Friday, November 30, 2012

Company Proficiency or freelancing?

Is knowing your job and going to work without a direct order from the Chief based on a set standard, freelancing or company proficiency?

On fire scenes across the U.S., firefighters at organized, professional, and proficient fire departments go to work with a “game plan” in place prior to arriving on the scene of an incident. The playbook that contains these “game plans” is called a fire ground procedure. This gives firefighters the unprecedented ability to function in needed roles without the incident commander having to assign each individual company a task, so long as the incident’s characteristics do not require a change in the “line up”.  This is a fluid procedure that is not a bible. We want firefighters that can think and make educated decisions, not robots that can read a book. How often is job proficiency seen as freelancing? More than you think.

I am in charge syndrome:

Chiefs often feel that they need to keep their thumb on every company in the fire department. They must control everything from what equipment is on the trucks, to how the hose is packed, to every move companies make on a fire scene. People call this management, I call this dangerous. This micromanagement of fire companies creates a fire service that is afraid to make a decision for fear of repercussions. Failure to make a decision causes situations that firefighters can be hurt or killed.

“Micromanagement is job security for insecure people”
- Dr. Richard Gasaway

A fire department that is heavy on the policies will create situations in which company officers fail to make decisions under stress filled situations due to the fear of consequences from the administration. Chief officers need to understand their role just as a new firefighter must understand his. Micromanagement is a death sentence to a fire department starting with morale and ending with department proficiency. As a fire department leader, you need to be encouraging your personnel to make decisions, learn from mistakes, and decide what they want for their company so long as it abides by the organizations values and mission.

Preparing for the job:

The fire ground procedure should be an outline of the direction the fire department will take when operating on scene of an incident. For example, your fire ground procedure may have the following initial set up:

1st Due Engine- Fire Attack
2nd Due Engine- Water Supply
3rd Due Engine- Rapid Intervention
4th Due Engine- Assist with Ladder/Rescue Company Operations
1st Due Truck Company- Ladder Company Operations
5th Due Engine and later- Report to staging

A good fire ground procedure also states the benchmarks an incident commander should make. Some fire departments have expanded on this to the point of using the fire ground procedure as a step-by-step guide for fire ground operations. I cannot even begin to express how dangerous I feel this is. When you take the ability of firefighters to make decisions based on the situation they are facing, you are setting your department up for failure and possibly worse.  The fire ground procedures should be able to be altered at anytime if needed for operational success. For example,

 The 3rd due Engine (Rapid Intervention) may arrive and the 1st due Engine has a line stretched inside fighting fire. There are multiple reports of subjects trapped. The 2nd due Engine is still tied up with securing a water supply. The fire ground procedure should allow for that 3rd due Engine to become the “search group”. With that change, the incident commander just “backfills” the fire scene benchmarks as units arrive.

Like anything else, if you don’t train on it as a company and with the companies you respond with, you will burn homes to the ground. Organize your thoughts, share them, train on them, and be open to ideas and procedures from around the country. 


Discuss this concept with your company. If you have a fire ground procedure, refresh yourselves on it. Also discuss different scenarios in which changes would be made to the procedure to achieve the operational goals of an incident. By training on these concepts, you create the ability to think outside of a written document when faced with different situations.

I ask you again. Is knowing your job and going to work without a direct order from the Chief based on a set standard, freelancing or company proficiency?

Train hard, remain open to new concepts, and work hard to progress the fire service.  Do you have it?

Chief Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, who is quoted in this article is with Situational Awareness Matters, Helping first responders see the bad things coming in time to change the outcome. You can visit his website at

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Mayday! Are you prepared to go home?

Firefighter Mayday. No one wants to think about it happening and many don’t think it can happen to them. If you think it cannot happen, you are oh so wrong.  Are you as a firefighter prepared to make that distress call under the emotional and physical demand of the situation? Have you given yourself permission to put aside your pride and make the mayday transmission that could potentially save your life? Are you as an officer prepared to manage the mayday and subsequent Rapid Intervention Crew deployment without letting your emotions run wild?

