Commentary on a Firefighter Trainee Lost: Wayne's World

Ed Note: The following is a commentary from Chief Billy Goldfeder. The opinions expressed herein follow the death of Miami-Dade Firefighter Wayne Mitchell Friday during a training exercise.

On Friday, we all learned of the tragic death of Miami-Dade Firefighter Wayne Mitchell, a trainee, which occurred during a training detail. As always, we respectfully discuss the details and comments to LEARN or to motivate learning -- so this stuff can be prevented -- not to be critical, Monday Morning quarterback or any of that kinda stuff.

But the issue is that it happened again. So now, what can be done so it doesn't happen again to ANOTHER FIREFIGHTER.

When we read about Wayne (click here see article) and the effort he made to become a FIREFIGHTER ... to become one of "us" ... I thought of "his world" before -- as a "civilian" (as we call people who ain't us) lifeguard, athlete, son, husband, brother and friend -- in what were his PRE-firefighter days.

I always like to talk with or think about rookie firefighters and their "before" and "after" world-once they become a FIREFIGHTER. When we heard his name on Friday morning, our normally odd thoughts came to think of the "Wayne's World" Movie. What was "Wayne's World" before and after becoming a firefighter.

I get great enjoyment out of talking to the family members of a probie -- to get their perspective on the "fire" stuff. Actually, meeting the families of our firefighters is one of the greatest "joys" of the job, as far as I am concerned. When we see them at some ceremony or celebration, they are always all big smiles, BEAMING with pride on the accomplishment of their Son, Husband, Daughter, Wife or whoever recently changed "their world" ... to become a part of "our world."

About a year ago, my boss and I were at the Ohio Fire Academy attending the graduation of one of our "newest family members" and, as usual, we spent some time with the family members of this probie.

There were the smiles, the happiness and beaming pride of the family members, as they spoke about OUR (theirs and our) newest rookie, the newest member of OUR FD family. As we were leaving the Academy, I thought about that "picture" in my mind-one we (and you) have lived hundreds of times before and the real issue involving all this.

The REAL issue of the fact that day, is that kid became our newest member and our only REAL priority is to make sure we send'em home to those "happy, beaming and proud" family members, who we just met, in one piece after every shift.

That is our only responsibility:

Where is he? What is he doing? Is he geared up? Is he trained for the next run and all the other questions we have to ask about every one of these "kids" who we are responsible for. The family members smile, beam and they proudly "give us" their kid with the unspoken words "take care of him for us" clearly creating a begging atmosphere of trust.

Just like the rookie at our FD, MDFR's Wayne became one of "us". He must have had some idea of what "our" world was like -- and couldn't wait to become a part of it. Party On Wayne.

And he did finally become a part of it ... a "new" gung-ho, enthusiastic "studying-his-butt-off-in probie school" member of THE FAMILY. He studied, got "the job" and all comments and reports are that he excelled in his rookie class. Now, he must have thought, this is very, VERY COOL. Life was great before, but now - "I'm a firefighter ... I'm on THE JOB." Remember that feeling?

Wayne's World changed, becoming even better than it was before. Now he was one of us......Excellent.

The rest of the story? It's over.

As quick as his NEW, exciting "fire-rescue service" life began-it came to an abrupt and tragic end. "Wayne's World" ... with it's latest improvement -- which was "him" becoming "one of us" ended almost before it even really started on Friday, when he lost his life while at a training evolution.

There will be ...

  • No getting up early for the first shift at the firehouse.
  • No making sure the uniform was perfect.
  • No extra duties such as cleaning ALL the dishes...twice.
  • No short sheeted bed.
  • No being assigned to go to headquarters to get four, left handed spanner wrenches.
  • No attempts at cooking the firehouse meal-under the hungry eye of a 25 year Sr. FF.
  • No using the bathroom ... and finding saran wrap over the toilet.
  • No participation in the FD softball team.
  • No first working fire with lights and sirens, looking over and seeing smoke showing.
  • No training at the company level.
  • No driver/engineer training.
  • No showing the next "generation" of clueless probies how do a primary search.
  • No responses at 0330 for someone with a hangnail.
  • No responses at 0345 for the house fire ... with kids trapped.
  • No feeling, ever, of what it is like when "you and your crew" get those kids out.
  • No promotional tests.
  • No retirement parties.

The cause of Wayne's death while at a training evolution has yet to be determined. But the officials are looking into several factors that include:

  • Wayne was still inside while all others had exited. Apparently, it was not clear that he was in trouble until his four classmates emerged without him.
  • It is reported that Wayne suffered severe burns to his hands and knees during the drill. So did some of the other rookies being trained.

The various investigations will come out with the facts involving this specific incident in the coming days. We really hope, that in some manner, the end result of the investigation will make a positive difference in the future of firefighter training everywhere. That would be "excellent."

When it comes to training, we do have a standard that's been around for a while...it's NFPA 1403 which is "LIVE FIRE TRAINING EVOLUTIONS IN STRUCTURES." To us, if it has walls, no matter what "it" is made of---it is a STRUCTURE. And if it uses any kind of heat, it is live.

First hand reports are that they were inside of a structure, of some kind. Even for shipboard fire training, it is still a structure-sometimes an even more challenging structure than we may be used to. Ever try to "vent" a steel structure?

Yeah --THAT kind of challenging....but it is still a structure and we have standards for training evolutions and enough bad history to learn from. And while the facts are not yet out, this serves as yet another reminder to all of us that fire training and actual fire operations require the SAME high level of safety, accountability, command and control.

So often, "it's just training" blinds those involved to the very real possibility of tragic results. Negative results including death and injury during training actvities don't seem to be "going away."

When we took a brief look at NFPA 1403 this morning for our own reminders, a few points "popped right out" at us such as:

  • Training center burn buildings must be properly and legally procured and prepped ... including a FULL inspection of WHAT is inside & what will burn.
  • Adequate water supply and space for all equipment, personnel and apparatus.
  • A pre-burn briefing session so everyone knows who is doing what, where, when, how and why.
  • Full supervision and personnel accountability. Who is in command and who is responsible for the trainees -- each one of them --from the moment they enter until the time they get out. Just like at a "regular" response, we are expected to be the first in-and the last out w/the trainees.
  • Use of fuels that have known, controllable burning characteristics.
  • Presence of seasoned, trained and qualified safety officers.
  • Use of a fireground communications system.
  • A realistic and usable accountability system.
  • A building evacuation plan.
  • Backup safety and replacement personnel.
  • EMS on the scene, ready, standing by
  • A pre-burn search.
  • Use of full PPE.

    ...and quite a bit more, but that seems to cover the basics.

Our hearts and deepest thoughts go out to the family of Wayne Mitchell, our Brother and Sisters at Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, the Officers and Instructors involved in this detail and the responders as well.

Most importantly, we offer our deepest sympathy to those friends and family who were an intimate part of "Wayne's World" before ... and the short period of time after-while he served as a Firefighter.

Seems that all indications were that Wayne would have been, as they said in the movie, an "Excellent" long term member of the family.

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