The term “A perfect storm” refers to a combination of events that contributes to the drastic aggravation of a situation. From severe weather to a seeming unfathomable chain of events, this phrase is widely used.
In the fire service, a perfect storm can be that one fire that gets away from us, the vehicle accident that defies all logic, or the few small things that precede a catastrophic event. But what if we saw the perfect storm forming? What if we had the ability to stop one or more of the chain of events leading up to it? All too often after a bad incident we look at ourselves to figure out the "what-ifs". While some incidents are unavoidable and there truly was nothing that could have been done, there are times when we find faults within our organization or ourselves that could have prevented the perfect storm from happening in the first place.
With the recent situation where public safety personnel remained staged and watched a man wade into the open ocean, ultimately taking his own life, there were initial reports that the funding for water rescue training had been cut and therefore, personnel were unable to respond themselves and had to call the U.S. Coast Guard instead. In the following days we learned that the funding was in fact available and the source of concern then turned to the victim himself who was considered “possibly dangerous”. While a patient who is possibly dangerous to others is a perfectly acceptable reason for not taking immediate action, the changing of hands from one reason to another is not. I will be the first one to say that there is still a lot of information coming in on this case and until they have done a formal review, the issues of funding, training, and tactics are not my place to Monday morning quarterback. I do however want to use this situation to examine the perfect storm.
By doing nothing and changing their story several times after the fact, all parties involved opened themselves up for questions not only by the public but city officials as well. Comments left on various news media websites and blogs are both for and against the public safety personnel with the latter of the two being the majority. Angry citizens are asking why they even pay taxes that support emergency personnel and what would happen if they needed to be rescued. Had things worked out differently, and perhaps forecasting for the future would have shown that a perfect storm was brewing, changes would have been made earlier and the end result may have been different.
Obviously we cannot prevent or prepare for every situation but we can certainly attempt to address the major issues we find by watching the forecast of the future and prepare for the “what-ifs”. Take for example, a department that makes frequent runs to “Big Box” facilities on medical calls but lacks the amount of hose to make an effective attack if there were a fire, the department that has several major thoroughfares in their jurisdiction but lacks sufficient extrication equipment and training, the department who has large quantities of Ethyl-methyl-bad-stuff stored in their response area but has no formal Haz-Mat capabilities, and in first example, having an ocean front community without the ability to make a water rescue. The aforementioned situations are all enormous red flags that warn us of the impending perfect storm. We have the ability to recognize and address these warnings to keep us from experiencing the worst case scenario but we have to recognize them first.
While talking to a friend about preventing complications on the fire ground, he told me about his struggles with the perfect storm. A few years ago one of the pressing issues within his department was the lack of training for vertical ventilation on commercial structures. Sure his department taught the basics but when it came to commercial structures, he felt they did not have adequate training. For quite some time there was discussion among the ranks with regards to acquiring a commercial structure slated for demolition or building a prop to practice techniques but nothing was ever done. On several occasions they had working fires within commercial structures but none were large enough to justify a trench cut or large vertical vent opening.
And then it happened. In the early morning hours they were dispatched for a commercial fire alarm and arrived to find a working fire in the back of a 20,000 square foot building. During the fire, his crew was advancing lines to the storage area and had called for ventilation multiple times. After several agonizing minutes the conditions began to let up slightly but not much. They found the seat of the fire and were able to extinguish it within 20 minutes. After the fire was out and they had re-entered the structure, he noticed the vent h*** in the roof of the building. He described it as a 2x4 foot trapezoid looking cut that still had parts of the roof material hanging from the edge. As he discussed the view with one of the Chief Officers it was clear to both of them that a perfect storm had just blown through.
At a round table discussion a few days later there was an abundance of discontent and anger regarding the lack of training and how the situation could have turned out for the interior crews. The administration was unable to provide an adequate response because for months prior, they had been made aware of the red flags and did nothing. Fortunately, the administration took a positive approach and began incorporating commercial operations into their regular training regimens. The next time the department ran a working commercial fire, things went much better.
I challenge all of you who read this to review your department operations and look for the "what-ifs", look to address things that may have slipped through the cracks and have been forgotten. Take the time to review your SOG’s and SOP’s to make sure you know what needs to be done. And most importantly look for the red flags, make sure that every call you go on serves as a forecast for the perfect storm.
Never stop learning and never stop challenging yourself to become better tomorrow than you are today.