Our prayers need, right now, to be with our brothers at Bryan (TX) Fire Department in their loss of two valiant men, both of whom perished in the line of duty. We need to also support the two firefighters who were also part of the Rapid Intervention Team that went in and they too, were injured in this fire.
I am not well-versed in the operations of the Bryan Fire Department or their reputation. I can say that I have read some articles on their operation and have been impressed with what I saw; I have been to their website and they look like a progressive and forward-thinking organization. They do a lot of the same things my department does and are roughly the same size department as the one I work for. We run about the same number of calls, if my department were to have a "consistent" population (we have an "off-season" that causes a slight dip in response numbers). I would bet their people are a lot like the people I work with, and I'd bet their chief officers are a lot like me and my colleagues as well.
My department uses accountability and incident management practices that are considered to be the best in our business, and our culture is such that we use them daily, routinely, and intuitively, from the newest firefighter to the Chief of Department. We have modern equipment and we have high standards for our personnel. We are not "safety nazis"; we foster an aggressive approach to fighting fire and dealing with emergency situations, but there is a difference between "aggressive" and "arrogant". Safety is important, and we believe good situational awareness and good practices will keep us out of trouble, even when operating in harm's way. From what I can tell, the Bryan Fire Department is one of these types of departments as well.
We don't shoot from the hip at our department. For the most part, we try to take an unemotional approach to solving the problems we face on scenes. We get facts, we do the job, and we are proud to say that combined with our codes enforcement and fire prevention activities, we stop fires where we find them. When someone has a heart attack, between community involvement and everything else that makes up our team approach, we save them. We have more good days than bad ones, and that is always a force multiplier. I'd bet Bryan Fire Department is the same way.
As you can tell, I can identify with these guys and I have a lot of respect for their organization. They are, like a number of departments out there, just like the one I work for. But while I would like to think it can't happen here at my department, the difference between things going well and things going catastrophically, sometimes, is a crapshoot. You can do all the right things sometimes and it just takes one element to spin out of control, and tragedy ensues. I don't know all the facts about this situation, but I know this: we must try to give our people all the chances at success as possible in order for them to have any chance at all. No raindrop believes it is responsible for the flood, and you wouldn't think a tiny bird could bring down a jet airliner, but small things happen and result in big consequences. Everytime a brother goes down in the line of duty, it is imperative that we learn from it, so we don't have the same thing happen again.
If you really want to honor the brotherhood, you will walk away from all this with the idea that we must hone our art, we must pay attention to the details, and we must embrace changes that give us the opportunity to go home to our families at the end of the shift. While we have those among us who would climb into a dumpster fire to put it out, those of us with a respect for the conditions present at any emergency understand that we risk our lives to an extent just by responding to calls and there isn't a reason sometimes to increase that ratio of risk to reward. But when we do, we do so with a skeptical eye and we always remember we are sending our brothers in to do a job where they are already, often or not, outmatched.
God Bless our fallen brothers, Lt. Eric Wallace and Lt. Greg Pickard, be with Firefighters Mantey and Moran in their recovery, and especially watch over the Bryan Fire Department and their families during this time. Whatever you do, never say "it can't happen here". Learn the lessons from this and many other incidents, and resolve that while these situations might very well happen outside of our control, we at least won't go down without a fight.
You’ve heard me say it before: I’m not a “Safety Nazi” nor am I a “cowboy”. I’m where many of you are; willing to do the job and lay it all on the line when needed, but not willing to sacrifice my life or any of yours for a building we will be turning over to the insurance company tomorrow. However, recent events give me pause and require me to really examine how much I am willing to sacrifice, especially since my sacrifice doesn’t just affect me, but my family, if something happens to me in the line of duty.
Yes, we live in a New World where soldiers are dying or getting maimed defending our nation only to be told that their benefits are being cut, where benefits are being denied to personnel who are now sick after working the Towers or after years of working in fires, and it all causes me to believe we are truly being led by a bunch of total mutts. In this newest bit of selfishness, public servants who sacrifice their lives in the line of duty can rest in peace knowing there are efforts afoot to cut their widows and orphans out of a federal death benefit as well. Yes, as was reported recently on the IAFF blog, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) is proposing the elimination of the Public Safety Officers’ death benefit (PSOB). I have absolutely had it with these "patriots" who say they are looking out for what is best for our country, demanding everyone give a little more and shouting from the rooftops, "We will never forget!", all the while padding their bank accounts with support from special interests, cashing in on insider information and laughing at us as we struggle to make ends meet. The next time I see one of these guys wrapping themselves in our flag, I think I'll freaking puke.
