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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 Anthony Avillo on May 3, 2009 at 7:50pm
while i do see the point in Lt Mac's issues and thse issues have surfaced time and time again, i am a bit concerned that this cavalier attitude in the wrong hands can cause more fatalities than it sets out to prevent. We have to look at the reasons the safety stuff is in place -- because someone maybe did something unsafe or recless and paid the price. All we have to do is look at you tube or our friendly neighborhood fireground and we will see a plethora of unsafe acts while officers stand by and / or look the other way. Enforciong any rules, esp. safety rules takes some balls. IIf officers refuse to enforce safety rules and look the other way when it comes to safety, they are missing the mission -- firefighters who cannot take care of their own safety often have a more difficult time addressing someone else's. Safety s a discipline -- hopefully self-discipline. There is a fine line between reckless and rational and it most often based on knowledge, experience, self-discipline, and awareness of conditions. As Bobby Halton said, we shoud risk everything ... when it is warranted. Too many FF's are beig killed and injured when it isn't warranted. It's a tough business. It only gets tougher when we are unsafe. The key to safety and extinguishment and rescue is supervision and coordination. Be careful what u wish for

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