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Somewhere In the Middle or Just On the Fence

Over the last couple of weeks a tremendous amount of blogs have been posted and comments given about a recent speech given at the 2009 FDIC conference. Lt. Ray McCormack from FDNY stood in front of thousands and spoke to the culture war that is raging in our midst. He spoke about a culture of fear vs. a culture of extinguishment. What I gained from his dialogue was the fire service must remember our reason for existence, the people we serve. If the organization whose purpose it is to perform rescues decides it doesn’t do that anymore except in very particular circumstances, then there isn’t any reason to keep said organization. I won’t go into all of the details of his speech because it would be better for you to see it for yourself.

From the moment Ray mentioned the “road paved with yellow safety bricks,” sharp comments from those who agreed and disagreed have been abundant. Name calling, finger pointing, and rumors of Ray fathering a love child at previous conferences have lit up the internet. Okay, maybe not the love child but I wouldn’t be surprised if that sort of nonsense grows out of this. With all kidding aside, I hope that when the dust settles we can all understand what the brother was trying to convey.

What I want to do in this writing is to communicate my interpretations of McCormack’s speech as well as some of the pointed criticism at his words. It may not help and may even make things worse but hopefully it will give some clarification for both “camps.”

Some have said there is no such thing as too safe. They believe that every firefighter fatality is needless and any time we bury a firefighter it could and should have been prevented. When firefighter fatalities occur they scrutinize every single aspect of the occurrence in order to prevent it from happening again. As a result of this “camps” work, we have changed many of our methods; they have forced changes in PPE, apparatus, equipment, and tactics. We now wear SCBA’s, seatbelts and don’t take booster lines into structure fires because of what we have learned from them. We see firefighters escape some flashovers with their skin and lungs intact. We see firefighters walk away from some apparatus accidents with only a sore chest instead of being carried away in body bags. We’ve seen dramatic improvements in technical rescue as well. Prior to the adoptions of stringent safety regulations, we used to see over 80% of confined space fatalities were would be rescuers. Those percentages have dropped because of the laws and training that was initiated by safety conscious persons. Fire departments now have trained teams of personnel who specialize in confined space, trench collapse, high angle, etc. and the fire service is better off because of it.

The criticism I continually read and hear about these “safety Nazis” is that because of them, the rest of us can hardly do our jobs anymore because of all the crap we have to do in order to make things safe. They point to personnel having to wear chaps before they use a chainsaw on a roof, or not being able to get on the roof at all to ventilate. Lime green safety vests seem pointless. Some departments are advocating a defensive fire attack until a Chief Officer determines whether or not it is safe enough for personnel to enter the structure.

So, can things be too safe? Is it possible to implement so many safety measures that it compromises our mission to serve the public? Can we, in the name of safety, actually create more risk to firefighters? Is it conceivable that the pendulum can swing too far? Yes it can, and in some ways, not all, it already has.

At the risk of sounding like the comedian Jeff Foxworthy, let me explain. If you are an officer or chief and you won’t let your firefighters ever initiate an interior attack unless you are on the scene, then you are being “too safe.”Just because you are there, it doesn’t make it safer. If you require your firefighters to wear lumberjack chaps, which are neither NFPA approved, require minutes to don, and further reduce mobility, instead of training your personnel how to use the saws correctly; then you are being “too safe.” If you have a policy that never allows for vertical ventilation even though contra indications for PPV sometimes exist; then you are being “too safe.” If you vow to discipline your personnel for performing VES instead of training them how to use it correctly; then you are “too safe.”

To be fair to the argument, can we be reckless? Of course. If you don’t wear your seatbelt when the apparatus is on the road, you’re being reckless. If you don’t wear your SCBA when fighting car, dumpster or house fires, you’re being reckless. If you run the saw in such a manner that your chief wants to implement a chap’s policy, your being reckless. If you refuse to size-up a structure fire and run into them like a moth to a flame; you’re being reckless. If you have only read about VES, but implement the tactic, you’re being reckless. If you are unwilling to accept the fact that you may have made a mistake on a scene and believe anyone who raises criticism is an a******, you are reckless. If you think you know your job so well that the only one who can teach you anything is you or members of your “camp”; you are reckless.