I believe in taking risks when the situation appears to defend those risks and not risking your lives unnecessarily when it doesn’t. That’s about as short of an explanation of my philosophy as I can get. But with the hue and cry about what a burden we are on the public pocketbook, with little or no thanks when one of us commits the ultimate act of bravery, it all makes me wonder if we shouldn’t be taking less risk, since our efforts aren’t appreciated anyway.
Every day it is something else. Staffing is being cut all over, jeopardizing firefighter safety. Many of our brothers are being laid off, furloughed, or having benefits cut. Our pension systems are under constant attack. Funding of national programs like the SAFER and FIRE Act are drops in the bucket compared to the cash cow that the Department of Justice gets to run with, but these funding sources are constantly in danger of being cut. And now, if all that isn't enough, the politicians would like to go after the benefits allocated for our loved ones.
The thanks I get for years of serving others will ultimately be recognized by my Maker, I am confident to say, and as Colonel Nathan Jessup said (before putting his foot deeper into the hole), “I’d rather you said ‘thank you’ and went on your way.” I don't really need the sentiment, the medals, or the honors. I can sleep easy at night knowing I am doing what is right for my fellow man and not ripping him off doing so. But the gloves are off now, as efforts made by individuals to at least secure our loved ones some economic assistance after a LODD are in danger of being eliminated, while bankers, insurance executives, lawyers, and politicians sit fat and happy, bankrolled on the funds they squandered, stole, and misappropriated.
Every day that goes by where we, as public servants, fail to discuss these inequities with our elected officials, is one more reassurance to these people we are complacent sheep and unwilling to muster up the cajones to elect leaders who really do represent us. We need to start cutting off the golden parachutes for these scumbags and make sure that when we suffer, they suffer too. It's easy to call for sacrifice if you aren't sharing the load and frankly, none of these folks look like they're struggling too much.
It's easy to find a scapegoat to take the heat off your own inadequacies and lately, that scapegoat has been the public servant. If the politicians looked a little harder at perhaps cutting some of their own fat benefits, maybe I'd be a little more sympathetic. But with the perks you get from being an elected official, there's just not a lot of belief from me in what these people are selling. If the "public" is so concerned about saving a few shekels that they are willing to cut the PSOB if, God forbid, something were to happen to me while serving, then perhaps I should be a little bit more stingy about whether or not I am willing to lay it ALL on the line for them. There is a reason this benefit was created: to take care of the survivors of those who unselfishly gave their lives for others.
Stand up for yourselves. This is just one more battle to defend what little we get. The individuals making these decisions don’t care about anyone but themselves. Ironically, it’s about time you all began to care a little more about yourselves than about everyone else, or at least to care about the people who have to continue on after you are gone.
I really don't share as many of the images I take on a regular basis, which is funny to me, because I love photography. A few days ago, one of my best friends, also a Philadelphia native, and I took a little trip "home" to Philly to catch a Phillies game and a Flyers game. This was a birthday present from my wife and I really looked forward to it.
As it was, I brought my camera, but for probably the first time, I left it behind while we soaked up as much of the city as possible for our little two day getaway. Any pictures I took, I did with the camera on my smart phone, which isn't too bad, but isn't exactly what I am used to using when I do see something I want to shoot. So I didn't take all the shots I really saw, and for me, that is completely out of character.
Even though Jeff and I were there together, we didn't go into any stations along the way (Jeff is my counterpart Battalion Chief for "B" Shift). I won't say we didn't see any along the way, but we were in such a rush, we really didn't stop in like both of us would have probably done on our own if we were on a less tightly scheduled timeframe.
Since we were really there for the two sports events, we limited our travels to Central and South Philly, close by to the sports complex. We saw some PFD units, doing this or doing that, but really paid them no mind. By the time we left and made it home, I was surprised at the lack of pictures I had, and especially since there weren't any of fire department stuff, which is probably pretty funny for any of us. After living in South Carolina for 30 years, I don't get "homesick" like I used to, but this time was a little different. This time I really found that I missed Philly, the places I would go to, the smells, the attitudes, all of it. It just really hit me this time, but as is normal, you get home and get back to work and put the thoughts aside.
