The Ripple Effect

"I think about it every single day!" said Andy, a big, burly, tough firefighter, who retired from my home department a few years ago. I will never forget his words because of the visual, psychological impact that a critical incident in which a firefighter was severely injured had upon him. Andy (not his real name) was clearly distraught over the memory of the incident and so obviously carried the burden since that fateful night.

Andy described every thing that happened at an incident in the mid-1980's where a car fire was impinging on a single-family residence. He was the tailboard firefighter when their engine arrived to extinguish the blaze. As Andy and his officer rushed toward the fire their thoughts were to move the vehicle away from the house and avoid a bigger problem. Andy was very mechanically inclined and he knew just what to do; he changed the car's gearshift to neutral and released the parking brake in order to push the car away from the house.

The problem was the driveway was on an incline and the fire engine was parked in-line with the end of the short driveway. As Andy and his officer pushed the car and it gained momentum, gravity took over and the car began to accelerate. In short time the car became unstoppable. Andy realized he could not stop the car and turned to see where it was going only to find that the driver of the fire engine was standing facing the pump panel and totally oblivious of the situation. Andy yelled at the top of his voice but the engine driver could not hear him over the noise of the pump revving up.

In a blink of the eye the free-wheeling car struck the engine driver and pinned him against the running board of the engine. The rest of the story is not good and you may know from experience the trying experience of dealing with the consequences of the tragedy. In the end, the driver lost a leg and unfortunately never returned to duty.

Years later Andy retold the story with much regret. Andy said that not a day goes by when he doesn't look into the mirror at himself and recall the results of his actions. So many years later those painful memories still ripple outward and affect the lives of everyone that were involved that fateful night. Yet, the ripples from that critical incident also had a positive effect. At the time of the incident I worked for another nearby department and had heard of the incident through a newspaper report and later from other firefighters. Vicariously, I learned from the event and tucked the lessons into my memory in order to avoid a similar situation that I may encounter in my own career.

In a larger sense, the ripple effect in the firefighting business is abundant, especially if you look for it. In this time of another annual Firefighter and EMS Safety Stand Down Week it behooves all of us to look at the tragedies of the past, even the recent past, in order to be more conscious of the ways firefighters have been injured and killed. With an eye towards prevention of injuries and deaths and improving firefighter safety we can all become more aware and cautious.

Robert Francis Kennedy once said, "Each time a man stands for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance." While RFK was addressing national concerns of the time his words have meaning for us in the fire service. The synergy of everyone working together to make our profession better, safer, and more efficient cannot be denied. Indeed, those small ripples can form a current of change and we can make our business safer.

Research the fire service tragedies and close calls from the past and make the painful ripples that emanate from a tragedy count. Share the lessons with your fellow firefighters and make those ripples turn into a current of change. Learn the lessons, take them to heart, commit them to memory, and honor the memory of the lost by not repeating them!

Stay safe and healthy and let's be careful out there!

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David is a 26 year fire service veteran who serves as an officer on Ladder 6 in Madison, Wisconsin, and as the Operations and Training Director for the department's regional Level A hazmat team. David founded the Wisconsin Association of Hazardous Materials Responders, Inc. and served as the first president. Additionally, David teaches, presents, and authors articles for websites and trade magazines on a wide variety of hazmat topics. David is also a National Fire Academy instructor of chemistry and a Master Instructor for the International Association of Fire Fighters HazMat and Terrorism training programs.