Call to Action

What we need to do when it comes to incident scene safety is collectively, as a fire-rescue service, rally around four to six core solid principles, then focus our efforts, attention and resources on achieving those goals, while not letting the obstacles distract us from attaining them. Sorry team, but the same old, "Every fire is different," "This won't work in our department," "We don't have those resources," "Our staffing is less than theirs" and "We don't have any money for training" are excuses for inaction and will cause you to take your eye off the ball. If you're really committed and focused to decreasing firefighter injuries and fatalities, you will find a way to keep these excuses or obstacles from distracting you.