What we see today, might be gone tomorrow. What we can touch and hold right now may be a memory moments later. We do things, like take pictures, to preserve those images, and to remind ourselves of what we experienced. We do these things to preserve, to record, and to share those thoughts. In one minute, we can be gone and not anyone may even be able to understand why.
The other morning, while checking my e-mail, I saw that LODD notice. I learned of the tragic loss of the two brothers from Ladder 10, and the hospitalization of two others. I listened to the audio and closed my eyes, imagining what events must have transpired. And while I am not a Philly firefighter, I felt a little differently this time, like I knew these guys, and understood the situation. And while I was saddened, on this occasion, it just made me feel deep down inside how much I miss being there.
These brothers went into an expsoure building to check on conditions. We have all done it a hundred times. Then the next thing they knew, it was changed. The building came down around them and two of the crew were lost forever. Two others were hurt, one so severely that CPR had to be administered. In a moment, families were ripped apart, friendships severed. What any of us would give to have those moments back again, those moments just before the world changed. If that crew was anything like my crews have always been, they were probably making stupid jokes about what was going on, wry observations on their current condition, all the while watching and listening for anything that could tell them more about their surroundings, about what work needed to be done, or what information needed to be shared.
We know not the hour of the day or the place where things will change forever. They do, routinely, daily, and these moments sometimes pass without notice. Take a moment and tell those around you how you feel about them. Take a moment and enjoy your surroundings. Live each moment like it will be your last and put a determined mindfulness on your surroundings. Appreciate now what you have, because tomorrow, it may all be gone.
A little something about me you may not have known: I used to design fire department patches (NOTE: I did not design this one; it is from The Fire Store, but it was exactly the image I was looking for). In fact, when I first got involved in the fire service, I designed quite a few of them and one of them, the patch I designed for the Bluffton Township Fire District, our neighbors here in South Carolina, is still being used. The Chief and the Assistant Chief at the time (who is now the Chief) wanted a motto on the patch. The motto we came up with is still being used: "Devoted to duty above personal risk." It still sounds good and to be quite honest, with most of us, it is the truth.
Given some of my posts, some of you, I think believe I'm a safety nazi. That's pretty far from the truth actually. I'm a true believer; when I got into the business, I did so because I wanted to be involved in it and because my family tradition led me there. But I'm the kind of guy that if I didn't believe in it, I wouldn't have stuck around. And the danger and the thrill, personally, did it for me. What's more, it wasn't enough.
Over the years, however, I matured. I grew up, which unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on who you speak to) changes things. I had the good fortune to meet movers and shakers in the emergency service world and each of them had a story to tell. Mostly their story was that while it was fun being at the edge of sanity with some of the heroics we pulled off and the chest full of medals we earned, we never really appreciated the impact that one stupid move could make that would change the world forever.
The events of September 11 really put my priorities into focus. On that beautiful September day and on into the night, I stood in front of the TV in my living room, oftentimes holding my then-baby daughter, with tears in my eyes when I realized that 343 of my brothers perished in the line of duty. The effect that this loss has had on our nation is questionable, as today it seems like the public has forgotten that day. But the scar it left on our job, on our family, is impenetrable. There are children growing up whose fathers will never hold them or see them graduate or walk them down the aisle. Or even look on with pride as they too choose to join our brotherhood. Who won't be there to pin on Lieutenant's bugles at that first promotion. Each of these 343 individuals had a profound impact on a number of others, and that ripple effect continues outward and outward until millions, even billions in this case, are impacted.
But the tragedy that happened that day is an anomaly, a blip in the statistics of firefighter mortality. In fact, we can't ever factor in the loss of 343 individuals on that one day in any of the data we analyze because it throws wild swings into the results. That certainly doesn't decrease their contribution any more. In fact, it immortalizes it. Forever that will be a group of people who stand alone. But the 100 or so firefighters who die in the line of duty each year are considered, in a figure that has decreased over time, but not nearly in proportion to the fires we now fight. Looking at the situation after that day and understanding the effect the loss of those 343 people had on so many, it is obvious that any casual approach to safety results not just in a loss to the immediate individuals involved, but to many others. Any poor decision causes a ripple that can become a tsunami.
So on a grand scale, the loss of even ONE firefighter is an unacceptable one and extrapolated out into an average loss of 100 brothers a year affects not just you or your crew, but families and community, and everything else, multiplied 100 times. And when a significant number of these injuries and deaths occur not from heroic deeds, but from failing to use common sense, I struggle with the argument that our "safety culture is ruining the fire service". Let's just take the injuries and deaths that HAVE occurred from people putting themselves in harm's way out of the equation, and in looking at casualties that are related to cardiac events and failure to wear seatbelts, we could make a significant impact on sending more brothers home every day than ever before.
