Know What You Can Handle— And What You Cannot

This account is provided by a reader. Chief Goldfeder's comments follow. I am a chief officer of our volunteer fire company and I am approaching two decades as a firefighter. I also have served more than a decade as a career firefighter/paramedic...

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These comments are based on Chief Goldfeder's observations and communication with the writer:

Another "routine" fire? Who HASN'T thought that? We all have! It takes discipline and experience to remember that no matter what the run, it has the possibility of NOT becoming "routine." Those words are easier said than done; therefore, we have to have "systems in place" in order to be able to "expect the unexpected."

In this specific case, the writer shared some of the "lessons learned" as follows:

"1. Expect the unexpected." As we commented before, it isn't so easy! So HOW DO WE EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED? About a year ago, in a moment of glorified brainsurge, we gave thought to the fact that WE all get something that we have termed "N.T.S." - "Non-Thinking Syndrome" - which affects ALL of us. There are times when N.T.S. is no big deal, but on the fireground it can deliver us some tragic results. There are "systems" that can be put in place that will help you avoid N.T.S., before the situation occurs. It requires you to look at and think about your department BEFORE the emergency and PREDICT what may go wrong! Examples:

  • If your career fire department has poor staffing, is it predictable that you will not be able to accomplish the required fireground tasks? YES!

  • If your volunteer fire department has a poor response during the daytime (or other times), is it predictable that you will not be able to get to the scene on time in order to accomplish the required tasks? YES!

  • If your fire department has little training on roof ventilation, is it predictable that you will have problems venting at a fire? YES!

  • If your fire department covers an area without hydrants, but has no initial response tanker procedures, is it predictable that you will run out of water? YES!

  • If your fire department has poor driving training and doesn't do thorough driver's license checks regularly, is it predictable that you will probably have a tragic accident involving your apparatus? YES!

  • If your fire department allows for "freelancing" and poorly managed emergency scene accountability, is it predictable that you will probably lose track of a firefighter(s) during a "sudden" emergency? YES!

  • And finally, fill in the blanks - if your fire department does not _____, then is it predictable that you will not be able to prevent _____? YES!

As you can see, it is simple to assess your fire department BEFORE the run to determine what areas require immediate improvement. The issue is, and always has been, will the leadership of the organization, city or community take action to deal with the "predictable" problem? Unfortunately, that doesn't always happen, but it is up to the firefighters to continue to bring the issues to the forefront.

Back to N.T.S. for a moment. We have all seen situations at "someone else's fire" that went wrong, and in many cases, it was due to NTS. Think back to some of those and ask yourself the question, did the "bad stuff" happen because:

  • Strict policies and procedures weren't followed (or don't exist)?
  • Proper supervision wasn't applied?
  • Strict and daily discipline is lacking?
  • Strict accountability wasn't followed?
  • Communication was incomplete? (Both radio and interpretation of orders)
  • Serious, applicable, disciplined and regular required training was missing?
  • "They" didn't have qualified people involved?
  • Strict and disciplined command and control wasn't applied?

NTS can be related to Murphy and his law. It appears that a constant and conscious state of expecting the unexpected (with the above considerations), whether on an emergency scene or a non-emergency duty, is the only way to minimize the unexpected. N.T.S. will strike all firefighters; we've all gotten nailed by it before. But it can be minimized with a regular "dose" of:

  • Organizational discipline.
  • Written, easy-to-understand policies.
  • Constant and applicable training.
  • Qualified supervision.
  • Command and control, at all times, emergency or routine details.