A large obstacle today that creates situations in which firefighters enter into a mayday parameter is not enough training on the basics.

Bottom line. When you forget the basics and your skills get rusty, you will put yourself in a situation that can make you fall into one of the mayday parameters. You may push your luck 99 times and be fine. That 100th time, those shortcuts and mistakes will catch you. 

You remember that salty old captain that would say in your rookie academy, “ the basics will save your life”? People would most likely roll their eyes. You know what? He was right on the money. The basics of firefighting will enable you to go home in the morning. Yes you are a 10-year veteran and yes you have seen some fire. The minute you forget the basics, you are no better than the green new guy on his first day. Complacency is dangerous and deadly. 

The basics or lack of basics is one major reason firefighters enter into a mayday parameter. For example, lightweight truss construction under fire will fail quickly. Knowing the signs of an impending collapse is a basic that comes with experience and knowledge of building construction, along with knowing the characteristics and behavior of the construction type in fire conditions.

However, this job is dangerous and bad things will happen that are out of your control. The only thing that would make this job safer would be to just go ahead and do away with interior firefighting. Many “new age” firefighters endorse this concept. Don’t forget that firefighting is not a safe job and you signed up to take that risk to make a difference.  It is managing that level of risk through training on basics and firefighter survival that will lessen the potential for a poor outcome. Learn the basics, know your job, serve, and go home.

Several years ago, I was in a large residential house fire. The home had been struck by lightening where a natural gas line was running through a first floor. There was a full basement. Fire was inside of that first floor. We were in the basement pulling ceiling and hitting the fire. Visibility was very low. When the order came to exit and rehab, I told my officer that I had to go back through the basement and grab the TIC off a pool table. Alone I walked through the basement, which had hallways and rooms. After about 2 minutes, I realized I was lost. I no longer knew which way was out or where the pool table was. Time to call a mayday?

It should have been the time. I was disoriented in a large residential mansion with limited air supply. My breathing began to speed up as I felt that little bit of panic. I didn’t call the mayday, as I should have, mostly because of a lack of training and experience. I ended up finding my way out by following a wall and I got lucky. Several things to take away from this story: never set a tool down, stay with your crew or maintain awareness of where they went and know when to call the mayday. It can be canceled. We need to stop being tough guys and make the call when the criteria fits. Only after the mayday has been called can the firefighter begin to attempt to fix the situation.

I recently attended a National Fire Academy course on Firefighter Mayday. This course was taught in line with the State of North Carolina Rapid Intervention Certification. The instructor, Chief Tony Bailey, a Wake County, NC District Chief at the Stony Hill Fire Department, gave a lecture in the classroom that sent home one bulletproof point. 

“Firefighters must give themselves permission prior to getting on the fire truck to call a mayday.” –Dr. Burton Clark

As a National Fire Academy recognized course, the hands on training portion had to meet several mayday parameters. I encourage all companies to make these props at your firehouse and train regularly on it. These are all training scenarios that can be simulated with a low budget in your department.

Lost- Have the firefighter follow a charged hose line with their mask blacked out. Once they enter into a hallway or room, simulate a collapse that has blocked their exit of the room.

8.     Stuck- Using an entanglement box, create a situation in which a firefighter has become stuck. Ask the firefighter if he has any hand tools in his/her gear and have them attempt to reach it. (This same situation can be used with several ropes or wires to entangle the SCBA of the firefighter if an entanglement box is not available)

     Trapped from a collapse- Using a section of chain link fence, have two instructors pin a firefighter to the ground while the firefighter is following a hoseline.

     Fall- Using a hinged floor or ramp, create a collapse of the floor in which the firefighter falls onto two mattresses from a height of about 4 foot.

At each mayday parameter station, the firefighter must gain access to his/her radio and properly transmit a mayday over the radio. Taking your gloves off is unacceptable as it will bring an instructor telling you that your hand is now burned. 

