This particular morning was like any other except I happened to be at home instead of work, waiting on the AC Repairman. I awoke about 0630 to go for my morning run as a fire call came in with an address one road down from my residence in the small town where I volunteer. In this volunteer department I am a firefighter at rank and I follow orders instead of the typical giving of them in my career status. While I do not shy away from speaking up, I feel it is important to listen and be respectful with my rookie status (which has its benefits – nozzle time). This understanding of leadership versus followership is important to understand as this incident unfolds. This is a key aspect discussed in Barn Boss Leadership concerning what makes teams successful.
The neighbor stated to dispatch that he believes he sees smoke inside the residence but no one is home. I skipped my morning run and went enroute to the call approximately half a mile away. As I turned down the road I did not see any columns of smoke and for all I knew this would be a quick wash down or false alarm. As I got closer to the address stated by dispatch I did not see any indication of fire. All of a sudden in a bend in the middle of the road was the mailbox I was looking for, quickly I looked to my right and saw a light wisp of black laminar smoke pushing from a small utility room window on Side A. I had arrived first on scene, established command, provided my size up, and conducted my walk around. It was a two story wood frame single family dwelling with smoke showing from the A/D corner on the first floor. As I made my walk around there were no lights on, all doors were locked and no other signs of fire or smoke showing.
As I started back up the hill towards the road an additional volunteer showed up and the two career firefighters on E2 and E4 were seconds later. We immediately exchanged information and transferred command as I rolled back to my firefighter status. One of the firefighters and myself grabbed the 200’ 1.75” pre-connect and took off to the front door. I did use my rookie status to take over the nozzle. We forced entry into the residence, controlling the flow path and not performing uncoordinated ventilation. As we forced the front door, the smoke quickly leveled itself one foot off the floor at the door and five feet in there was zero visibility. The smoke was very laminar and did not appear to be volume or heat pushed at the front door.
We continued performing a search along the right hand wall, which would lead us to the A/D corner, looking for a door or hallway. After feeling around some furniture and about 20’ in we found a door way and made entry. There was small sense of environmental changes but nothing to alarming, however, we were definitely closer. After about another foot or two I could hear a crackling but I still could not see anything. I made entry into the bed room and felt a definite rush of heat but no fire. I made the decision to quickly discharge my 150 GPM nozzle into the ceiling to cool the environment but careful to not upset the thermal layering. After a few seconds, the heat did dissipate but I still could not see the fire in this less than ideal condition. These are the ones that scare me the most or maybe you just call it being respectful - you hear it, see the smoke, feel the heat but you cannot find the seat of the fire.
Let me back up to the night before at Station 2 where we have our weekly training for volunteers. The goal this particular night was a 200’ hose entanglement drill with a disoriented firefighter. I packed out, flipped my hood over my mask and went inside the training building. There were pallets, tires, 55 gallon barrels and other obstacles with my hose stacked on/over/under and through (no smoke or fire) – their imagination was in overdrive. The obstacle was to orient yourself and feel your way through the hose entanglement drill. The instructor made it a point to remind his students to always sound the floor making sure to always have a solid floor under you.
As I sat inside this two story burning structure 12 hours later I listened to the fire crackle in front of me. Still operating in zero visibility and nozzle in hand I told my back up firefighters to prepare to advance. I hit the floor every few inches in front of me hoping that my senses would clue in on any discrepancies. My situational awareness (identify, comprehend and predict) I would say was heightened as I understand the gravity of making the wrong decision and someone else’s life hanging right there with me. I continued sounding the floor, felt another door to my right, pushed it open and sounded the floor one more time. I suddenly felt a buckle of the hardwood floor planks and knew something was not right. I sounded it again and encountered the same result. I immediately told the two firefighters behind me to back out. We had encountered failure of floor integrity but I was unsure of the extent. While I am the “rookie,” neither of them hesitated or questioned my decision.
After we regrouped and changed our vantage point of attack the “fire” was determined to be a slow charring fire in the walls from a lightning strike hours before the actual call. Once the smoke cleared we went back inside to check for extension and other hotspots. Visibility was greatly improved so I walked back to where I gave the orders to back out to determine what my senses had told me. The fire had burned through the wall into the flooring system, there was a 6’ h*** in the floor only two feet away from where we stopped. The saying, “Faith in God, Trust in Training” comes to mind. Whether it was the training the night before, luck or Grace of God – remembering the basics kept us inches away from danger. I personally thanked the instructors from that night’s training and showed them what they did, so they can share this story the next time they do hose entanglement drills or fire attack drills.
If these guys would have never seen or spoke to me before would they have still listened? This is the value of team building and training, and understanding when to follow and when to lead. Remember the basics of your training and execute it to perfection. Anything can happen in this job, so you better be good at it. Mastery should be your minimum standard. Drill not to get it right but until you cannot get it wrong, because the difference may only be inches away…..
Be Safe and Train Hard!
Barn Boss Leadership can be reviewed here: https://www.createspace.com/5952190
Barn Boss Leadership, August 2016 publication – A unique blend of fire, science, psychology and fire service history provided by an author who has worked in the largest of metropolitan to the smallest of volunteer departments. True leaders develop their power long before they receive a promotion. This text is designed to provide a guide and self-awareness gut check for individuals of all ranks. However, the emphasis of this text is for the informal leader in the organization, who is the catalyst for action. This text is for the individual who considers mastery the minimum standard.
Brian Ward, Author of Fire Engineering - Training Officer’s Toolbox and Managing Editor/Author for the Training Officer’s Desk Reference by Jones and Bartlett. Brian facilitates programs around the country on emergency response, training and leadership topics in the public and private sector. Founder of FireServiceSLT.com.