Routine? Routine? Wake Up! We Don’t Do Routine!

Oct. 1, 2004
Before starting this month’s fire case study, I want to make a few comments regarding “routine.” In the past few weeks, we have read about or even attended funerals for some wonderful people:
  • Los Angeles City Firefighter Jaime Foster lost her life when she was backed over in what is a routine action (the backing of apparatus) by any of us on any fire department on any given day.

  • Polk County, FL, Firefighter Benjamin Matthew Lang was helping Polk County EMS with the transport of a patient to a hospital when the ambulance in which they were riding left the road and struck a tree, resulting in Lang’s death.

  • Beaver County, PA, Firefighter David Vinisky was killed and another firefighter was injured when the new apparatus they were looking at suddenly backed up and over them in front of their firehouse. Vinisky, 49, a longtime member of the Raccoon Township Volunteer Fire Department, died in the accident, which has led to the driver of the rig being charged. Can things get any more routine than backing the apparatus at the firehouse?

These “routine” events led to the loss of some wonderful people who were your brothers and sister. And each of us, when reading about these events, feels the grief and sadness – and the wonder.

While these events have not yet (as of this writing) been fully and officially investigated, they have one common denominator. They each occurred in a “routine” run.

  • The backing up of a rig returning from a minor dwelling fire – routine.
  • Firefighters assisting EMS with a transport of a serious patient – routine.
  • Apparatus backing up at the firehouse – routine.

So what is “routine”? Webster defines it as “1a: a regular course of procedure b: habitual or mechanical performance of an established procedure.” The way I read it, it means that “routine” is habitual, something we do with regularity. But also notice the word “procedure.”

So now, let’s redefine the word “routine” in the Firehouse® Magazine dictionary. “1a: a regular course of fire and rescue work that is defined by strict written, enforced and trained-upon procedures that can, in the course of the day, become lax or forgotten; b: habitual or mechanical performance of an established and trained-upon fire and rescue procedure that is supervised and is performed with full accountability and the safety and survival of all on the scene or responding.

We often use the word “routine” in our business and, because we deal with so many “unknowns,” we have to operate as if nothing is “routine.” What is the best way to get that accomplished? Strict and enforced policies and procedures, and a “no-excuses” attitude by officers to insure that no matter what, an extreme effort is always made to have all members follow firefighter safety and survival policies, guidelines and procedures.

Take a look at each of the above “routine” details that led to the untimely deaths of those firefighters and apply them to your fire department. Could it happen at your fire department? If so, what will be done so it never does? If you feel it can never happen at your fire department, that’s a good thing – but also worth asking the question, why not? What is in place to insure it doesn’t happen? Are the rules trained on? Are they enforced equally? Is it clear to the members what the consequences will be if they don’t follow the “firefighter safety and survival” rules?

Working in a restaurant may be routine, delivering mail may be routine and baking cakes may be routine. But in the business we are in, it can sometimes be so easy for us to become laid back and relaxed with an attitude that says, “don’t worry, we get away with this all the time, it is all ‘routine,’ ” and then suddenly, a tragic situation occurs with far-reaching consequences. A simple failure to take care, use caution or follow/enforce established policies and procedures can lead to horrific results. If the policies don’t exist, then that’s this month’s homework assignment. If they do, they must be enforced by officers who are not afraid to enforce them. Worried that your firefighters may not like you if you strictly enforce these kinds of standard operating guidelines (SOGs) and standard operating procedures (SOPs)? Odds are, they don’t like you anyway, so go ahead and enforce the rules so no one is injured or killed. It is that simple.

Next month, we’ll look even more closely at some recent apparatus and vehicle-related injuries and deaths that occurred due to the actions of firefighters.

This account is provided by a reader. Chief Goldfeder’s comments follow:

I recently attended one of your firefighter safety and survival seminars and I read the Close Calls column in Firehouse® Magazine each month. The information you’ve provided opened my eyes to an incident that was thought to be “the routine structure fire.”

One night on shift, after a relatively slow day, we were dispatched on a full first-alarm response to a structure fire. We have 39 line personnel responding on three three-man engine companies, one three-man truck company and an on-duty battalion chief. We get 13 personnel on a first-alarm assignment and (by your seminar) you know that is not enough for a working structure fire.

My engine was second due and arrived on scene of a two-story wood-frame residential structure, with IDLH (immediately dangerous to life and health) smoke conditions and fire visible from side 2 of the structure. My crew of one firefighter and me was assigned to back up the first-due attack crew. A hydrant was in the front yard, so my apparatus chauffeur assisted with setup. He was then reassigned to an outside exposure line with a 2 12 -inch line. My nozzleman, a rookie firefighter with only one serious training burn under his belt, led the way to the second story, or division 2, stairway to back up the initial attack crew.