But we CONTINUE to resist changes in our industry that would make that difference. Why? Because you safety nazis are sucking the fun out of our job. Because you are unreasonable in expecting me to maintain appropriate cardiac health to do the job. Because we resist the notion that there should be a standard for doing the job. Because it is inconvenient for me to wear my seatbelt.
There is absolutely no argument you can make to me that can reasonably suggest that increasing our safety is a bad idea. I am a chief officer now. I joke that my white helmet will likely remain white until I die, because my job is to send you guys in and to make sure that all I sent in comes back out in the same condition. It's not the fun part of the job, but at some point, I had to grow up and accept my role. I am no longer the "go to" guy on the scene for a really hairy rescue and even though I understand that, it's never going to escape me.
A few years ago, I jumped into the water with Capt. Tom from the EMS12Lead blog and we made a rescue. While he was a Lieutenant at the time, I was a chief. My chief, when handing me the Meritorious Service Medal (I missed the actual ceremony, Capt. Tom got one too), reminded me that my job was no longer in the water, but on the shore. He also indicated it would probably be my last medal. I indicated that if I got another medal it would probably be my last medal because I'd be looking for another job. He laughed at that. But it was an awakening. I realized how right he was. My job is to keep you guys safe. You job is to be safe about doing it and to only take risk when the risk is worth it. Not only will I keep from throwing your body into an unwinnable battle, I ask that you keep from making decisions that require the same.
We lost 343 brother firefighters in one day in New York City. They, as well as many more firefighters and other public safety professionals who survived, considered their duty to save others from that infernal hell and did so for thousands and thousands of others, and to their credit, we should be thanking them all for their courageous actions. But this tradition was an act that isn't replicated in all of these line of duty deaths, because in the majority of line of duty deaths, preventable actions or shall I say, more mature and considerate actions, could have saved firefighter lives.
To put it plainly, the lives we lost were not traded for a single save. Our "duty above personal risk", while meant to signify that willingness to sacrifice, can also be read that we are devoted to "duty" above "personal risk". We have a duty, not only to save the lives of endangered victims, but to be there to lead our families, to be there to teach our rookie firefighters, to be there to be a Cub Scout leader or to work in the PTA. We have a duty to live our lives to the fullest, not to casually throw our lives away without a sane reason.
If the time comes, God forgive me, to throw my life in front of another so that someone may live a full and productive life, I know in my heart what my action will be. But until then, I refuse to commit my body, or yours, to a decision based on a misguided view of heroism, or because it is what we always believed to be the duty of our calling.
Be safe and if anything, in the name of those who have gone before us, honor their memory by being there for everyone who remains. And I ask that God bless the civilian departed and their families on this 10th anniversary of their death. And most of all, God bless and keep our 343 brothers, their families, and the other firefighters who still suffer the effects of the horrible day, both mentally and physically. We love you and miss you all terribly.
The facts are not in yet from Asheville, yet I can say this with certainty. A man, just like any of us, woke up the other morning and got ready to go to work. He probably went through his morning routine like we all do, kissed the wife and kids, drove to work, and reported in. He likely threw his gear on the rig and checked out his equipment, without a thought that in a few hours he would be gone.
As the Bible says, we do not know the day nor the hour. We need to prepare as if every day were the day. But our choice to serve isn't for the money or the fame or the worship as heroes. We know these things aren't the reason we do the job. And as Chief Croker said, the greatest act of heroism is when we don that badge; after that, it is what we are expected to do. Hopefully we are never called to sacrifice our lives in the line of duty, but God fobid, if that event occurs, we should make that sacrifice only to save another.
Continue to reach out to these folks and to the families and friends of our other departed brethren and keep them in your prayers.
I was driving down the road the other day and thinking, you know, I too could have a list of quotes, just like the real writers have. So in the interest of filling up a page of useless knowledge, I went back to FHZ from September of 2008 to December of 2009 and I also threw in a few notable statements I made way back on the old Firehouse Forums as a member of the IACOJ, before some of you were born, I think.
