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Take risk or write it off. Part 2.

Back in January, I wrote a blog post asking the question, “Can we establish a common understanding of risk? Or.. should we write it off?” Because my tongue was planted firmly in my cheek when I posed the question, I don’t want the point to be missed. I believe our duty to ourselves and our beloved fire service cannot be separated from our duty to the citizens we are sworn to and are obligated to protect. What is good for us is good for them. My question is, are we seeing this trend to "let it burn" because we have given-up the fight to provide our members with all of those things that are necessary to provide effective and efficient fire and rescue services? Have we rolled-over, bent-over and given up our hopes to provide excellent service and the ability to accurately assess risk? Have we allowed those that seek to undermine our mission to gain a foot-hold? Have we become complacent because we don’t believe it can or will happen today? Are the enemies of the fire service going to be allowed to dismantle our combat readiness to the point where the easy or only option is to “let it burn”?

When you have a few minutes, please view the FDIC keynote speech given by Lt. Ray McCormack. It was indeed an honor for me to be present as Lt. McCormack delivered a passionate plea to the fire service, to keep fire in our lives. I couldn’t agree more and as the saying goes, Ray’s speech spoke to me. Rather than commenting on or adding to Ray’s speech, I’ll let it stand on its own as a clarion call to the American fire service. We can’t allow the “safety experts” that promote the “let it burn” philosophy to convince firefighters that we should place our safety and our lives above the lives of our citizens.

As I further ponder the question of safety as it relates to risk and our sworn duty and obligation, the reality of the situation has come into focus. The American fire service is divided into two camps. Both camps speak to their cause with passion and righteousness. In one camp are the “guardians” of safety, many of whom have decided that no building or the contents of that building are worth the life of a firefighter. The other camp seeks to direct the conversation toward our sworn duty to safeguard not only the lives of those we are sworn to protect, but their property as well. This camp of so called “reckless” firefighters is far more interested making sure that our members are competent, predictable, professional and combat ready. This camp believes that the best way to improve the safety of our members is to provide fire departments with the necessary manpower required to mount an aggressive, coordinated interior fire attack. This camp’s approach requires that fire departments build battle ready fire suppression forces and dedicate the appropriate resources to demanding training programs, adherence to sound operational procedures and a constant attention to and a demand that firefighters respond to every call as if it was the real thing. And finally, we believe as Lt. Ray McCormack articulated, that the fire service is wrong to place the lives of firefighters above the lives of civilians.

The guardians of safety are not shy about their disdain for the other camp, the “reckless holdovers of a long lost era in the fire service". They seek to discredit this camp by questioning our dedication to safety, saying that we are so bound by tradition and the mentality that we do things because “we always do it that way” that we are endangering our members. I’m growing weary of defending myself and like-minded firefighters against constant attacks from the disciples of the “let it burn” philosophy. It is impossible to have a reasoned, logical discussion with someone that will use the tragic loss of a firefighter in the line of duty to justify their philosophy. Their favorite arguments are fashioned following the tragic loss of a Brother or Sister in a building that was later determined to be unoccupied. After the fact, it’s easy to ask, “was that building worth a firefighter’s life?”

As I said in the earlier post, there is a fundamental difference between firefighters and the rest of the world. When we take the oath, with our right hands raised, we agree to certain things and these things become our solemn duty, our obligation. These duties include the understanding that a time may and likely will come when we have to be willing to risk everything… save the life of a stranger. We also have a duty and obligation to take risk for a stranger’s property. That’s the deal, this is what makes us different from everyone else, with the exception of the military.

To be sure, we have other obligations as husbands, wives, fathers and mothers. We have still more obligations and duties to our friends and extended families. No one wants to die; however, our duty to perform our job and our obligation to the citizens we protect rightly takes precedence when faced with the saving of a life and given a fighting chance. When our citizens, in spite of all of our education and prevention efforts, end up needing to be rescued, we are all they have. No one else will come to save them, they will surely die alone if not for our efforts.