I could go on and could have expounded on my examples further, but I hope you get the point I’m trying to make. We exist to serve, save, and protect the public. They are all we have, as Lt. McCormack said, and “Only Firemen put out fires.” If firefighters cease to aggressively extinguish structure fires because it falls outside the realm of some mindless algorithm, then those firefighters are being ruled by fear. Fear of punishment or fear of some other perceived and perhaps nonexistent monster. If we take away the ability of the officer to execute situational appropriate tactics, then they are being ruled by fear. But if we are unwilling to learn from mistakes, because we do make them, then we’re just being obstinate. If we settle on methodology because “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” then we’re missing opportunities to improve efficiency and safety which is reckless. The pendulum can swing too far either way. There is such a thing as recklessness in the name of safety as well as recklessness for the sake of ego. Now before any more conclusions are jumped to, I am not saying who is on which side. Let each man or woman work out their place on that meter.

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Comment by Michael "Mick" Mayers on June 14, 2009 at 6:51am

I apologize for not giving you feedback on this blog earlier. Unfortunately, in trying to keep up with my own blog (and my FFN and FE blogs), several e-mail accounts, and of course, an EFO paper, I don't check in on things like I really should.

I think you said it as best as could be said, and everyone seems to be in agreement with you. In this subject, as seems to be the case here on FE, on FFN, and everywhere else, we have too many people who lose the message in the rhetoric. What should be construed as using a certain method that drives a point home is taken as the gospel. Usually, this is regardless of whether or not the way things were phrased were meant to be shocking to get someone to think, or meant as a bit of parody to make people laugh about the problem and remember it better, or whatever the message was.

Thanks for sharing the blog and I hope to read more of your posts. Glad to see you got so many good comments. That's a sure way to let you know you connected with your readers. Great job!

Comment by Nick Morgan on May 9, 2009 at 11:17am
Joseph, very well said! Stay safe brothers!
Comment by Joseph R Polenzani on May 8, 2009 at 10:42pm
Well put, Mike. It's interesting; you mentioned training four times in your original post. Far too often, our "safety" policies are put in place as a reaction to a bad fireground decision (chaps?!?). Admittedly, these bad decisions sometimes reflect a lack of experience. Sometimes. But more often than not, the problem can be traced back to a lack of training.

Reflective vests are a great idea. Don't play in the street without one. Seriously. But, training our personnel to shut down all lanes necessary and block with the largest apparatus they can find is even better. Going defensive when conditions are questionable is fine, but training our personnel in building construction, fire behavior, and good communications will save lives and lead to effective, timely extinguishment.

In Chief Halton's opening remarks that morning, he stated that, “Experience without reflection or evaluation is simply interesting”. We need to start seeing unsafe acts as an opportunity to train, instead of an opportunity to write new policies. Evaluation isn't about assessing blame, it's about learning. In the 21st century, any department without a seatbelt policy should probably be shut down. But if you can train your personnel to buckle up every shift, every day, every you're making a difference.

I've only known Ray for a couple of years. But, in that time, I've never heard him say that we, individually or as a profession, should ever stop training, learning, or taking care of our brothers and sisters...every day.

Comment by Barry Aptt on May 8, 2009 at 8:32am
sorry about my typing .. I think faster than I can type
Comment by Barry Aptt on May 8, 2009 at 8:31am
You can use sound tactics in a safe way. Brother McCormack in a sense hs addressed the current attitude that a bunch of white hats in orange vests and avoiding what we were sworn to do, protect life and property. if we are to just show up, set up deck guns and hose down piles of debris .. we might as well close up shop for anyone can do that. There can and should be a balance between safety and tactics BUT the pendulum has swung too far in one direction. In my mind, the quicker you put te fire out, the quicker the issues in safty will resolve itself.
Comment by Mike Walker on May 5, 2009 at 12:21pm
I glad so many of you have blessed me with your responses and from them I'm working on my next blog. Thank you all for caring for the job and the people who work within it.
Comment by Art Zern on May 5, 2009 at 12:02pm

Nice job, your post adds further depth to this important conversation. The pendulum can swing too far, and in my 29 years (so far) it has been at both ends and many stops in between. When I started the job in 1980, I/we had little regard for our own safety, partly because we were young and invincible and partly because of the culture of the fire service at the time.

I believe that when you know better, you should do better. I/we have made many changes in the way we operate because we have learned lessons the hard way, we have grown older (matured?) and we now have responsibility for the safety and well-being of others. The core mission, however, remains the same. If we really seek to improve the safety of our members, we have to abandon both ends of the pendulum swing.
This discussion will only have value if it causes our members and leaders to take a good look in the mirror. As always, we must seek common ground. I doubt that many minds, opinions or beliefs have been changed as a result of this discussion; however, I do believe that there is a great deal of common ground that we can work to build upon. I hope that the number of members at either end (the far end) are small and that the vast majority can meet somewhere in the middle.