Now, I do read a lot and listen to podcasts, etc. and I will check my quotes with a deep internet search to make sure I haven't stolen someone else's ideas, but I'm pretty sure I said this stuff at one time or another. I also left off anything I paraphrased (I hope) and added some stuff that exists in unpublished posts (there are a few dozen of those). Believe it or not, we here at FHZ have standards. They are low, but we do have standards.
So here you are, from the beginning of FHZ, some of the more memorable ones:
- "When I give you an order, I want to see it done, or your dead body where you died trying to do it."
- "Never eat more than your mask can hold."
- "I am not your friend, I am your boss. If you want to be friends, that's okay, but that doesn't change the fact that I am your boss first."
- "The company officer is the designated adult supervision in the station. Act like it."
- "There won't be a group hug at the end of this. I don't do Kumbaya."
- "When I call for a resource I'm gonna give you type and kind. If I call for a Lincoln-ful of Panamanians, I don't care where you got it, just give me the closest one."
- "Let's put this in terms you can understand: Confined space rescue is nothing more than HAZMAT on a rope."
- "Being a truckie requires resourcefulness. You are presented with a problem no one else knows how to fix and you fix it with what you brought to the party or what you can swipe. After that, it's all magic."
- "Individuals have given themselves the freedom to make poor decisions, then be let off the hook because we 'shouldn't judge them', or because their mommy didn't hug them as a child, or whatever the victim story is this week." (Okay, I just used that one again the other day).
- "The base cause of indignity is usually the result of inconsiderate behavior." (Oh, and that one is new. But I liked it).
- "Conflict in life is inevitable. Conflict escalation and intractability is not." (Alright, that one is new as well. Back to the old stuff).
- "There's enough ugly going on around us right now without our own people bringing it down on us."
- "Each of us should be serving as a positive example of how to do the job, volunteer or career, and without acting like a bunch of amateurs and whackers."
- "The important part in our lives, really, isn't necessarily what we can fill up our minds with at every moment, but about creating space to let more in."
- "There are a few things that you should raise the stakes for, like your faith, your family, and your country. But when faced with an unwinnable scenario and a profound lack of resources, sometimes it is best to save what you can save and live to fight on another day."
- "Where t = tempo, r = resources and f = frustration: increasing t multiplied by decreasing r = exponential increase in f."
- "The taxpayers in your community ultimately decide what level of service they want. If they are insistent that giving you no resources is okay, then they have to be educated to what extent that investment will reap disaster. Risk is proportionate to return."
- "There are other sides to every argument that get squashed by the rush of the ADD crowd to comment. Don't fall into the trap of the unenlightened. Think before you post."
- "I can think of no rational society that thinks it is okay to screw the disadvantaged for the benefit of the privileged. Taking advantage of the less fortunate is simply bullying."
- "When we use the phrase 'customer service", if that's not appealing to you, try saying it like this: 'doing what is right for our neighbors and the people who visit and work in our community'. That should be a little more pleasant."
- "Successful coaches match schemes to personnel, not vice-versa."
- "If you are going to successfully implement change in your organizational culture, there should be a reluctance to be where you were and a desire to get where you are going."
- "I'm pretty sure that when my ticket , I'm not going to be quoted saying something profound, poetic, or heroic. It is likely going to be something that can't be repeated around children or the faint-hearted."
- "If we really want our industry to recognized as professional, it requires consistent conduct that is professional."
- 'Legitimate power, in the sense of leading others, is limited to the amount of leverage the followers will permit."
- "Tansformative leadership requires commitment, honesty to self, and an understanding of the world. It's yours if you can embrace change, open yourself up to it, and set the example to others."
- "Our business is too dangerous to leave the teaching to amateurs."
- "Perhaps if you guys are going to fight fire like you are in the '70's, you should be paid like we were then too."
- "If as a team, you can't agree on the destination, someone needs to get out of the car. Ultimately, getting to the destination requires assessment, negotiation, understanding, cooperation, and ends with commitment."
- "More often than I care to, my 'command presence' comes out at inopportune times, like when I am talking to my wife (she doesn't like it), my kids (they're not crazy about it either), or my colleagues (they probably think I'm insufferable anyway)."
- "If you fail to illustrate a clear picture of who is in charge, someone else will come in and fill that drawing in for you."
- "Sometimes the best we can do is to pin it down to the neighborhood of origin, if that's what was burning when we got there."
Since at some point perhaps I'll add another page of these for the next years, if one of the sentences I uttered strikes a chord with you, point it out to me and I'll add it. I'm all about customer service. Until next time, thanks for reading.
