Swedish Expert Outlines ‘Stupid’ U.S. Practices

<?xml:namespace prefix = dme />

ATLANTA -- As an outsider looking in, Dr. Stefan Svensson - a firefighter from Loberod, Sweden, who is also a research and development engineer - thinks the fire service in the United States only pays lip service to firefighter safety.

"You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?" Svensson asked. "I dare say you cannot."

Svensson's comments came almost four years to the day when he first shared similar criticisms of the fire service at the International Association of Fire Chiefs' Fire-Rescue International conference and show. This year's presentation was part of the Institute of Fire Engineers International Forum program, which was co-located with FRI's show.

As he did four years ago, he apologized in advance of his comments saying he would likely offend people.

"I will insult you," Svensson said. "I will make you upset and I apologize for that."

Svensson then launched into a 40-minute critique of the fire service in the United States.

In the four years since he last visited the states, he's noticed a lot of talk but not much action to promote firefighter safety.

"I am afraid to say you have not made it any safer," said Svensson, who is also a firefighter in his local brigade and a Ph.D. researcher for the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency.

"There are some things in the U.S. Fire Service that are kind of strange, and when I say strange, it might mean stupid," he said.

At the top of his list of strange behavior is the concept of venting a roof. "Why do you do that?" he asked while showing a few examples of firefighters in peril on roofs that had already been compromised and were self-venting.

Svensson drew a comparison between a fireplace and a fire in a building. A fireplace has a chimney, which he said was an upstairs window. It also has a damper which is an exterior door. The fire itself would be in a room of origin.

He suggested that like a fireplace, the fire in the building can easily be controlled by limiting the amount of air that will make the fire flair up.

A piercing fog nozzle jammed into the building, into the roof or side will smother the fire.

"If you cool hot gases and put water on the fire you will prevent it from spreading and if you put enough water on it, it might go out," Svensson said.

There's no truth to the idea that a house will blow up and knock out windows and worse if the smoke gets too dense in the building, he said.

"You need a good scientist, and no myths to teach you about fire behavior," he said, noting there are many in United States that would help with the education.

He sees no reason for people to vent roofs that have already self-vented through a burned out hole in the roof or the windows in the gable ends.

On top of that, he sees even less reason to climb into a chimney (a broken window) that is issuing heavy smoke, he said. "It shows a lack of an understanding about what's going on... Venting a fire causes a lot of problems and if you don't have the knowledge, you might not want to try it."

Svensson said he's heard a lot about aggressive interior attack firefighters, but he doesn't understand why that kind of firefighter would repeatedly go into a building with a compromised floor.

"I wouldn't go in at all in that situation," he said. "No way. Being aggressive requires a great deal of knowledge."

He criticized the nation's apparatus which he claimed is getting bigger while all of Europe is going with smaller and smaller apparatus that are smarter and smarter.

There's also a dangerous culture of rewarding the worst behaviors, Svensson said, noting a recent award to a firefighter who ran into a burning building without PPE and got second degree burns on his face, to save a woman inside the building.

"Does anyone see a problem with that?" Svensson asked. "You are promoting dangerous behavior. You are showing stupid behavior... You can reward, but you have to give them something for the right reason."

The debate about 30-minute bottles versus 45-minute bottles is also something he doesn't quite understand. An air bottle is only going to last as long as the individual wearing it sucks it down, he said.

"You spend too much time training on how to get out of a situation rather than avoiding problems in the first place," he said. "...When you need a R.I.T., it's too late. You should have been out way before there is any need for a R.I.T."

Examining the line of duty deaths, Svensson said it looks good on paper that the numbers are going down, but at the same time so are the number of serious fires at an even higher rate.

Overlaying the L.O.D.D.s on to the chart plotting fires, it actually shows a trend indicating firefighter deaths are on the increase in proportion to the number of fires.

He also commented on the practice of going in to a fire without any hose line at all.

"I'm not going in without a hose, no way," Svensson said.

He was also critical of firefighters who don't use hoods to cover their ears because they want to feel the heat to gauge whether they need to get out or can stay in.

"There should be a fine for firefighters who don't use all their PPE," he said. "...There's a fine line between being a hero and being stupid."

Firefighters in the United States also have egos that can, and often do, get them hurt or killed, he said.

"Are our egos of greater value than our lives?" he asked. "...You risk a great deal to save nothing," he said.

Svensson wasn't completely critical of the U.S. fire service. He praised the incident command structure here in this country as well as our ability, and willingness, to flow large volumes of water when the fire requires it.

Conversely, he said his department in Sweden wasn't perfect and if someone from the states were to critique his department and practices they would seem strange.

The thing that unifies the two countries is the desire to save lives and property while keeping firefighters safe.

"I can't see any injury that's acceptable," he said, noting that there are still accidents on the scene which can't be avoided. And, there are times when risking a minor injury to make a major save might be expected.

"If all I got were first degree burns on my hands because I reached in and grabbed someone and saved her life, I can live with it. My boss might not like it, but I could do that personally."

In a closing remark, Svensson admonished the fire service leaders to make rational decisions.

"If you can't do it in a safe way you shouldn't do it," he said.

In questions and answers, Billy Goldfeder, deputy fire chief of the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, and the host and sponsor of www.firefighterclosecalls.com, said while no injury should be acceptable, there may be some instances were firefighter make a calculated risk.

To do that it takes a lot of knowledge that needs to be "front loaded" into the firefighter before they ever face the situation.

"There might be a situation where survivable burns are acceptable," Goldfeder said. He added there has to be a level of acceptance that there are inherent dangers with the job.

John Sullivan, the deputy chief of Worcester (Mass.) Fire Department, who had presented a class in the morning FRI sessions, said there were probably no, or few people who would disagree with most of what Svensson said.

"We do some strange things, some stupid things," Sullivan said, noting that he feels changes are coming slowly. "It's just taking us time to turn this aircraft carrier around... I can see the changes. I hear the changes in discussion. We can see it because we live it on a daily basis. We will get there."

Loading