What we encountered was a little unusual. There was light smoke on division 1 (the first floor), but on division 2 we found heavier smoke just off of the ceiling. It appeared we had a classic, well-ventilated attic fire, but as we helped the attack crew gain access to the attic by pulling some ceiling, we found nothing. Smoke and heat conditions were increasing, but not to an unsafe level as we still had less than IDLH conditions – but we couldn’t find the fire.

We had been inside the structure for about seven minutes and we were continuing to search for the fire (all of the occupants were evacuated prior to our arrival by a chief who lives in the neighborhood). Just as we gave our report of our findings, the hallway (and, as we later found out later, the entire structure) flashed, but only for less than a minute. I have to tell you that up to this point, this one was, as I said, “routine.”

I have never witnessed this type of condition. We had flames ceiling to floor for just a few seconds – long enough to throw the “pucker factor” into the intense range. Four firefighters were in the hallway on division 2. The crew from Engine 1 ended up between my probie and me on the nozzle (we were about two feet apart when the “flash” occurred). The Engine 1 officer was standing up, pulling some ceiling; he fell to the ground, striking his firefighter’s helmet and forcing it off of his head, and like a good probie, he had his chinstrap affixed, which pulled his mask away from his face. The firefighter, who was also new to the job, bailed over my nozzleman and down the stairs head first to the front door (side 1), exiting the structure. At this point, the evacuation tones and horns were sounding and an accountability check was being performed. The incident commander knew that three of us were still inside, but I thought we still had four.

And about the term “customary and routine”: When I saw red and orange hit me in the face, I reached for the floor to find (luckily) the nozzle that the firefighter had been manning. Getting a wide-angle fog between the fire and us was on my mind. Once we determined that everyone was OK and realized that our other crew member was safe outside, we backed out with lines flowing. Once outside, we found out that the exterior wall on side 2 collapsed at the firebox, feeding the attic fire. It was later determined that the fire originated from a neglected stovepipe full of creosote, The homeowner, who burned coal for heat, had not cleaned the chimney in about five years. My probie nozzleman took what he had been taught in his first year on the job and he used it. He used his hoseline when the officer from the first-due engine landed in his lap and opened up on the fire with a medium-wide fog, which kept the fire off them. I tell you this because it is as close to a real heavy “flashover-like” that I have ever seen. And thinking back on that night, we are pretty lucky we were not all burned or worse.

These comments are based upon Chief Goldfeder’s observations and communication with the writer and others regarding this run:

What was that we were saying about “routine”? As far as this specific fire:

  • Writing this column is a pleasure. It seems that many folks are taking the Close Calls that other firefighters are experiencing and using those “lessons learned” so history doesn’t get repeated. That’s good for all of us.

  • Thirteen firefighters on a first-alarm assignment is a lot better than many areas, but far fewer than others. What is the immediate solution to problematic staffing? Automatic aid. An automatic response system using (and training regularly with) neighboring fire departments on the first-alarm assignment can bridge that gap to insure enough staffing to get the tasks done effectively and timely.

  • The fact that you had a rookie on the line is a big deal, and the fact that you were with that firefighter is the right way to operate. Inexperienced firefighters must always have experienced, qualified and trained supervision operating with them. Several recent close calls as well as fatalities have identified less-experienced firefighters operating without the benefit of experienced supervision as having led to tragic outcomes. Beware of unsupervised firefighters whose next working fire will be their – it might become their last. In this case, the probie performed well and put the fire training to work, under supervision.

  • “Pucker factor,” huh? We’ve all been there. The goal is for it to not occur while on-duty as firefighters! The letter isn’t clear, but perhaps the outside incident commander or sector officers might not have seen conditions indicating that heavy fire conditions were to follow. Constant feedback between the incident commander, the sector officers and the interior crews can result in lives being saved – or close calls being avoided. By “reading the smoke” as well as the building and related conditions, the experienced and trained exterior fire officer can make the call, since the interior crews cannot see the entire “big picture.” Naturally, the same goes for the interior officer – watching conditions before and during the attack is critical to everyone going home.

  • Several years ago, someone was describing to a few of us a fire at which a firefighter was burned. One of those listening to the story said, “Aw, that wasn’t a TRUE flashover,” and balked at the fire. I’ll always remember that, as I have known many firefighters who suffered serious injuries in what may not have been TRUE flashovers. So what is a flashover? Let’s ask one who has been there.

While I was writing this month’s Close Calls column, I contacted a friend who is well versed in this subject of flashover. Deputy Fire Chief Jim Murtagh, FDNY (ret.), is a renowned expert in firefighting. While we know that coordinated ventilation and the application of hose streams is critical, I wanted more. Chief Murtagh commanded some of the busiest areas in New York City, was a professor of fire science at John Jay College, and is a noted author, writer and speaker. While we all have a general idea of what flashover is, Chief Murtagh offered additional details on the subject, which is greatly appreciated.