Susan’s credentials as a leader were impressive. She came on board not long after our department was in the throes of a major overhaul of our command staff as a result of retirements and going on to bigger venues. But while her impact on our organization was large, her time with us was short and to be quite candid, the changes she endeavored to make didn’t quite stick the way they should have.
I guess one of the reasons I never finished posting (because the post actually went on from here) was that it kept sounding like a eulogy and that’s not what I wanted to do. This issue isn’t about me or anyone else who is still around picking up the pieces, but about moving forward, transitioning, living through a traumatic event and learning how to move on.
I dragged this back out again from my “drafts” pile because for the better part of yesterday, I was trying to catch up on my workload and making pretty decent progress. I think I’m only backlogged to November now (that’s LAST November). Things came to a crawl, however, when I began to tackle the next priority on the list, which was (is, because I’m not done) a “Line of Duty Death” guideline (LODD, for my non-fire readers). While Susan’s death was not an LODD, it was very much about a loss to our fire department family. I have always been impressed by our ability to rally, and of course, the amazing memorial that was virtually shot from the hip.
We can always look back in amazement at what we instinctively got right and make notes about what we probably could have done better at. Her family asked us to coordinate the services and a few stalwart colleagues/friends jumped in there and did a pretty damn good job organizing and contacting and negotiating to create a memorial worthy of commemorating Susan’s impact on our lives. While there’s none of us that wouldn’t have wanted to fill Yankee Stadium for her, we did a good job of filling the venue we had, and the service was both tearful and funny, the way she probably would have wanted it.
But the moral of this story is that when we lose someone dear to us, we have a need to commemorate their life. The deceased are deceased and while it is my belief that we honor them by having a ceremony, and it is also my belief that they are taking in our feelings and understanding how much they meant to us from a better place, when it comes down to it, a lot of that may be more about us processing our own feelings and trying to get us to move on to the next phase of our lives.
What better memorial to another than to recognize that our beloved was such an important part of our life that the traditions they instilled in us, the commitment to excellence, and the dedication to service so ingrained in our culture, that we refused to let that value die long after that person was gone from this mortal coil. Unfortunately, when I think back on it, I think maybe we might have failed Susan.
With some substantial challenges on our horizon and after talking to others within our organization about a renewed commitment to improvement and service, I have to meditate a little on what that truly means and how to go about facilitating that change among the people I am responsible for mentoring. As a chief officer, one of the hardest things you have to do sometimes is admit to yourself that you have let your vision be narrowed by petty issues. As a chief officer, your vision can’t be obscured by the trees; you need to view the entire landscape.
My job must be to focus on positive strategic change. I have company officers who must translate that change into daily tactical objectives. If they can’t do that, they have to do some soul searching themselves, because the purpose of the officer on a team isn’t to be one of the gang, it is to lead the team. It is the job of the officer to work with other officers to form an effective cadre of other leaders and to be above pettiness themselves. When you make the choice that your badge will have bugles on it, it’s time to leave the past behind and focus on the future. And if you ca’t do that, then you need to admit that it might be better to return to the gang. No one ever said leadership was easy.
We have many people in our lives whom we love in their own special ways. All of the assembled brothers and processions of fire apparatus, all of the pipes and crossed ladders and other powerful traditions are nothing if we can’t be true to ourselves and appreciate that our calling is to serve others. Service to others is the hallmark of our tradition. People would not revere firefighters if not for their long-standing tradition of selflessness, of commitment despite adversity, and of bravery in the face of death and destruction. If we truly want to memorialize our loved ones and our brothers, we need to re-dedicate our careers toward self-improvement, education, and dedication, as well as to teach and mentor those who are behind us in the ranks.
Don’t make saying goodbye a hollow promise of honoring the deceased. The funeral is just the beginning of a new life without that person standing next to us. If they really mean something to us, we will consider the lessons they taught us and create action instead of words.
So I’m walking from our house to the beach with my three daughters. There’s a road we have to cross in between here and there that’s pretty busy. On occasion tourists come flying around the curve, not realizing that there’s an area where you have to cross (although it’s not a marked crosswalk). While no one has been hit at that spot in the 29 years I have been living on the Island (that I know of), I know it’s a bad section that you can’t see around. It occurred to me today when I was making that crossing that it’s a lot like the risk we endure as firefighters.
