I read with interest today an article published in a UK fire engineering (IFE) magazine as well a safety and health publication (non Fire Service) about the prosecution of 2 fire officers (originally 4 I believe) in the UK. These officers were in the incident management team at a large warehouse fire where 4 firefighters lost their lives in 2007. The officers have been charged with manslaughter by gross negligence.
It is my understanding that it is alleged the officers (watch managers and crew managers - equivilent to Battalion Chief and Captain) failed to properly assess risk prior to allowing an interior attack. In other words they permitted an interior attack based on their experience, knowledge and the conditions they observed at the time. As it turns out the risk was too great and sadly 4 firefighters perished.
If the prosecution succeeds, it sends a very clear message that in the UK Fire Officers will be held accountable in the criminal court for their decisions and subsequent actions on the incident ground.
This creates a very unstable culture of fear within the Fire Service. A fear of making decisions to carry out offensive tactics, such as searching for "possible persons inside" as opposed to "confirmed persons inside". A fear of conducting an aggressive interior attack in favour of more defensive options. A fear of carrying out rescues that involve a degree of risk for the rescuers. In other words it rips the the very heart out of what the Fire Service proudly stands for.
I'm all for accountability. We should be accountable for our actions. We should accept that our decisions will be evaluated and we should learn from our (and others) experiences to ensure that we continuously improve firefighter safety. But surely it boarders on being criminal itself to put fire officers before the court following 3 years of investigation with 20/20 hindsight vision, for a decision made in minutes with 50/50 information and rapidly changing conditions.
My question is: Where are we heading?
As far as I can tell we are headed off the truck into the front yard. We are doing exactly what you had mentioned when it comes to company officers being afraid of sending men inside at the thought of possibly being mistaken and getting a man hurt or killed. I wrote about being both safe and aggressive in the fire service and that ties directly into what you are talking about. We are in the middle of an era of fear forced down the throats of our new firefighters and company officers that is going to put the public we are supposed to protect in grave danger. We have already had Chief officers speak of not entering unless you have CONFIRMED entrapment! This is an amazingly terrifying thought for me. Obviously risk assessment MUST play into the decision on whether or not we are going to make an aggressive interior attack or if this is going to be a defensive attack. Don’t be reckless, don’t be a billy bad butt, but just know how to do your job! Assess the scene and make a decision because the most dangerous decision is one that was never made. This is a tragedy that these officers are being attacked and run through the mud years after a terrible incident that they made a mistake on. As if this is something they intended on having happen. We must continue to support these men and our company officers to continue to make the decisions that will protect life and property!
What an interesting question you present. Sadly, politicians (like NJ Governor Chris Christie) are forcing municipalities to layoff firefighters, or simply not replace those who retire. Now, more then ever before, we are being forced to do more with less. As if thats not already a frightening dilema, add the 30/20 hindsight vision scenario you described above and you have a perfect storm. We have less people to assess the fireground, fight the fires and make the decsions... but who would side with the IC if (and when) tragedy strikes? On my department, like many throughout the US, both paid and volunteer, we often have only one chief officer outside the building calling the shots. By nature, we - as firefighters - want to get in there and get the job done, but I think one thought must remain on the forefront of all of our minds 24/7, and that thought is: Risk a lot to save saveable lives, Rish a little to save saveable property, and Risk nothing to save nothing. That mindset may help in determining when to go defensive. Of course, that's not the perfect answer to the complicated question you ask, but it's an essential mindset that I believe would serve our profession well now, and always.
On a side note, Mike Terpak and I had developed a document to help firefighters make the determination on when and how to switch from an offensive to a defensive strategy. Feel free to check it out: http://www.fireengineering.com//articles/2011/06/offensive-to-defen...
DC Frank Viscuso
Perhaps the next time there is a fire, the people should call the prosecutor to put it out rather than the firefighters. It is an alarming situation that we need to take potential prosecution into account when we make decisions. I know firefighters who are very good at what they do, but will not become officers due to the liability that they will carry with the rank.
If you don’t mind my asking, what do you think has happened in the fire service that we have forgotten, or stopped training on the requirements for a defensive or offensive attack? It doesn’t seem as if those requirements have really changed that much in my eyes. I understand the rapid change we have had with LW construction, and loss of staffing but that has always been part of the equation has it not? This is just my thoughts and question on the deal. I feel this as important as it is has been blown way way out of proportion. Let me know your thoughts if you would.