A learning experience
All over the globe whenever you talk to a brother or sister firefighter he or she'll tell you that there is no better job on the planet. Living in a building for 24 hours with a crew which through time becomes your family is not just something you'll find in any other job. The best job in the world but not one without danger.
In the past few years I've been able to get used to that feeling. Being a volunteer firefighter in Rotterdam (The Netherlands) means that you are able to fill in open spots in the retained schedule during holiday periods and sickness of colleagues. Due to the fact that I've been earning my money working in the offshore industry I had loads of time and I have been able to get to know a decent amount of my colleagues.
It's Monday 5 September 2012 when I report to fire station Baan Rotterdam, one of the busiest houses in The Netherlands. After dealing with a small fire on a boat we nearly had our tools and equipment back on the truck when dispatch reported a building fire just a few streets away from our position. At this time, I had been in and around fire houses almost my whole life, did my courses and had been present at every training moment. Due to what I now understand as a under ventilated fire and a wrongful created flow path by me and my crew and the lack in gas cooling we were surprised by a form of rapid fire progress.
After my shift, I came home and started to wonder: Why did the event occur? What did we do wrong? How was I able to prevent such things from happening?
And so, my search for knowledge begun. I changed jobs and started to work as a full-time fire instructor at Falck Fire Academy. When I became an instructor, I quickly learned that a whole new world just opened. Every topic: It doesn’t matter if it is compartment fire behaviour, industrial firefighting, hazmat response or any other topic for that matter. There is so much more to learn than your basic firefighting education teaches you.
By listening to my colleagues, I learned a lot and today I feel very fortunate that I work in an environment where I can spar on a daily basis with my colleagues. If it wasn’t for them I would still have the same outdated and limited knowledge.
It’s the 28 of January 2015 when disaster strikes. During a training session, I got burned badly. I was assisting a colleague with his training when I was simply standing to close to the fire. I thought I understood and I thought I could predict what would happen. My colleagues showed me the exercise hundreds of times and I used the same exercise to show trainees what the radiative heat of a 9 m2 liquid spill means. By standing too close, flames rolled over my shoulders, shot beside my helmet and touched my face. As a result, I got second degree burns on my lips, nose, eyelids and cheeks.
I learned a hard lesson when I thought I knew what was coming. Similar as the building fire, afterwards I walked around with the question: Why? ... In this case, it was a change in weather conditions. Conditions I couldn’t have predicted but as a qualified firefighter I should have known to take a safer distance from the fire.
Often we respond or relate to our experience as was I when I made the decision to stand on that particular point. By asking the why question over and over again, I saw the lack in actual proven theories and tests. Today we live in the lucky circumstances that there is knowledge to be found on every internet page and on loads of forums. Testing and small training props are the key to bring science to the fire service. To give an example: I’ve spend numerous times in a Split-Level Cell. A Containerised training object where firefighters can learn about fire behaviour.
It was only after I burned my first doll houses and talking to Shan Raffel & Paul Grimwood that I started to make sense of what I was actually seeing when I enjoyed a Split Level Cell Training. It was only then When I started to connect the dots and danger levels to a real fire.
You would think that when one has a solid story it would result in the change of tactics. Many of my teachers will tell you that this is a slightly more difficult problem than you would think. Everyone has his own reason not to change. There are plenty studies and articles to be found about this subject.
Since I just turned thirty I’m not in a position to correct anything about what’s right or wrong on this subject. What I can is write a little about the problems every fire service will have if you won’t support your younger crew. My lieutenants and chief officers come from a great deal of experience, and right or wrong, safe or unsafe, they have always been able to put fire out. Due to newer building regulations, better public safety programs and numerous of other measures grades show a decade in fires and accidents. That decay doesn’t mean that those fire and accidents will never happen again. With the knowledge that fires will keep getting harder to fight there might be one day that the whole team of responding members won’t have the support of that experience. If you’re in a leadership position I would recommend the embrace of change. Change where you will support the younger members of the team and put them in front when they have something to share. After sharing, don’t forget that they still need your guidance and your support within the current crew.
Through this text I would like to say a special thanks to all the people I’ve been learning from in the past few years. The craft of fighting fire is probably the most diverse craft you will ever find and only through guidance, teaching and humility we will be able to get better, create more and better training programs and grow closer as an international brotherhood.
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