Recently, I was reviewing some fire service materials from a self-survival class, and read about a management challenge known as the Abilene Paradox. The author described how it could affect firefighting decisions, and how the challenges that this situation presents could prove tragic on the fire scene.
The Abilene Paradox is a lesson in management that everyone in the fire service should pay attention to. The lessons from understanding this paradox can directly influence life and death decisions made by firefighters on emergency scenes. Leaders and officers must step up when the time presents itself to speak up against unsafe acts, no matter what they may think others’ opinions may be. We all know there are times that the above mentioned statements could get you a ribbing around the firehouse, but better to take that ribbing than ironing up the Class A for a funeral.
Since your attention is waning, I’ll give you the cliff notes version — it is where everyone agrees to do something out of fear of being different even though no one in the group agrees with it. To put it in firefighter terms, it is the point where you assume everyone wants to do something, but in reality no one wants any part of it, but for whatever reason everyone agrees to do it. When I read this, I thought about the many times I was at a fire and found myself thinking, “Why are we in here?” only to find out five minutes later my partner was thinking the same thing. What does this say about us as a fire service? We continuously tell recruits in the academy, or in their basic training, “If you ever see a safety issue, you can stop the dangerous action.” But really, how often does that happen? I don’t think very many of us say anything to draw attention to ourselves when we are new, so we learn a macho culture of type A personalities that at times participate in some very unsafe acts. I am not saying we need to be overly concerned with safety but I think we are at a crossroads in the fire service.
We are at a time when line of duty deaths are still hovering around 100, yet we are responding to far fewer fires than we did 20 years ago. We are fighting fires like we did 20 years ago, yet the structural makeup and furnishings are producing quicker and more violent flashovers during interior operations. Not only have our fuel loads and compartments changed, we are working under a compressed time line. With all of that going on, we also have the introduction of scientific studies and their information into our trade, all while a new generation of firefighters are learning the trade and being led by the example of senior members and officers. Many of those senior members and officers feel as though science has no place in our trade and that many of the studies being conducted aren’t practical.
Many of the veterans in our departments are telling us we are too scared now, but science and experience are telling us we are not safe enough. The question is then presented: So where should an aggressive fireman go? In my opinion, we stay aggressive, but begin to side on the safety of our members just a bit more. I hate to be the one on the fire ground who has to call out the punt team and go defensive, but sometimes there is no reason to risk our members’ lives. With all of that said, our first instinct should not be to stand outside and hit the fire from the safety of the sidewalk. We all took an oath when we became members of the fire department, whether formally or just by accepting that pager and gear, to serve and protect the public all the while knowing that what we will do is inherently dangerous. We are fighting a force of nature after all, and sometimes we actually win. Of course manpower, staffing, and departmental makeup play into tactics everyday in locations all throughout the Carolinas. We don’t have an FDNY station in the Carolinas so we shouldn’t be trying to emulate them on fire scenes in rural counties, and even most urban environments that we all see.
I have experienced this paradox many times, but I can remember one specific instance when I actually bucked it and threw in the towel. I was operating on the second division of a working house fire with a department that I have belonged to. I was backing up a rookie on the nozzle and could feel we weren’t making any headway, and in fact things were getting worse. When we starting breathing hot air in our masks, I tapped him and said, “Hey let’s get out of here and make sure they are cutting the roof for us.”
When we walked outside, we saw that this fire was nearing the point of flash over. The Incident Commander (IC) saw the need from the outside of the structure to conduct vertical ventilation. Soon after they cut the roof, the smoke lifted, and the attack team on the first floor got the fire knocked down and we saved most on the house. It also helped that the downstairs hose team located the seat of the fire. I think everyone that was there knows that this incident could have gone a lot differently. The reason why we were so hot on the second floor was that the floor decking had burned out in the room we were attempting to enter — directly over the fire. There are pictures of this fire that show the smoke was thick and turbulent, and there was high heat on the interior, most notably on the second floor. When the rookie and I got out, he told me he was miserable up there too and when we all saw the smoke outside we knew it was the right decision. Call it what you will, I called it a good decision then and I continue to now. Many firefighters who were not there asked why we had retreated, but those that were there knew exactly why.
My point of this whole thing is, we need experiences like this to check us up, to realize we might be too aggressive sometimes. Senior firefighters with experience and officers have to step up and say, “Wait a second folks this is not a place we need to be!” We need the older folks to speak up and say get in there or get out of there to the new recruits, so they can be leaders when their time comes. We are not invincible so let’s not act like we are.
It is the responsibility of the officer and the senior firefighters to step up and give guidance and direction. These individuals must be the ones who tell people to check up for a second to make a smoother advance with the hose line. They must also be those firefighters who lead others into an aggressive, sensible attack, all the while monitoring conditions and maintaining awareness of their surroundings the entire time. Officers need to be officers 100 percent of the time, and firefighters need to be firefighters 100 percent of the time, otherwise neither job gets done, and the scene becomes a free for all. Sure, sometimes this works out, but it can contribute to a tragedy on the fire ground.