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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N.T.S. is the enemy of risk managers, which is what we're supposed to be. Expecting the unexpected (and preparing for it well in advance) is extremely difficult and challenging, especially when we are "laid back" or "narrow focused," failing to look at the "big picture." Expecting the unexpected is a state (or attitude) that we have to be trained into (it won't happen naturally) and it requires teamwork - skilled, trained and disciplined firefighters and officers constantly looking out for one another.

"2. Wear full turnout gear. I specifically remember pulling my hood completely up over my facepiece. I don't know why, because I usually just throw it up and go." Without a doubt, it is easy to find numerous examples of the critical need to wear full turnout gear anytime the situation MAY become hazard, which is nearly anytime we are on the fireground.

In so many cases, firefighters "take a blow" and remove their masks, hoods, coats and related personal protective equipment (PPE) in an area that is still hazardous. The issue of training (of the firefighter) as well as strict command and control by fireground officers to enforce the wearing of gear quickly solves the problem.

In this specific case, fortunately, the experience and discipline of this chief kept him protected. The writer says, "I don't know why, because I usually just throw it up and go." Why? The answer is that as a young firefighter he was taught why he should always wear his PPE, and over the years, he got into the good habit of wearing it-creating an atmosphere where N.T.S. can't survive!

"3. Vent early, vent high!" Coordinated ventilation through standard operating procedures (SOPs), training, experience and strict fireground command is the answer. Remember that ventilation takes staffing. Make sure your fire department knows (before the run comes in) what responding company (and its staffing) will be responsible for ventilation; it's predictable. In most cases, proper venting can minimize the chance of backdraft, but more importantly and much more common these days, flashover. And although it is a tool, and like any tool that must be used properly, positive-pressure ventilation (PPV) is not always the solution for fireground venting tasks. Many fire departments today have replaced a "vent crew" with a "fan in the front door" and that can lead to problems. Be sure you have the staffing enroute to "open the roof" or related tactics.

"4. Stay low. I was kneeling down at the door, pretty low. If I had been standing or even just had bent over, I would have taken the full blow." That is such a relevant comment, especially in these times. Due to excellent PPE, firefighters today find themselves "falsely comfortable" when entering a structure and don't stay low.

Based on conditions, firefighters need to be as low as possible. Get on your belly and crawl. The PPE you wear may protect you to a point, but unless you are low, you will be in deep trouble if conditions in the area change. We tell the public to "stop, drop and roll'' and that "the safest place is near the floor." We must think the same way when we enter a fire building and not assume our PPE will take care of us 100%. It won't.

"5. Any person or crew involved in an 'unusual stress incident' (a flashover, backdraft, or lost or trapped firefighter) is benched. It was a good hour before I realized my bell was rung. I really didn't know what had happened and what was going on. We went back inside working on adrenaline and instinct without thought process. This is bad!"

This excellent observation by the writer ties in with the issue of strict command, control and accountability by the chief in charge. Many times, members will not realize what they have been through and it's up to the leadership on the fireground to make the decisions for them. This is not only as "mental health" issue, but a medical/physical issue. Most firefighters, by nature of who we are, want to "keep going" and have to be told to stop. So tell them. It's leadership's duty to determine who is "in" and who is "out," and to do that a fire department must have SOPs, training and experience "before the run" to make the right decision.

Almost every story we read about occurred when "we weren't expecting it" and "without warning." as well as "this started off as a routine run" and, of course, my favorite, "It happened out of nowhere." That place.