Why Now Is the Time For CRM in the Fire Service

When I think about the future of our business, there is not a lot that makes me nervous or pessimistic. Having been around for several decades, I am well aware that change can seem to take forever, but still usually happens. Not trying to sound trite or...


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When I think about the future of our business, there is not a lot that makes me nervous or pessimistic. Having been around for several decades, I am well aware that change can seem to take forever, but still usually happens. Not trying to sound trite or aged, I can remember riding on the backstep, wearing "day boots" and using a 15-minute airpack. Each of these practices has faded away in time, and looking back, I think about the tremendous safety improvements that the replacement of each of those items brought to our industry.

Some of those changes have been so complete that there are only a few of us in the active duty service that will remember them at all. To demonstrate, try this little experiment. Next shift at the coffee table, conduct a survey of "who remembers." Perhaps get the folks to do a show of hands if: they ever drove an open-cab truck; used a filter- or demand-style mask; or engaged an aerial ladder stabilizer device on a tractor-drawn aerial turntable. Odds are that not many will be able to have experienced those "good old days."

CRM Background

This brief series of columns will not be about the past. In fact, it is about arguably one of the most profound changes that should be taking place in the American fire-rescue service today, but as yet does not seem to be gaining any traction. So little progress is being made in this area that I feel compelled to use this article to shout for help — your help, to be exact. I know that change (and, in particular, meaningful change) takes a lot of time — I first wrote about this concept in Firehouse® Magazine in the 1990s.

A little over 10 years ago, I had the wonderful career opportunity to attend a "world-class" lecture presented by an airline pilot, Captain Al Haines. As you may recall, in 1987, Haines was the pilot of United Airlines Flight 232, which crash-landed in Sioux City, IA. Although it was a "high-impact crash" (one in which it is unlikely that anyone would survive), Haines and crew — to include the air traffic controller — managed to save 182 of the 296 souls on board that afternoon. This was a feat that had been previously unheard of in the aviation industry.

Toward the middle of Haines' incredible presentation, he spoke about the commercial aviation industry's human-error-avoidance and checks-and-balances system known as Crew Resource Management (CRM). As Haines recounted that fateful flight for the audience, it hit me: we must adopt, modify and fully implement CRM to improve firefighter safety and survival. To add to the importance of implementing CRM, it will greatly enhance operational outcome, thereby, reaching our top two strategic goals of saving lives and property.

Quick System Review

CRM uses the basic philosophy, penned by the great poet Alexander Pope, "To err is human." In other words, people are always going to be proven to make errors. (Remember the axiom, "Pencils have erasers because people make mistakes"?) Knowing that, the aviation community has built in a great set of "checks and balances" to ensure that human inputs (decisions) during flights are flawless and error free.

The investigation of a 1978 plane crash determined the cause to be totally due to human inputs (decisions). While enroute to Portland, OR, the fuel supply of United Airlines Flight 173 was completely used up. Both the co-pilot and the second officer warned the pilot several times of the fuel situation, but based on the flight line operations of the day, the captain in charge of the DC-8 jetliner disregarded their warnings, which resulted in a fatal crash. Ten people on the plane were killed (including the second officer) and 23 were critically injured.

The only redeeming factor that surfaced on crash day was that there was no fire associated with the crash of Flight 173 (the impact took place in a Portland suburb) because the fuel was completely used up. If an ignition had occurred, it is widely believed that all aboard would have likely perished.

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