We also have a duty and an obligation to protect their property. A person’s home represents the bulk of their life’s investment. Their home is filled with a lifetime of memories and priceless items that would be lost forever in an extensive fire. What is your home worth? My home remains “vacant” and “unoccupied” much of the time; however, if there was a fire in my home, I assure you that I would expect the fire department to mount an aggressive interior attack to save my property. I believe that we have that agreement that contract with our citizens. A recent fire in Chicago involved the Holy Name Cathedral. The Holy Name Cathedral was built in 1874 and it is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, one of the largest Roman Catholic dioceses in the United States. What was the value of this “unoccupied” church? What level of risk is acceptable for this truly priceless property? I can tell you that the building was saved because the Chicago Fire Department mounted an aggressive, coordinated interior attack that was truly remarkable. The skill and courage displayed in extending large caliber hand lines up to the attic from the interior, across narrow catwalks and through barriers to fight this fire and save this building that has so much meaning to the people of Chicago and beyond was only accomplished at great risk to the firefighters involved. If, God forbid, something had happened to any of those firefighters, we would have to answer the same questions….is there any building or property worth the life of a firefighter?

I fear that the “let it burn” movement, under the guise of safety is gaining momentum. I fear that more members of our service are falling under their spell and being convinced that we should not commit our members to “vacant” or “unoccupied” structures because no building or property is worth a life. Of course no building or property is worth the life of a firefighter. If we could know that a life would be lost before we arrive instead of after the fire is out and the investigation is completed, who would commit their members to the fight? This is why it is difficult to have a reasoned, logical and thoughtful discussion, if this is where we start, how can we ever have open and honest dialog.

I believe the safety of our members is dependent on our training, our experience and our ability to make sound decisions on the fireground, where it has always been. We must obtain and maintain a high level of proficiency in the fundamental company functions. Engine companies must be very good at quickly stretching the right size and length hose -line to the right location and getting water on the fire. Truck companies need to have excellent laddering, forcible entry and ventilation skills along with the courage and skill required to search under hostile conditions. Finally, we must have the manpower necessary to accomplish the mission.

The “let it burn” approach is, in my estimation, the easy approach to safety. The far more difficult approach is for our fire service leaders to work with our elected and appointed officials and if necessary, take up the fight to provide us with the necessary manpower required to mount an aggressive, coordinated interior attack. It’s hard work and takes a great deal of perseverance for our leaders to demand a high level of consistent, predictable and professional performance. It’s hard to provide the kind and amount of training we need to make good, sound decisions on the fireground and to recognize changing fire conditions. It takes guts to speak-out against the complacency and laziness that is having a devastating effect on our ability to safeguard the lives and property of the citizens we are sworn to protect. Letting it burn is the easy way.

I ask you not to take the easy road, it doesn’t take a great deal of skill, knowledge or training to “let it burn”. I ask our leaders to dedicate yourselves to the difficult process of building properly manned, highly skilled, well trained, competent, professional firefighting forces. I ask the members to dedicate yourselves to the hard work of becoming craftsmen. Don’t be satisfied to learn the basics or to maintain the minimum standard. By craftsmanship, I mean to seek out as much information on every conceivable topic by asking questions, conducting research, reading and doing. Learn the fundamentals and then go beyond the basics to create a depth of knowledge that allows you to be flexible enables you to improvise and gives you the ability to troubleshoot problems and fashion solutions. And finally, it is the citizens we serve, not ourselves.

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Comment by Mike Walker on May 16, 2009 at 3:57pm
Very well said Drew.
Comment by Drew Smith on May 16, 2009 at 2:55pm
I think the issue and definition of risk is dynamic. With that, I mean that knowledge, skill and ability gained with training and experience make the "risk" of each specific circumstance different for different people. As a simple example, we inherently accept greater risk just showing up for work than the average citizen. On a more specific example, a second floor VES scenario with heavy fire at the front door and stairs presents greater risk for a member who has simply completed a basic fire academy, been on the job a year or two and has seen only a few room and contents fires versus a member with several years on the job, been to dozens of fires, many which required extra alarms, extended beyond the room of origin and/or had structural involvement, and the member's advanced and additional formal training and company drills has prepared him to use recognition-primed decision making.