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Dr.Burton Clark of the National Fire Academy about Mayday. Dr.Clark is was a major player in developing our current mayday procedures and training that is used in this country. The above quote as well as much of our modern Mayday system is derived from Navy pilots. These pilots go over the steps of their mayday and ejection procedures before each flight. During my conversation with Dr.Clark, he made the point, “ you check your SCBA daily to ensure there is air to keep you alive, why do we as firefighters not take the time to refresh ourselves on the mayday system and procedures prior to our shift?”  The Navy pilots also are trained that they will give themselves permission to eject and call a mayday if the situation presents itself. Dr.Clark used this concept to develop the training quote listed above; “Firefighters must give themselves permission prior to getting on the fire truck to call a mayday.”

Dr.Clark made one major point during our conversation. “ Firefighters cannot call a mayday if they don’t have a radio or leave it on the truck.” That sentence got me thinking. Why in heaven’s name would a firefighter that had access to a portable radio not take the radio with them when they get off of the truck? That is just crazy. Beyond that, why in 2012 do we not have a portable radio available for every seat on the fire truck? I don’t want to hear about budgets and the economy. Chiefs must find the money. I am sure there is something you can cut or do without to purchase some radios. When it comes to making this purchase, you are making the purchase of an important tool that could allow someone to do as they are trained, call for help, and go home to their family.

On to the officers now………

Are you ready to manage that mayday? Do you have your policy memorized? This will be the most stressful time of your career. Muscle memory has to take place. Training takes over and you continue in game mode. That is if you took the time to train on it. Has the department created any worksheets or guides that are on scene of calls for the IC to help him in the event a mayday is called? Bottom line officers:  you need to be ready. If you fail, your firefighter and possibly more could die.

Training Challenge:
I suggest that every company officer create several flash cards that detail a situation that meets a mayday parameter. When you are at the grocery store or the firehouse, hand your firefighter a card. As soon as the firefighter gets the card he says “mayday, mayday, mayday.” The officer answers in the appropriate manner and the firefighter proceeds with his mayday message per the department policy. This teaches firefighters to always pay attention to their surroundings and maintain awareness of where you are inside a building. This helps the officer create muscle memory for dealing with the mayday from a command standpoint. Don’t forget officer, you need to be able to call a mayday also. Give a few cards to your newest firefighter and tell him to catch you off guard and let your senior firefighter or newest officer run the command side. Play with it for every shift day for one month. At the end of the month, do some hands on mayday training and see how much improvement has occurred. You will be surprised.

Remember, the basics are just as important now as when you were a rookie. Training on your mayday procedure regularly is also important to maintain a state of readiness. If the basics fail you, which they rarely will, you have a plan B. The Plan B that is not giving up. The Plan B that will allow you to go home. Stay safe out there.

A special thank you to Dr. Burton Clark of the National Fire Academy for contributing to this blog post, Captain Brian Goodwin for assistance with photo and video, Chief Tony Bailey and the Stony Hill Fire Department for use of their training facility which assisted in creation of this blog post. 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The importance of holding firefighters accountable

The firehouse culture that takes feelings into account before job proficiency and responsibility is dangerous. Giving people a hard time to prove a point is no longer acceptable and will often times land you a trip to the boss’ office.  A hard time is firehouse culture folks, and there is a reason. Firefighter Accountability. 

The school of hard knocks has been in existence in the fire service for long before anyone reading this article has ever thought about a fire truck. The firehouse culture is a proving ground that prepares you for all aspects of the job. Many would call this type of bantering or belittling someone as “hazing”. I disagree fully. We are not branding someone’s skin or stabbing you in the chest with your fire badge. You teach values, responsibility, attention to detail, and pride out of this school of hard knocks. For example, Johnny firefighter with a few years on the job always forgets to bring in soap for showering. A little bit of verbal jousting may be required to “motivate” Johnny to not forget his personal items for his tour of duty. Many of you may think that this is a trivial area that we shouldn’t be concerned with and that we have bigger things to worry over. You are wrong. Today, Johnny forgets his soap again and we just give him some and let it go. Tomorrow, Johnny forgets his fire gloves on a run. The next day Johnny forgets his portable radio, and the following day, Johnny forgets how to pull YOU out of a fire when the floor collapses. Such a simple task like bringing soap from home teaches responsibility, accountability, and memory. It is the small things in the firehouse that branch out and build you as a firefighter.