I had the opportunity this weekend to read a recent article on Stat911, that seems to have created some serious wailing and gnashing of the teeth between people who call themselves brothers. Honestly, it was pretty sad to me as I read these comments. I admit, it is a little bothersome when a video comes out and a number of people point out the obvious mistakes made, but as I mentioned in an earlier article here on FHZ, we should be looking at things that go wrong and learning, and resolving to keep from repeating events that maim and kill our brethren.
Conversely, instead of saying how stupid some of these people are, perhaps we should offer some constructive criticism and offer suggestions on methods that would help solve the problems, rather than lowering the bar into that angry pit of accusatory language. And when we generalize about whole departments or organizations based on a squirrely few, we aren’t doing anything other than trying to piss one another off. I agree 100% that some of the repeated actions (or inactions) taken by other firefighters that endanger themselves and their their colleagues are a little infuriating (like refusing to wear a seat belt), but like the point I have also made over and over again, people aren’t going to learn when you rub their nose in it, they will learn when they see the logic in changing.
But back to my story. There is, of course, risk in crossing the street, but we accept that risk when we go for a walk, don’t we? As a pedestrian, we take a calculated risk every time we go out in the road, but it doesn’t stop us from doing it. In fact, walking in the middle of a busy street is exhilarating. There’s a certain adrenaline rush when you run out in front of moving cars.
As a responsible father, however, I’d advise against running in front of a moving car. I’m sure I’d get in a little trouble with my wife, the law, and probably get a few death threats if I just let my children run out in front of cars. If my four-year-old got struck by a car there, after having just let her run out there, knowing the risks involved, wouldn’t that make me a little bit liable? But given the logic espoused by a few of my more enlightened colleagues, I suppose I am overreacting when I tell my girls it’s a wise idea to look both ways at that intersection. After all, no one has ever been struck or killed here. If I insisted on having the street marked with lines and a sign, I might be construed as overreacting if you ask some of these folks.
I eat risk for lunch. I eagerly chose to pursue a fire service career because it was exciting. Even more so, I focused my whole career to concentrate on special operations. I’m the Deputy Director of a US&R Task Force. I used to teach high-line rope rescue, and hold internationally recognized instructor certifications in SCUBA and water rescue. I hold NPQ and IFSAC certifications as a HAZMAT Technician. Two of my favorite hobbies are mountain biking and skiing. I’m not in the slightest bit worried about taking risks.
But there is a serious difference between taking stupid risks and calculated risks. Firefighting isn’t Jackass. We have a serious job to do that involves serving the public, and using our personnel as cannon fodder doesn’t do the job. If you take a risk and die trying to save a life in our job, I’ll be the first one to sing your praises. If you take a risk and die trying to save a burning trash pile, I’m sorry, I’m not impressed. If you get burned because you failed to use the safety equipment we provide you, I guess my first question will be, why wasn’t it used?
I think some of the plastic vests and hard-hats are a little much sometimes, but I can understand the effort to make ourselves more visible and to avoid having something clonk us on the head. But as a leader and chief officer, I also know what can go wrong, what can go seriously, seriously wrong, and to ignore it because I’ve never seen it first hand would be folly. And to just turn my back on personnel who fail to use good safety practices, knowing what the outcome could be, would be negligent.
Quit the name calling and sand throwing and act like grown-ups. You can argue that it’s just “ragging”, but it’s not. The language some of you all out there are using is just plain wrong and malicious. And it certainly doesn’t represent your side of the argument professionally at all. I can give people crap all day long with the best of them, but that’s not what some of you are engaging in. What you are engaging in is simply destructive behavior, and it’s one of the reasons why our profession isn’t always taken very seriously. The only people we are hurting here is ourselves.
I probably can’t tell you anything about the Charleston incident that you don’t already know, except the incident from my personal perspective, and I have never shared that with anyone except my family and some close friends until today. And despite the statements bashed around in the days afterward about why things were the way they were prior to that night, there’s no amount of warning, yelling, or cajoling that could have happened before that day or after that day to really change things, because honestly, you can’t change someone who won’t listen.
As was quoted by at least one of my friends from the CFD prior to that night: “We’re the FDNY of the South.” When your fire department has a Class 1 ISO rating and homes aren’t burning into the dirt on a daily basis, the public is just fine with whatever it is you are doing. Whether your organization is using the most modern equipment and techniques, or whether they are utilizing tactics thrown away in the 70′s, there are much more important things on the public radar. Things like whether or not the garbage will get picked up, or who the next contestant is on The Bachelor, or which rehab facility Lindsay Lohan is skipping out of. The entire community of Charleston and the fire department itself, prior to that day, was fine and happy with the status quo. Just like any disaster, it isn’t until people die that questions begin to be asked.
