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Doing Better Best Honors Fallen Heroes

Numerous sources offer ideas to training officers for lesson plans that will help work through problems experienced by other departments.

On Sept. 11, 2001, our nation was shaken. Our souls were tried. The American people's resolve that day was so strong you could touch it. Patriotism was evident on every street corner and on the steps of every building. As Americans, we stood united. Our forefathers would have hurt to their core for our losses. They also would have been so proud of our nation. Remaining strong and committed to the cause they set in motion over 200 years ago.

Many of the family members of those victims remember this day as one of abject horror. They had their loved ones stolen from them before their time. Many people died that day in Arlington, Va., New York and Pennsylvania. The numbers continue to add up. Those living with the loss have been shattered too. Nothing will ever be the same.

We all took time to remember those Americans that perished in an impossible-to-comprehend nightmare. As firefighters, we tend to remember the 343 members of FDNY's Bravest. This is because we have a window on the world that gives us one perspective. It is not wrong to put so much weight on their supreme sacrifice. Indeed they went into hell on earth, knowing the evils that were waiting for them. They went in without a selfish thought. Their mission was to save as many people as possible. This is the essence of the job of a firefighter.

As our collective memory fades, we discuss that day as a historical event. Emotions play less of a role. The same thing happens after many tragic events in human nature. People remember where they were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, but less of how they felt. No doubt, Abraham Lincoln's assassination had the same effect as did the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion and Pearl Harbor. These all carry great weight. None more or less important than another. Marks on our souls. This is the price of being human.

Six years later, we still pause to reflect on the dedication of the men and women that gave their lives that day. The pain may be less for some. The loss is still present for others. We all continue to hold them in our hearts out of respect. We honor our heroes by keeping the tradition of remembrance services alive.

Keeping tradition alive is a hallmark of the fire service. That is a positive statement. Sometimes however, we perpetuate negative traditions. We continue to do things one way because "it has always been done that way." This may not be the best practice. Bad decisions and mistakes need not be repeated. They are if we fail to learn and change. "Thinking the way we always thought, gets us to where we always got." This is not always desirable.

To all of the men and women that have died in the line of duty, we owe our gratitude for unwavering service. They absolutely deserve the title of "hero". Firefighter Warren Payne and Firefighter Paul Cahill of Boston were taken while doing their job. Worcester's tragedy in December 1999, took six more heroes. The list gets longer everyday.

To the growing list we call heroes, a new breed of names should also be added. The new list of names needs to include all of the firefighters and officers that work to train their people to prevent similar tragedies. These training officers are educating and training the people on the frontlines. They strive to take us from where we once were, beyond where we are, to where we should be.

Good training officers use "best practice" examples from places that have made mistakes, corrected them and learned form them. Numerous sources offer ideas to training officers for lesson plans that will help work through problems experienced by other departments (or their own). Doing this in training, under optimal conditions, identifies areas that need the most polishing. This method of skills review allows for real world and real time scenarios without the added risk of deteriorating building conditions. Presumably, though not always, injuries can be prevented - or at least minimized.

Additional areas to research include LODD reports. Reading these can identify areas that should have been red flags or causes for concern. Placing yourself in the situation mentally lets you rehearse a different decision process. Take this opportunity for what it is and learn from it. It is not meant to be a "Monday morning Quarterback" process. No blame, just facts to learn from.

Look for mistakes or warnings that should have been heeded. Mistakes are learning opportunities. Take the lessons where you can. Nobody has the kind of time necessary to make all the mistakes others have made. We do however have the time to learn from them.

As a new firefighter, I was told, "It's OK to make a mistake - but do not repeat it." As a training officer, the same holds true. Now there is more of a burden though. As one responsible for the safety and survival of your members, you must not make the same mistake someone else has made.

Training officers need to look for and learn from the lessons of tragedies that occur across this great land. Teach those lessons to your members and chances are good that some of the mistakes of others will not be repeated.

You must hold the members accountable. Often, that means taking an unpopular stance. Change is hard. Changing what "we've always done" to "what we should do" is very difficult. It requires a lot of effort and is a thankless job. Doing the job because it is the right thing to do anyway - that is heroic.

Recent line-of-duty death reports from some tragedies offer these lessons. Collapse zones do not become less dangerous with time. Speed kills. Seatbelts save lives. Gallons per minute (GPMs) put out British thermal units (BTUs). Always have a backer. Never ride outside the apparatus. Always wear your personnel protective equipment (PPE).

Lessons learned will not bring back the people we all miss. They may however let you go home to people that will miss you.

Study the lessons. Pass on what you know. Educate the team you work with. Learn from the mistakes of others. Do not repeat them. By doing this, you honor our heroes, better than any statue or ceremony could. We honor those that have passed on and the ones still here, working hard to keep us safe.


Jameson R. Ayotte is a Fire Lieutenant/Paramedic with the Amesbury, MA Fire Department. He began his career in EMS in 1994 and entered the fire service in 2002. Lieutenant Ayotte has been a company officer since 2005 and is the Shift Commander of Group 1. He is a member of the Amesbury Fire Honor Guard.

Lieutenant Ayotte holds a B.S. in Exercise Physiology and an M.S. in Physical Therapy from UMass-Lowell. He is a certified Fire Officer I, Fire Officer II and Fire Instructor I. He also instructs Anatomy & Physiology and Medical Terminology. He lives in Amesbury with his wife Melanie and their two sons. He can be reached at jamesonayotte@yahoo.com.

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