Safety experts want to use a one-size-fits-all recipe card for all events. This simply cannot be. We must evaluate every situation in a matter of seconds then institute our best option. While I too believe there is a difference between firefighters and the rest of the world, I also believe that trying to save someone or something that is beyond saving is wrong. Our job is to be part of the solution and not the problem. If we accept all risk and do not take calculated risks what happens if we are killed or seriously injured? Will others die or the fire’s damage be greater since our brothers will certainly turn their attention to our dilemma? Will another fire receive a less than adequate attack because one less brother will be in attendance or the safety experts wave their flag illustrating this case? I know there will be some fireground LODDs. He who thinks otherwise is not realistic.

We must protect life and property. We must accept risk. But we must take that risk based on our split-second assessment of a specific situation. Our ability to accept and reduce risk is anchored in our training, discipline and teamwork. But aggressiveness cannot be confused with recklessness or carelessness. Just because you did things as a company officer does not mean you should endorse them as a chief officer. Those of use who are parents know this dilemma well: “But dad, grandma said you used to do ___ as a kid!” Finally, what one department, company or member can accomplish cannot be done universally by all members in all companies at all departments. And many time, we are simply lucky and have our god to thank we lived to serve another day.
Comment by Christopher Naum, SFPE on May 3, 2009 at 10:25am
Chief...well thought out and conveyed...adding another perspective to what is becoming an fire service emotional issue.
Comment by Michael Bricault (ret) on May 2, 2009 at 1:03pm
-Ben, well said. I agree with your thoughts and have seen first hand the exact problem you are describing. So what do we do?
-I have always believed in a virus approach... corrupting/infecting one mind at a time. Every new member that comes thru can and should be properly indoctrinated.
-Change come slowly; one person, one mind at a time. It is therefor incumbent upon us to share the knowledge and spread the wealth as best we can while never loosing focus of the ultimate goal.
-We are responsible to be custodians of tradition and to faithfully pass along what we know to be right and correct.
Keep the Faith
Comment by Jeff Schwering on April 29, 2009 at 4:36pm
Micheal, very well put. I heard the other shift,that my city used to have a city manager, that had the write a check philosophy, that Michael mentioned! While I can put it in the words Michael can, we all fight the same battle everday. As the Captain of my company, I must be educated, not only by books, but, by experience, to lead my members to do the best job possible for the people we are sworn to protect. Brother Ben, you words ring so true about folks watching TV etc. Because I'm a firefighter, my brothers keeper, I must be ever vigilant in not only ensuring their saftey, but ensuring their performance on the fireground as well. We owe it to the public we serve, regardless of how they view us, to be the ones they can turn to for help when that family member doesn't make it out of the house. We all took an oath to protect and serve, do that, educate yourself, learn the difference between safety and reckless actions and understand we are blessed to be in the best profession in the world.
Stay Safe, Todd your ok in my book!
Comment by Ben Fleagle on April 29, 2009 at 4:12pm
Brother Michael:

I agree with you on every point, but the sad fact is that often, mistakes are made that fall right into the safety camps' lap. We can't control all the engine companies out there. You and I are talking on one of the most modern forum's to resolve these issues and Art is leading us there. But for every one of you and I, there are five or six that don't pick up a technical publication, don't train, don't do anything but watch "Rescue Me" until they are called out or get off duty. Sad fact, but often true.
Its these mistakes that worry the safety guru's and that is why it is so hard for us to combat their points. It would be easy if we could keep these mistakes from being made, but this has been an issue for almost two decades and the number of firefighters dying is increasing.

Don't mistake my intent, I agree with you Brother, but on the ground running, I find it hard to translate into practical application when the other officer across from me is still operating off the "old" way that he learned and isn't interested in looking at a different viewpoint.

Fighting politicians is a losing battle. Our efforts need to be in performing as efficiently and as disciplined as possible in order to minimize personnel losses. That will help with the politicians.

