Yes, we still have crews who work in collapse zones. Yes, we still have crews going in with uncharged lines. Yes, we still have people on the fireground who don’t speak up when they see something wrong, or don’t listen when people do speak up. And yes, it’s a damn shame when it feels like we lost good brothers for no good reason.
But I take issue with one ‘mistake’ as it stands on its own in an article by the The Kansas City (Mo.) Star.
On October 12, 2015, a falling wall crushed Kansas City firefighters John Mesh and Larry Leggio. The department’s chief said the two were working in the collapse zone and shouldn’t have been there.
That led The Star to take a in-depth look at their deaths and, ultimately, firefighter fatalities across the country.
From a journalism perspective, The Star’s long-term coverage is exceptional in its demand for answers. The city lost two servants in a way that begs for someone to look closely at the department’s operations, what happened that night, and help provide an independent review for citizens and policymakers in terms that they can understand. And that helps us.
The article featured a list of reasons we’re all too familiar with: lack of training, complacency, budget problems, and bad decision-making.
Are these issues in the fire service? Absolutely. It’s like these reporters are right here, listening to our kitchen-table gripes. That is, until you hit another point in the article:
“…Firefighters rarely lost their lives rescuing civilians trapped inside burning structures,” The Star’s reporters wrote. “They died after everyone had been evacuated […] or they died searching for civilians who they mistakenly thought might be inside,” they said, citing their review of NIOSH reports.
So, why are we losing firefighters in unoccupied houses? Because it’s only after a search, or after the fire, that we get to find out if anyone’s inside. We know that, but citizens may not.
The Star interviewed retired Phoenix, Ariz. fire chief Alan Brunacini, who addresses that specific beef with the criticism.
“The building is probably doomed, and it was 30 minutes ago,” Brunacini told them. “Anybody who was in the building died before the door went up in the fire station. Now what we’re going to do is we’re going to commit suicide operating at it? That doesn’t make any sense.”
Are there instances where fire conditions were so extensive a search wasn’t worth the risk, but crews went in anyway? Yes. If so, either those firefighters thought the conditions warranted their actions, or they lost situational awareness and went in with the best of intentions, but with bad analysis of the information in front of them.
If it’s the former, good for them to give the potentially-trapped citizens their last best chance to survive. If it’s the latter, it comes back to training.
But it’s not fair to point at occupied or unoccupied as a primary measure of whether a firefighter’s death was “preventable.”
The article highlights our loss of two brothers here in Toledo, Ohio. Steve Machcinski and my academy classmate Jamie Dickman were part of a crew that entered a second floor apartment with a hoseline to do their job — put out the fire, and give the trapped citizens a chance.
Were there mistakes made? There always are. Ours is not a job of perfection because we are granted neither the time nor the information to make the best possible decision. We can simply prepare to make the best possible decision at that moment. The article highlights this as what critics (like me) call “hindsight bias.”
It’s absolutely true that some mistakes aren’t mistakes when they’re made; they’re a label given to decisions with the benefit of that hindsight. It is tragic that we lose firefighters in empty houses, or after the family said everyone’s out. But let’s not say the mistake was going in to make sure.
If these firefighters died clutching an unconscious, soot-covered child in their arms, rushing to a doorway, would we have heard cries that they died in vain? No. But we wouldn’t be blaming occupancy, we’d be blaming a poor size-up, uncoordinated ventilation, or a hoseline not supporting the search effort — things that truly demand our attention.
‘Unoccupied’ or ‘occupied’ are not in themselves appropriate criteria for determining whether a firefighter’s death was preventable. So let’s stay focused on the other factors mentioned in the article, and prepare ourselves as best we can to make the right decision with the cards stacked against us.
The Star’s series should be a starting point for that learning. From the reviewed case studies, to the interactive presentation of the data, there is much to glean from what was clearly hours upon hours of hard work and analysis in this excellent piece of journalism.