Firefighter Rescue and Survival: Personal Safety

Several years ago I began to notice that people had began asking for "Their Space." This was not a New Age or Yuppie thing; it was common courtesy that finally had a name placed on it. Like everything else, some people got it and some people didn't.

During a major high rise office building drill in Manhattan, I stood in a large group of firefighters and officers. Listening as the chiefs explained the purpose of the drill and what they hoped to accomplish. The briefing continued with new radios, the reason for the drill, being shown and discussed. As one of the radios was keyed, feedback enveloped the group.

Instinctively, most firefighters reached for the remote microphone they wore to muffle the sound. Cutting off the source as if it were their radio causing the feedback. Several firefighters in the group stood there, hands by their sides, unmoving and unaware. I have seen firefighters in my volunteer department have the same non-reaction. What seemed second nature to most, was completely alien to others.

I smiled and realized it all goes to back to basics. The most basic element of firefighting is danger, and the most basic tool against this danger is safety.

Safety is not a committee, or a box on a flow chart or even a nifty brightly colored vest worn by an officer or chief. Safety is a mindset. In order to be proficient at something you must know what to do and better yet, why you do it. You reach for the microphone to keep the channel clear. If the channel is clear, the radio works better, adding a degree of safety.

This same situation occurs around command posts and at staging areas. A radio gets keyed and suddenly Jimi Hendrix is playing the Star Spangled Banner, while the guy causing the feedback is not even aware of what's going on. He's not aware, of his space. (He probably may not even know who Hendrix was.)

This occurs on the fire ground with PASS alarms as well. The alarm beeps and chirps, and the person wearing the alarming device looks around wondering what the noise is.

So what does this have to do with you, your department and firefighter rescue? The feedback problem is real, (we all are familiar with Murphy's Law?) and no one can predict when a fire ground emergency will occur. Why make the receipt and reaction to a May Day have to compete, even momentarily with an uncontrolled feedback caused by someone not paying attention. If they don't pay attention at a drill, are they suddenly going to become smarter during a fire?

The PASS alarm issue is potentially even greater. It has turned into the "Boy Who Cried Wolf" scenario. PASS alarms sound so frequently that the only reaction to them is to search out the offending firefighter so you can slug them.

Next company drill, take new personnel, (or even old personnel) black out their face pieces and have them operate as they would at a fire. Then slow them down and cause a feedback in their radios, explain to them, while they're in the dark, how they can control it. (Sometimes) Then have the firefighter demonstrate it themselves. Allow them to get use to the sound of their PASS alarm and make them aware of their responsibility to control their equipment.

Whether at a drill or at a working incident, firefighters must be aware of these safety issues. It's their space- it's their safety.