Comment by Todd Trudeau on April 29, 2009 at 4:11pm
By the way, I don't know the Lt. personally, but I know what camp he's at. I thought maybe my comment above would like I thought he's from the "bad" side.
Comment by Todd Trudeau on April 29, 2009 at 4:08pm
Another moving article. I was sitting here at the station just today wondering what is happening in this service. Feeling down that I misinterpretted what this job really meant and stood for.
Thanks to you, I have a little pep in my step now. As your blogs normally do for me Art, this one gave me goosebumps, you know those goosebumps you get when you hear a graceful voice sing "Amazing Grace" or "The Star Spangled Banner" (unless I'm the only one) Anyways, a sense of pride knowing I'm not alone on some "crazy" island by myself.
The manpower issue is certainly one of, if not THE biggest influences on what can or can't be done on the fireground. However, it can't be the crutch we use for not wanting to understand our job and the tasks put before us. I think every post previous mentioned the public and the oath we swore to keep for THEM!
Lt. McCorrmack had posted a "Lesson's in LeadersLip" article on another site It is definately from the safety camp. I hung it in the station but got no comments on it, but it's still hanging.
I certainly subscribe to the "old school", know your job - do your job, treat everybody like they are your closest family member, mentality.
Again great blog Art, keep 'em coming!!
My name is Todd, how do you like me so far?
Comment by Michael Bricault (ret) on April 29, 2009 at 11:48am
-Art, once again you have made full contact with the head of the nail
-It is unfortunate that firefighters, those of us with a deep and abiding concern for our fellow citizens, must justify our time tested and honed actions to those that are to timid to attempt similar tasks.
-It does appear that the problem may be even more pervasive and is spreading. I heard a city official tell a fire chief that it would be more cost effective to write checks to home owners that lost everything in a fire as apposed to operating the Fire Dept.!!!! WTF!!!
-I could not resist asking, "What if your mother were in the house on fire? What then?" He was an adept politician and new enough to walk away with nothing more than a condescending look toward the "foolish, stalwart city paladins".
-Like most of us here I too have heard the comments, "was that abandon building worth the lives of firefighters?" What's more, the smart a** making the comment usually does so in a disdainful, superior manner. As if they new the outcome before hand. As if they carry a crystal ball in their pocket, able to see that the human intervention responsible for ignition has since abandon the structure.
-The forgotten component is always the human factor... that someone's life, however insignificantly viewed from the lofty heights of city hall, is still a human life; the work of the Creator Himself and therefore a priceless commodity that is worthy of every effort we can muster in the struggle to preserve it. It is not until a search has been completed by firefighters that an occupancy is determined to be clear and yet this point is still lost on many intelligent people.
-This should in no way imply recklessness. In fact just the opposite is out intent. Firefighters take calculated risks not foolish chances. And these calculated risks, taken in the name of preserving LIFE, any life, in all it's splendor and reflected greatness of the Creator is the raison d'être of the Fire Service. We are our brothers keeper.
-These calculated risks can be performed only if we are well equipped, trained and prepared to perform our duty with all of the zealousness and passion we are able to muster.
-The safety nazi's like to cloud the issue and create the appearance of recklessness and impropriety berating firefighters confused and misguided by "tradition" by implying we risk our lives to save a plasma tv or an abandoned building that we should have known was abandon. What they conveniently overlook is our intelligence to perform a risk/benefit analysis in order to respond appropriately.
-Many firefighters are now familiar with the mantra: Firefighters will risk a lot to save a life; Firefighters will risk a little to save property and will risk nothing to save what is already gone.
-The other reality that never seems to permeate the polished corridors of city hall is what truly happens to their citizens when they escape a fire with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. No change of clothes or pair of shoes; no wallet, cash or a.t.m. card; no medicine, photos, belongings.... nothing. Absolutely nothing left to help face the dawning day.
-We were deemed responsible enough to be given charge over millions of dollars worth of equipment, training and p.p.e. Shouldn't we consequently be viewed as responsible enough to safely perform our appointed duty?
-Firefighting is a dangerous profession and despite the best efforts of the safety rule makers, they will never be able to create enough of rules that will regulate danger to extinction. Firefighters should therefore be trained, staffed and equipped as best as possible to facilitate their life saving and property conserving actions.
-All life is precious and the firefighter is essential. Firefighting is not a job or even a career.... it is a calling. Chief Crocker said it best in his famous writing which I paraphrase. "I have no ambition in this world but one and that is to be a Fireman. "Our proudest moment is to save lives. Under the impulse of such thoughts, the nobility of the occupation thrills us and stimulates us to deeds of daring; even of supreme sacrifice."
-My name is Michael and I'm a Fireman.
Comment by Kurt Callisen on April 29, 2009 at 11:34am
Art, your blog and LT McCormack's speech are right on point. Here is my question, when does agressive become reckless?

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