I hope we can find agreement on an approach to safety that lies around the 50 yard line. Can we agree that the best path to safety includes (not necessarily limited to): seeking, asking, demanding or begging for the necessary manpower required to mount an aggressive, coordinated interior attack? Can our leaders demand and our members deliver a high level of consistent, predictable and professional performance? Can we also demand the kind and amount of training we need to make good, sound decisions on the fireground and to recognize changing fire conditions? Can we refocus our training to insure that we have excellent, predictable fundamental skills? You know what I mean, can our engine companies quickly stretch the right size hoseline, in the right amount, to the right location quickly and efficiently? Do our truck companies have excellent basic skills in laddering, forcible entry, ventilation, search and their other core functions? Can we protect our members on the roadway (in spite of the vests) by using the big red trucks to block properly? Can we finally…..wear seat-belts….please? Can we finally understand that accountability is not about Passports, tags, pins or clips and it is all about firefighters and officers remaining in close contact by voice, touch or sight? The best system in the world will not stop freelancing or eliminate crew separation. Can we agree to have the 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 and slowly, surely reducing our “combat readiness”? And, can we work really hard find the funding necessary to supply our firefighters with comprehensive annual physicals and wellness programs and the equipment and time to exercise on duty so that we can improve our level of fitness and wellness?

This approach is not extreme, anti-safety or controversial, it’s just hard work. I wonder, are we up to the task?
Comment by Nick Morgan on May 4, 2009 at 10:48am
This is an excellent post Mike. I made similar posts on another fire service blog site. I have to admit, I was surprised that Lt. McCormack's speech stirred up so much controversy. I'm a strong advocate of firefighter safety and reducing LODD's and firefighter injuries. I'm experienced real LODD's and career ending injuries among my own FD and with friends from other FD's. I'm a firm believer in the "16 Life=Safety Initiatives" promoted by the NFFF. However, having said all of that, my response to Lt. Mac's message was that he was simply warning angainst an excessive "pendulum swing" to the other extreme. In my FD, we used to fight vacant and abandoned building fires just as aggressively as occupied buildings, and we suffered numerous injuries and many "close calls" because of it. But we were proud of our "aggressive interior attack" reputation. Also, new construction wasn't very common in our city 15 to 20 years ago, now it is springing up everywhere. Also, rehabs of residential buildings and commercial warehouses transformed into hotels and hi-rise apartment buildings are becoming much more common. So we have to re-think our firefighting tactics in light of all these developments. However, we must still protect lives and try to save "savable" property, for that is what we have sworn to do and this is what our citizens depend on us to do. No building is worth a firefighter's life, especially not an abandoned one, yet we have the problem os homeless people seeking shelter in these buildings, especially during the winter. I believe we have to strive to learn from our own mistake and the mistakes of others. We must put extra effort in learning more about fire behavior and building construction. We must learn to better read smoke and the types and construction of the buildings we respond to. We have to get out in our first-in districts and pay attention to the types of buildings we have, especially new ones being built. We must train and educate ourselves more, especially since the number of fires we respond to is less. Basically, we have "to work smarter, not harder".
I think this is basically what Lt. McCormack was trying to say; that we can't neglect our core mission of saving lives and savable property from fires and other disasters, even though we can't just do things "the way they've always been done". If we don't learn from our own mistakes as well as the mistakes of others, we're doomed to repeat them. The definition of insanity is: "doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results".
God bless and stay safe!
Comment by Scott Kleinschmidt on May 3, 2009 at 11:17pm
In my humble opinion, safety is being thrown around more and more in place of accountability. Accountability of our company officer's to use sound judgment and deliver sound tactic's on the fire ground. I feel this safety culture is the answer for some to years of trying to make a blue collar trade driven occupation into a white collar job. Now we have highly educated white collar officers who can't make a sound decision under fire. When they were busy getting there business management degrees they missed out on something, A degree in fire ground education! It is much easier to right a safety policy than spend the time to learn and teach best practices. It will always be a hell of a lot easier to right of the property or in some cases the victim do to "safety concerns", than to do your job, accept the responsibility of your job and make a sound decision. We need to stop dumbing down the job to the lowest common denominator in the name of safety. Safety is important and taking unnecessary risks in unacceptable, but we also need to remember why we are here. We need to step back and take a long hard look at what we are doing and fix the real problem
Comment by Anthony Avillo on May 3, 2009 at 8:34pm
Not shooting from the hip, just protecting a brother and the fire service as u should be.
I am your biggest fan
be safe

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