Getting to the top of the ladder, whether you are a firefighter assigned to ventilation or a chief assigned as the incident commander, requires a great deal of focus.
Recently we were on our way to the local civic arena to test the latest crop of rookie in their job skills abilities. Our department uses this test to measure the skill level that a new person has achieved in the first year of joining our department.
I arrive on the ambulance that day to see the 105-foot ladder truck sitting up proud and beautiful against the sixth floor wall of the parking garage. The guys are finishing up the final preparations to administer the test. While we are waiting I noticed a captain climbing the ladder. He had his ladder belt, helmet, gloves, and turnouts on as he ascended the ladder. You could tell that he was comfortable with the ladder, but was still paying close attention to the climb. Then it hit me, wow what a concept. Here he is climbing our 105-foot aerial ladder with all his safety gear on and he's totally focused on safety. When was the last time that you climbed a ladder and were not 100 percent focused on safety?
I think that we could put the perspective of climbing the ladder truck to work in our everyday routine as firefighter's and EMS workers. When was the last time that we did any task with 100 percent of the focus on safety? You might be thinking that everything that we do doesn't have the dangers associated with it like climbing the ladder truck. Well maybe that thought gets us into situations that end up hurting or even killing us. Please join with us in this article as we compare climbing the aerial ladder to safety procedures in our everyday operations. "Reaching new heights for safety" is not only a slogan for our behavior, but a topic that we should all preach and follow through on every day?
When was the last time that we rolled out the door with a 100-percent focus on our safety? It seems like we all have a gazillion things on our mind, everything but safety. Did we turn the oven off, wonder how the kid's day are going, or maybe I'll get called for overtime tomorrow. We all are guilty of it and it happens to everyone in our chosen profession. It seems like in the past 15 years of my career the emergency service has changed. Our run numbers are up and our fires are down. So, are you guilty of not focusing on safety? Just like the rungs on the ladder each step of our day should be focused on a different step toward safety.
Step One: Preparation
The first step in preparing to ascend the ladder truck is the proper selection of personal protective equipment (PPE). You will need your helmet, gloves and ladder belt. This is also the first selection in making emergency runs as well. Your choice in PPE is the most important step in any run. Just remember that selecting the right equipment is paramount for your safety on all runs, not just fires. Proper PPE is just as important on EMS runs. With H1N1 making its way throughout our world this should be fresh on everyone's mind. The selection should include your gloves, gown, and glasses as well. Just remember that being complacent on EMS runs could lead to taking home some virus to your children and none of us want that to happen.
Wrong PPE selection in our firefighting ensemble can also lead us into trouble. Most of us have one selection problem: we select not to put it on properly, if at all. When was the last time you went to an automated fire alarm with just your duty uniform and your keys? These types of calls are OK, but they breed complacency. How many times a shift do we run the same high-rise building for burned food? Five, 10, or more? But what's to say that the fifteenth run isn't the call of a lifetime. The thing about these types of runs are that sometimes you don't find out there is a fire until it's too late and your right in the middle of it.
Even if you are assigned to the busiest company on the busiest truck, engine, or rescue we should prepare for every run like it's the biggest run of our life. This will help us in many ways. First we will have multiple times to practice "the right way." Second, if something does go wrong we are dressed and ready for the party. Why is it that when we were rookies all we heard about everyday was safety but once off probation we were allowed do things half way?
Step Two: The Climb
Now that we have covered the PPE aspect of climbing the ladder, we are off and on our way up. The climb to the top can be long and challenging, just like our fire service careers. The main point of emphasis while climbing is simple: don't miss a step. Once again this can be carried over to our everyday operations. All of us have been trained on the proper techniques on how to complete different tasks. What would happen if we didn't take the time to hit each step? Just like missing a rung on your climb up the ladder, you may just end up falling or getting hurt.
A good example is as follows: you are assigned to vertically ventilate a single-family detached roof during a working fire. You arrive, grab your needed equipment and up you go. Once on the roof you lay out where the cut will go and you try to start your saw. Oops, you forgot to start it on the ground! Now what? By missing that short, simple step in ventilation could cause you physical harm and also affect the engine crew inside.
So how do we keep our focus while performing under pressure? It's simple, just like climbing the ladder you need to be aware of your surroundings while being totally focused on your task. Keeping your emotions under control is a big step in staying focused. The biggest step in not missing a step is constant training and drilling on each task to the point where you will not have to even think about it. It should be like second nature while completing the task.
Finally: The Top Of The Ladder
Now that you have arrived at the top of the ladder, can you still remain focused on safety? Since you're on the top does it mean that you can't fall off? Yes you can, and since you are at the top it means that you could fall that much further. But is also means that, now you are at the top of the truck, there is nothing around you to block your vision. You should be able to see everything around you.
This aspect can be applied to the incident commander (IC) who should be back away from the tactical level watching over all operations. The IC should not be directly involved in any fireground operations, such as hose advancement or ventilation. What they should be focused on is the big picture. The overall success and safety of everyone on the emergency scene is their primary responsibility. So, just like the view from top of the ladder truck, you should not let anything get into your way while commanding an incident. Your view should be of at least three sides of the structure, away from the noise, and if at all possible elevated as high as feasible.
Now that we have selected our PPE, climbed the ladder and made it to the top what have we learned?
First we have learned that before climbing on a ladder or onto your rig for your next run, PPE selection should be first and foremost on your mind. From turnout's to medical PPE it can and will make a difference. Second, while climbing the ladder we need to remain focused on the task at hand. The way to improve concentration for your tasks is constant training and continual drilling until it becomes second nature.
And finally, once you are at the top your focus shouldn't be blocked by anything. Once you have reached either the top of the ladder or the top position on an emergency scene you shouldn't let anyone or anything stand in your way of focusing 100 percent on safety. I hope that everyone takes these small hints and put's them to use in their everyday life. Reaching new heights for safety is not just a slogan for this article, but a motto that we should all embrace and put to use in our everyday routine. Be safe everyone and keep climbing the ladder of safety!
RYAN PENNINGTON is a firefighter/paramedic for the Charleston, WV, Fire Department. He is currently assigned to Station 7 and a member of the West Virginia Task Force 1 USAR team. He has over 15 years of combined fire, rescue and EMS experience. Ryan is currently a West Virginia State Instructor 2, Hazmat Technician, and Certified Fire Officer 2. Ryan was a guest on the Engine Company Operations in Today's Buildings podcast on Radio@Firehouse. You can reach Ryan by e-mail at Ryan33@suddenlink.net.