You are the Fire Chief of a small 2 firehouse, town fire department. You have a company officer that continues to make tactical decisions that many complain about. You are worried that these continued uninformed, sketchy decisions would get someone hurt or worse yet, killed. The officer does not take criticism well and will lash out if he is called out. What do you do?

I know what everyone will say should be done. That is, deal with the problem directly, offer that officer more training, and do your job as the fire chief to correct a failure of your company officers. That is great that most will see that this is the appropriate course of action. The problem here is that most everyone that is in a position that encounters substandard subordinate performance will not correct or even address the problem. Officers are too busy being office managers and worrying about a supply order than leading their people. As an equal rank to a substandard firefighter, is it ok to run your mouth a little to shine light on the problem and inspire a bit of motivation? Yes it is ok. Remember, the performance of your other company members directly affects you and your survival. Should you offer assistance to the substandard employee in the form of advice or training? Absolutely. Your team is only as ready as your weakest firefighter.

I am not perfect. I have never claimed to be. I am the new boy on my crew with almost 3 years on the job at my current assignment full time. The new boy’s job is to fill the ice bucket daily. I forget that ice bucket regularly. My crew, most of which are seasoned fireman at this assignment, give me hell. I get junk talked to me and I deserve it. They are teaching me responsibility. It is my job, and I let them down. I get caught up in “important” things and I forget the little things. Now we don’t have ice at the dinner table because of me. See how this works?

Don’t forget to tell folks when they do a good job. Don’t always jump in on the bad, unless they just don’t get it. Firemen that don’t get it should be shown the door. That may seem like harsh words, but if my life depends on you, I expect you to know your stuff. This feel good service is going to get people hurt. If today’s firefighter cannot take a little junk at the house, how in God’s name will they take seeing people mutilated in accidents, or vicious assaults? The best Fire Chief I ever had would tell you when you made a good decision, did a good job, and was not afraid to tell you when you needed to change a behavior.

This goes for training also. You know the substandard firefighter (“Mutt” in firehouse slang) that cannot ever get motivated and HATES to train? If you are a career guy, you get PAID to train for the job. How much better does that get? Training is getting to go to recess for me. It takes us away from the admin duties, the firehouse drama, the stress of life, and allows us to sharpen our skills. Bottom line, it is fun. When I finish training, I love the job even more. I am pumped up and ready to take in a run. It refreshes you, nourishes you, and builds you and your crew up. Train daily. It’s like exercise. You start doing it everyday and it becomes part of your life and you feel malnourished without it.

Officers, you need to mandate training. It is NOT ok for some substandard firefighters to exclude themselves from the crew during training and run off to hide. We need to stop trying to make everyone feel welcome and run a FIREHOUSE. If they cannot be apart of the crew, show them the door. If they care and are trying, make every attempt in your every being to help them out, encourage them, and teach them. If you as an officer cannot be a leader, step aside before something bad happens.

“Leadership without management accomplishes nothing, and management without leadership accomplishes a whole lot of nothing.” – Dr.Richard Gasaway

 I sat at the kitchen table on a recent night after training at my firehouse. I looked around and at the seasoned brothers eating their dinner. I thought to myself, what an honor it is to dine at this table and live in this house. There are hundreds of people that would love to sit in my seat. It is an honor. Not a privilege. Being part of the brotherhood is an honor you are given. Not a privilege. Just because you work in the house and think you are a fireman, doesn’t make you part of the brothers. You have to be accepted into this elite group by working hard and loving the job.

I am introducing two new terminologies for guys that “get it”.

“New Firefighting Order”. The New Firefighting Order is today’s firefighters building the fire service in today’s world with yesterday’s history, knowledge, and values. #NFFO

The new term is #GHM. It stands for “Go Home Mutts.” We are taking a stand to not let the paycheck guy ruin this fine profession and lifestyle. Keep pushing for what is right, train hard and consistently, love the job, and stay safe out there.

Dr.Richard Gasaway who is quoted above is with Situational Awareness Matters.