I believe my record indicates my deep commitment to firefighter safety, but I am concerned about one of the initiatives in Firefighter Life Safety Summit Report sponsored by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and the U.S. Fire Administration.
Initiative #4 is questionable in the broadness of the language: Empower all firefighters to stop unsafe practices.
This is most dangerous language in its possible effect on the fire ground. After all, it is unsafe, ipso facto, to enter buildings on fire.
I cite a personal experience.
At Navy Norfolk, two firefighters assigned to get a line to the second floor of an apartment house fire balked because, "there was fire up there and the chief is not going up with us".
My boss, whose solution for any problem was to shout about firing somebody, wanted to fire them on the spot. I talked him out of it. I could see an appeal to the civil service commission and my writing about the duties of the firefighters Vs the duties of the chief, for civil servants who had never seen a fire, and who as Virginians had been raised on the heroics of Pickett's charge at Gettysburg. Just imagine if the firefighter's lawyer produce this document by such a prestigious organization.
I determined that we had been at fault in allowing them to complete training without having been exposed to a fire and having two inexperienced men assigned as a team instead of placing them each with experienced firefighters.
I explained to the men that we were placing them back in training status, which put then on a five-day week with no overtime until they were properly trained. Both resigned.
We made sure that future recruits faced up to actual fires during their training. When we took over the duties of the Seagoing Mobile Fire Fighting Unit, we amended each firefighter's job description to include this duty to avoid any last minute "I do not have to go to sea." discussions.
Initiative #4 is a sweeping declaration in what has always been a delicate matter, the questioning of command in battle or in our case on the fire ground.
When FDNY's astute Chief John Kenlon organized the first Anywhere Rescue Company in 1914, the order provided that the Rescue Company officer was the sole judge of how the company would operate. Kenlon had sensed that some chief might order them into a situation where they should not be. When Rescue 2 was organized, the order was restated. To the best of my knowledge it still stands
What is an "unsafe procedure"? My two recruits thought going into a building on fire was unsafe as indeed it is. I believe a change in culture should be advocated making it possible for a firefighter to protest the situation to the immediate superior. There will be problems wit this procedure but I think the problems will pale in contrast to the idea that everyone's a chief potential of the initiative.
I cite a success of this approach.
A FDNY "probie" who had heard me lecture on old sand lime mortar brick walls, when a volunteer in Connecticut, noted that their hose stream had washed the sand lime mortar out of a basement wall. Acting by the book, he notified the lieutenant who ordered his unit out of the basement, and notified the chief. The building was evacuated shortly before a collapse occurred.
I cite a failure.
In 1946 an acting FDNY deputy chief and a firefighter died and 17 firefighters were trapped in a collapse of an old loft building. The ADC accompanied by senior captains, officers with about hundred years of experience in such fires, had attempted to convince the elderly assistant chief of the collapse hazard to no avail. The Assistant chief was ordered to retire forthwith and a compulsory retirement age was instituted.