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To Go or Not-To-Go, Thats the Wrong Question

Today’s blog is inspired by my nephew who I am incredibly proud of after following in my footsteps joining the DCFD. I was fortunate, that as the Chief of Operations, I got to go to a few fires with him and I watch him grow in to a solid firefighter. Unfortunately for him, this often exposed him to the daily serenades of “Uncle Larry’”


Its been interesting managing the difference in fire department philosophy between my views (as the Boss) and his view’s as the one who has to endure the connection with Uncle Larry while still living and working with his peers. If this isn’t bad enough, against all of my advice, my oldest daughter stabs me in the eye with a hot fork, by falling for a guy who also becomes a member of the DCFD.


While I say all of this (tongue in cheek), I really do believe that many of our differences are quite normal. There is usually a wide range of differing views between the bosses and the back step crew, between management and labor and between the ones who have been on the street for 25 years and the ones who have been on the streets for 5 years. That's all very predictable and I use these discussions as an opportunity to share with them a different point of view; not necessarily a “right view” just a different view. Ok, who I am kidding, I thrive on these opportunities, to pontificate on the issue until they wave the proverbial white flag and cant take it anymore.  


 You can imagine the smile that came over my face when my nephew was talking tactics with me (by text message) and ended with, “why wouldn't we go in a vacant building, couldn't a homeless person be in there?” I began to salivate at the thought of residing on yet another soapbox.


Should I pass up an opportunity to walk him right down the hallway of a two hour eye gouging heart–to-heart, or should I let him off the hook?


I started the discussion by asking him a rhetorical question, which one of the finest Chiefs I have ever known once asked me; If you care so much about the homeless, how often do you spend volunteering in a homeless shelter? 


Anyway, my buddy asks a great question and one that we (the fire service) have discussed to the point of nausea. Entertain me for a few minutes as I try to shape the discussion in a different way.


If you know me, heard me teach or viewed a blog, you know that I never miss an opportunity to climb on a soapbox or two. One of my favorite’s is on risk assessment. As a service we have done a horrible job at teaching younger officers how to do a risk evaluation on the fireground and to do it in a very short time frame. My teaching partner (Ricky “press hard and make two copies” Riley) and I reinforce the principle, that proper risk assessment must take in to account: building construction, occupancy, pre-arrival and fireground critical factors, how fire/smoke behave in that specific type of building and available resources.

Once you have carefully evaluated those factors, you are far more prepared for making the first critical decision; what will our strategy be (offensive / defensive)?


We should stop arguing whether we should be in an offensive strategy or a defensive strategy and focus on being in the “right strategy” which will sometimes be offensive and some times be defensive. Once strategy is declared, the next step will be implementing the tactics. Please notice the order of importance, which is strategy first, then tactics. Implementing tactics absent a strategy is both dangerous and ineffective.


Lets just take the word vacant out of the discussion for a minute. This should be easy to do since we still cant come close to agreeing on the difference between vacant, abandon, unoccupied and blighted. Maybe its because in the spirit of what we are trying to figure out, what we call it doesn’t matter.


Lets just agree that any and all structures have the potential for someone to live, squat hide or stow-away in. The potential can be vastly different but that is all part of the normal risk assessment calculation (life safety factor). 


You arrive on the scene of a two story, Balloon Frame. On arrival you take a quick look and ask yourself “is this vacant or occupied”.  Looking at the structure, you see some windows with glass in tact and some windows covered with plywood. No cars are in the driveway, but a trash can at the end of it. The lapboard siding is splintered due to extended exposure to the environment and hasn't been painted in years. There is a couch on the front porch and an old window a/c unit still in place.  There is obvious decline of the roof and the porch steps lack any integrity at all.


If you didn't know whether the home was occupied full time, part-time (squatters) or not at all, how would you reach your strategy decision point? My guess is, absent of seeing a live, victim, you would have to make that decision based on ofactors known, seen and understood. If its vacant and you see a live (potentially) victim, your likely going to make the push, if it's a occupied home, in very poor condition and you see no signs of life, you may likely take a different approach.


Either way, you are making sound decisions based on the greatest number of factors observed and understood.  If we would agree to keep the discussion focused on observing critical factors and understanding the various pieces of risk evaluation, we are far more likely to get to the heart of the discussion, which is what is the “right” strategy followed by best tactics; not should we “go” or “not go.


With all this said, there will be plenty of situations where it is apparent that a structure is not being used for normal, legal continuous shelter. In those circumstances we would be foolish to simply assume and cross our fingers that no one could possibly be inside. We would be equally as thoughtless and irresponsible if we didn't slow down and put-in-place additional risk reduction measures.


That part comes next week. Until then be safe and be smart.  



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