Chief Murtagh comments: “The ‘concept of flashover’ is based upon the physical and chemical phenomena of a fire converting stored energy in the available substances in a confined space and then igniting all of the gases at once. This occurs when a fire is developing in a closed space; as the fire expands the radiated and convected heat energy preheat the surfaces away for the immediate fire area and these uninvolved surfaces begin to pryrolize and give off combustible gases. When sufficient gas is available, these uninvolved areas of the space are now ready to ignite – if the heat is sufficient, and sufficient oxygen is make available (usually by a firefighter venting some part of the space), the fire ignites all the gases in the space ignite, almost simultaneously, and a fire flash burn occurs – hence a flashover.

“I was actually in flashover when it occurred and could see and experience what was happening as it happened. I was in a store (used as real estate office) conducting the primary search. The fire was in the adjacent store on the exposure 2 side and had extended into the rear of the real estate store without us knowing about it. I got about halfway back into the store and began to see vapors being released from the wall paneling, desktops and other items. I dove to the floor and curled up in a fetal position, just before it ignited and blew out the front of the store. The only vent hole in the store was the front door that I had opened to get in to do the search.

“I was fortunate – there was insufficient fuel and/or heat to sustain combustion, and the fire went back to burning, as it was when I first entered the store. I was lucky and fortunate enough to be able to use that luck to perk my interest in this subject.

“Another concept we need to review is ‘well-ventilated area’ vs. ‘limited-ventilated area.’ I would argue with the concept that a well-ventilated area is one in which the fire can burn freely and have NO probability of a flashover, backdraft, smoke explosion or other unexpected increase in growth. (The ignition of unknown and unexpected flammable liquids is not considered in this definition.) I would argue with the concept that a limited-ventilation area is one where some ventilation has occurred, intentionally or by the fire, but this ventilation – a window, door or combination of a few windows and doors – is insufficient to release the trapped flammable gases created by the fire. Thus, we have the possibility of a flashover, backdraft or smoke explosion.

“The question of what is the right amount of ventilation is very difficult to define – it is one of order of magnitude of the fire and the length of burn time. As a rule, the greater the smoke density, the greater the chance of a flashover or backdraft with limited ventilation.

“When the smoke is dark, brown or black, expect gas ignition and do wide-scale ventilation. When you see light smoke, limited ventilation is generally adequate; however, wide-scale ventilation by opening windows, doors and other vent holes is always a good way to reduce or prevent the unexpected.

“Chief Goldfeder is right on target when he states that we cannot count on ventilation, that is, limited ventilation, to prevent and or reduce the probability of flashover. Wide-scale, well-timed and coordinated ventilation of multiple windows, doors and the roof areas will diminish the chance of flashover.”

Chief Goldfeder’s comments resume: While not specifically relating to this close call, but in general, so often we kick back and get “comfortable” in our business. Either due to being slow or having many “not-so-serious” runs, we get complacent. Even the busiest companies can find themselves “comfortable” and not alert or vigilant. That complacency can also come from firefighters or officers who simply don’t give a damn – and you can usually tell who they are a mile away. Firefighting is no place for a complacent approach on the part of the bosses or the firefighters, because complacency – as we all know – can lead to them or those who do give a damn getting hurt or killed, not to mention the effects on families and others.

Maybe we should maintain a constant state of “uncomfortable” so that we constantly pay close attention to the before, during and after the run and everyone goes home. After all, what we do as firefighters must be a form of well-trained, well-commanded and well-disciplined routine operations – but no fire should ever be treated as “routine.”

Author’s note: As I was writing this column, I received the sad news that Chief James O. “Jim” Page had passed away suddenly. What a major loss for all of us in the fire service. The lives that Jim affected and saved, both directly and indirectly through his efforts with the nation’s fire service and all his related EMS projects, are immeasurable. But beyond that, Jim was a no-bull, get-it-done-now type of chief with real guts, and we need so many more in our business like Jim. There is not a fire department in this country that has not reaped the lifelong efforts of Jim Page. Jim was a good friend, a major fan of the Close Calls column in Firehouse® and cheerleader for our efforts in the area of firefighter safety and survival. He often called, wrote or spoke to me in person to express his feelings that getting the information out so others will be able to prevent tragedy is really making a difference. Jim’s calls and comments to us mattered. His loss will be felt forever, but all the work Jim did also will live on and make a difference forever.

William Goldfeder, EFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 31-year veteran of the fire service. He is a battalion chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has been a chief officer since 1982 and has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, and is a past commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is an active writer, speaker and instructor on fire service operational issues. Chief Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free and noncommercial firefighter safety & survival website

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