Rule 10: A Passion for Health and Safety

July 1, 2010
Great leaders must ensure that all firefighters go home at the end of an alarm or shift. This rule is perhaps the most important one of the entire list of Rube's Rules.

Great leaders must ensure that all firefighters go home at the end of an alarm or shift. This rule is perhaps the most important one of the entire list of Rube's Rules.

To define "Everyone Goes Home" a bit more, our members must return to their families and homes just as they arrived at the firehouse, before the response to an event or the completion of a shift. The fire-rescue department exists to help others during their difficult time of need, the notion is that we must be able to help folks when, where and how their situation demands. We perform on the street as the situation generally dictates. There are only a few times that we react to the conditions that are presented to us by trying to change them, such as holding a defensive position until the police can control a hostile scene.

If we are not physically and mentally able to do so, we will fail at the mission that we are sworn to carry out of protecting the public that we serve. Without the required human resources to perform that work at hand, simply put we will not be successful. Our industry is and will forever likely be highly dependent on people to carry out the required tasks to save lives, protect property and help secure our homeland.

One of the most heroic case studies that I can share is the tragic event best known as "Caught Under the Wheels." In the 1980s, a young, capable firefighter was on duty assigned to a ladder truck in Prince George's County, MD. During the evening of the shift, a box-alarm assignment was dispatched for an apartment house on fire. Firefighter Sandy Lee quickly reported to her assigned position of the right jump seat on Truck 22 and mounted the apparatus in preparation to respond to this call for help. However, Sandy skipped the step in donning her turnout gear and failed to use the seatbelt that was provided to protect her.

As the response started and the ladder truck began to move, Sandy's turnout boot fell from the jump seat (back in the days of three-quarter boots and open jump seats) onto the concrete ramp in front of the station. A natural reflex was to reach for the boot. In a split second, Sandy fell from the vehicle onto the ramp. With the siren and air horns sounding, her screams for help and for the vehicle to stop went unheard. As you might have guessed, Sandy was struck by the tandem rear wheels of the ladder truck. She was dragged more than 30 feet across the front ramp and sustained severe damage to her body. This event would change her life and career forever.

In fact, Sandy was first transported to the Prince George's General Hospital (PGGH) Level 1 Trauma Unit for stabilization. Soon after being stabilized at PGGH, Sandy was flown to Baltimore's Shock Trauma Unit. The staff there was able to somehow miraculously save her life from the threat of such devastating injuries. Requiring dozens of operations and hundreds of pints of blood transfusions, it was a miracle that she did somehow survive this traumatic ordeal.

As her healing along with the physical and mental rehabilitation process started, Sandy developed an amazing training program that she entitled, "Caught Under the Wheels." In retelling her story scores of times, Sandy would make firefighters think about following their department rules (donning turnouts before the response) and to always use their seatbelts before the vehicle starts into motion. There are several very powerful videotape presentations in which Firefighter Lee appeared with the goal of making sure that this information would not be lost on future generations of firefighters.

As this overwhelming powerful presentation concludes, Sandy takes full responsibility for her actions. She goes on to say that because of her accident, the ladder truck that she was assigned to that night never made it to the apartment fire. Further, because of her, the medic unit and the battalion chief assigned to assist at the apartment fire never made it as well. Of course, they were all assisting with the injured firefighter who was down on the front ramp of Station 22 that night.

Sandy will always hold a special place in my heart and thoughts. This is not just because she sustained career-ending injuries and immeasurable suffering that night while protecting her community. In addition to being such a courageous leader and hometown hero, Sandy developed a behavior-modifying training program and she did something few folks do today at any level of our society — she took personal responsibility and accountability for her actions.

I think of Sandy often and I shall never forget the sacrifices and contributions that she had made to the American fire-rescue service. When I discuss firefighter safety, I use this example to make folks think through the fact that you can't help anyone if you are hurt. Hopefully, you have never experienced a member being injured during an operation. The folks who have had this unfortunate event occur can fully appreciate my next thought: The entire company that you are working with goes out of service when a member is injured. In fact, if the injury is moderate or more significant, other companies will be called in to assist by providing aid and transportation to the downed firefighter. Once this process unfolds, it gets more difficult to resolve the situation that we were called on to handle in the first place. The very nature of this type of alarm gets more dangerous for all hands at this point.

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of great firefighter safety and survival programs readily available. The National Fire Academy (NFA) is a great place to start or continue your lifelong educational commitment to firefighter safety. You should consider taking the NFA's on- or off-campus firefighter safety programs. Each day, more information appears on the web (such as EZ Training) and is increasingly easier to access to improve our operations from a member safety standpoint. Firehouse® Magazine devotes pages each month that will help you to keep focused and stay out of harm's way, if you will invest the effort to stay informed.

Please take the time to make a concerted effort to learn more, all of the time, about this critical topic. If you are a company or chief officer, your responsibilities to this process (member safety) exponentially increases. Never forget your first duty as a leader of our people, and that of course is to their safety. The entire operational process depends on being able to deploy members who are capable of performing their assigned duties. All officers should obtain and maintain the national incident safety officer certification to be able to perform your duties correctly. You owe it to your family, yourself and your department to "go home" after every run or shift. Please be safe out there!

DENNIS L. RUBIN, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is chief of the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. Previously, Rubin was chief of the Atlanta, GA, Fire and Rescue Department. He holds a bachelor of science degree in fire administration from the University of Maryland and an associate in applied science degree in fire science management from Northern Virginia Community College, and is enrolled in the Fire and Emergency Management Administration program at the graduate school of Oklahoma State University. Rubin is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officers Program, is a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) and has obtained the Chief Fire Officer Designation (CFOD) from by the International Association of Fire Chiefs. He is an adjunct faculty member of the National Fire Academy since 1983. Rubin is the author of the book Rube's Rules for Survival.

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