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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 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 Jeff Schwering on May 3, 2009 at 9:20pm
I sent Brother Ray a small story about my company listening to his speech. Long story short, I hope, members of both engines in the house, had a number of questions about both safety and getting that first stretch correct. As I relayed to Ray, I've been a Capt. for 2+ months and talked about the same things as a Lt, but Ray's speech got my folks asking questions. My company was first due on a garage fire, in a neighboring District. The fire was very minor, but my 2 FF'S were not only safe, they were fully dressed, and ready to do the job right! As we got back on the engine, I used Ray's line About liking to go to fires, on a member that has been a challenge for me. Ray responded to my tale, by thanking me and telling me to be safe. As Ray said, that makes your day and thus far my time in as a Captain. Thanks to Ray, Bobby! I hope everyone can see, as Officers it is our JOB to keep our firefighters safe, but our public as well, by having our members ready to do the job and do it correctly.

Stay Safe
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
Comment by Bobby Halton on May 3, 2009 at 8:28pm
Brother Anthony
None taken by me or Ray, we know you love us and understand what is in our hearts, and what Ray was describing in most of his speech is exactly how you create a culture of safety. I was just shooting from the hip as usual.
Comment by Anthony Avillo on May 3, 2009 at 8:25pm
10-4 Bobby
No dis to anyone , esp Lt Mac
Just call it as I have seen it -- too many unsafe acts that are not warranted
We are dedicted pros -- all across the US and Canada -- we can all be a little better and a little safer
Comment by Anthony Avillo on May 3, 2009 at 8:21pm
One more thng while I'm on a roll here. One has to just look at how we are going into the game and see that if we are thinking about the risks involved, it is not showing. It starts there. I see firefighters all over the place driving to the scene unsafely, not wearing seat belts, standing in jumpseats, getting off rigs before they are stopped, not guding rigs in reverse, not respecting electrical wires, not wearing waist straps and not closing coats, not wearing hoods or wearing chin straps, failing to use lifelines in loarge structures, failing to recognize rapid fire development, failure to provide secondary egress.. If we can't get that liltte bit right, how do we get the really tough stuff right? If safety takes a back seat before we get to the scene and as we enter the IDLH atmsophere, then the risk management plan has already neared collapse Safety must be an organizattional value that starts at the top of the dept and filters down to the ranks. When this happens, the other stuff will not only be done safer, but will be more coordinated and supported. Don't blame safety issues for why we are not getting things done properly (or in a timely fashion) on the fireground. On the contrary, if we observe safety rules, we can do our job better, safer, and more efficeintly. Sometimes the only thing that allows a firefighter (and a civilian) to survive a difficult situation is the safety activities that have been built into the operation.
Comment by Bobby Halton on May 3, 2009 at 8:19pm
Mike, Jason Anthony,
I am humbled to be allowed to be allowed to be in our community with firefighters like you. We would be much better served if all online conversation was as dignified as yours. I hope you all continue to educate the rest of us with your thoughts and insight. I hope everyone will remember Lt. Ray McCormack is first and foremost a gentleman and officer and his opinions and comments as well as mine were never meant to infer that anyone should ever be injured in any way.
Comment by Anthony Avillo on May 3, 2009 at 8:07pm
risky activities must go hand-in-hand with good sound safety-orinted tactics. Operations that pose more significant risk as well as all activities must be well-coordinated and well-supported. In fact, tyhe more danger there is, the more critical the support and coordination becomes. Officers must see the big picture and not operate "on an island" which causes many casualties on the firegound. Organization and control of the fireground which is rooted in discipline and safety (not to mention accountability -- no freelancing!!) not only allow us to take greater risk, but helps manage that risk.
Comment by Jason Hoevelmann on May 3, 2009 at 7:54pm
No offense to Mr. Avillo, my post was originally in response to first post. Anthony, you beat me to the punch!
Comment by Jason Hoevelmann on May 3, 2009 at 7:52pm
Very nicely put. One thing for sure, is that we are seeing some of our brightest people join in on this discussion and offering a great deal of experience and insight to this. For that alone, the presentation was worth it.

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