Lessons Learned In San Francisco

The San Francisco, CA, Fire Department's goals are to provide the highest quality of emergency services and to promote community participation in fire prevention and disaster preparedness. Protection is provided to those residing in the 49 square miles of...


The San Francisco, CA, Fire Department's goals are to provide the highest quality of emergency services and to promote community participation in fire prevention and disaster preparedness. Protection is provided to those residing in the 49 square miles of San Francisco and extended to an...


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About a dozen years ago, I was riding with John Salka, fellow Firehouse® Magazine contributing editor (see page 126), fire operations junkie and chief of the FDNY's 18th Battalion in the Bronx. When we ride together, we catch some fires. This tour was no different. Upon arrival and while operating at a working project fire, a company did not do what it was ordered and expected to do. At that fire, the officer and his company decided to what they wanted to do. Dumb move. When John was done with the fire, and done with the officer of that company, it was crystal clear who gave the orders on the fireground and who was expected to follow them. Follow your orders as ordered. A chief must expect and demand no less from those under his or her command.

There are chiefs and officers on the fireground for a reason — they are there for officers and companies to do as ordered and expected. When you are operating interior, you have your limited, but critical perspective. The IC outside has a larger, better perspective (including details from your reports), so generally the IC knows best. And while doing as ordered, be sure to communicate with them any unusual circumstances that may prohibit their desired outcome. The fireground is not a debate club meeting or a place where we can take time to discuss and barter tasks while the fire burns. When operating at a working fire, follow and comply with orders immediately with full discipline.

  • Who is assisting command? While some communities have "chiefs' aides" on the first alarm, what do you have? What is the plan at your fire department to ensure command staffing initially to support companies arriving and operating?
  • Tracking and accountability. It's almost 2010 and we must operate with full command and control on the fireground — and that means all aspects of the ICS know where all the firefighters are operating. This also means for all firefighters to understand the conditions around them, including crowding within the interior, and a means to get out. Tight, confined areas can be a nightmare to firefighters operating — especially when having to escape due to conditions. Maintaining company discipline both on and off the fireground — such as during training — will result in a more survivable fireground.
  • Policy. What's the policy? Any policy? Seriously, determine any task that you are expected to perform on the fireground and then go find your fire department's policy on it. Have you found it? Good. Now train on it and follow it while at a fire. That's why we have policy.

Policy is:

  1. Developed based on accepted practices, history and standards.
  2. Trained upon to ensure that all members operating understand exactly what the policy and the related tasks are. Training includes instruction and hands on to ensure that we really understand and can perform the task.
  3. Followed and complied with by all members while responding to and operating at the fireground.
  4. Enforced by officers for the survival and safety of the members.
  5. Enforced by administration, including corrective action when necessary, to ensure that members violating policies understand why they can't do that — and sends a message of fairness and consistency throughout the department that the policies are how the department will operate.

While there are many cases when officers must be trusted to make decisions, policy is what provides overall direction on how — based on standards, laws and experience by those who know — we are expected to perform from the moment we start probie school until the last run we make.

Can't find the policy? That's an entirely new issue for discussion, but in short form, raise the issue to those in charge and provide them with a suggested or sample version. It's impossible to expect a positive outcome and a disciplined fireground without clear, understood, trained-on, respected and enforced policies.

WILLIAM GOLDFEDER, EFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 33-year veteran of the fire service. He is a deputy chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has been a chief officer since 1982, has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, and is a past commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is an active writer, speaker and instructor on fire service operational issues. Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free and noncommercial firefighter safety and survival website www.FirefighterCloseCalls.com. Goldfeder may be contacted at BillyG@FirefighterCloseCalls.com.