This isn’t an indictment of the department, its culture, or anyone in particular. All I know is what I know and the things that were said before, on and after that night. A big reason why I have never said anything really about it until now is that I wasn’t asked (I was this time). But nothing I care to say would be intended to disparage the reputations or the character of the brave members of the CFD. I simply believe that the charismatic style of their leader at the time led them down a primrose path. He thought he was doing the right thing, everyone else there thought he was doing the right thing, and nothing seemed like it could go wrong, until it did. Catastrophically.
I wasn’t at the incident in the beginning and frankly, in retrospect, there were many disasters converging at that exact location that evening. It was inevitable that something bad would happen, given some of what we knew before, and of course, given what we know now. I had to shake my head in wonder when I saw that one poster on a blog page wanted to know, “Where are all the chiefs in SC?” on the issue. ”Why wouldn’t they do something before this disaster?” Well, let me tell you a little bit about fire departments in the United States: Unless the public or their elected officials detect a problem, there is never going to be any change, no matter WHAT the chiefs in the neighboring communities or the state have to say about it. After the disaster, it is true, the collective anger and frustration not only from within, but from the overall fire service community was instrumental in causing a change, but really, it took the deaths of nine brave souls to make that change manifest.
All we can do now is honor the lives of those who go before us, pray for the families and help them deal with this tragedy, and hope we all learn from the events that evening. Senseless doesn’t begin to describe the loss suffered by the principals of this story, and although I chalk up a great deal of what happened to hubris and over-confidence by the Fire Chief, and by default, the organizational culture, I don’t take anything away from the extremely fine and dedicated brothers who serve the community of Charleston, SC. I can only pray that we don’t experience something like this again anywhere else on the globe. In my heart, however, I know there are departments out there who learned nothing from this, therefore, we are only a heartbeat away from repeating these mistakes again.
I was lying on the couch in my living room when I got the first call. The power was out at our house, so I was just working on my laptop, having just put the children to bed. At the time, I was the Acting Director of the South Carolina US&R Task Force and awaiting our hiring a full-time Director to take my place in Columbia. One of my Task Force Leaders rang my cell phone and asked if I had been briefed on what was going on in Charleston. He said that there were several firefighters unaccounted for in a fire at the Sofa Superstore.
I am intimately familiar with Charleston. I did the majority of my paramedic clinical time there in the 80′s and fell in love with the place. My mother-in-law grew up in Charleston and we would go up there to visit her family, especially her well-connected sister and brother-in-law, often. And when our second daughter, Caroline, was born, she developed complications resulting in a helo ride to the Medical University and a subsequent six-week stay in the neonatal ICU. In response, my wife and I literally moved to Charleston and lived at a friend’s second home at King and Broad for the entire time. We go back often and have developed many close friendships there.
I am also friends with a number of Charleston’s firefighters, although I never had the honor of meeting any of our brothers who passed that evening. But at the time, no one really seemed to know who was involved, much less who was missing, so for all I knew, it could have been any one of the people I had grown to know over the years of interacting with the department. And yes, I knew Rusty and many of the command staff who were there that evening, much as a result of my capacity with the Task Force and the ultimate oversight of their regional response team’s interaction with the State US&R Plan.
There’s really not much you can say when you get one of those calls. I’ve been called for others like it before and several hours later find that the news was completely distorted from the original message. You know, everyone ends up accounted for, or there was a mistake in transmission, or something like that. And although I had every reason to believe what I was being told was true (this TFL has always been a good friend and dependable officer), I have to admit I was a little skeptical. I told him to call me if he had any other information, and I’d call the State Fire Marshal, John Reich, who as the ESF-9 coordinator for the state, I technically reported to, and give him a heads-up.
When the power came back on a little while later, I clicked over to the Charleston news station and saw the coverage, and was immediately swayed by what was going on: an active search and rescue incident looking for multiple companies of missing firefighters. Needless to say, things began to move pretty quickly, and it was really pretty much a blur after that. Multiple phone calls between multiple state officers and the next thing was, the State Fire Marshal was asking us to represent the state at the incident and to offer whatever assistance was needed.
I can tell you this, given any State agency’s relationship with local entities, we were instantly cognizant that what we DIDN’T want was one of our incident support teams (IST) rolling in there and announcing we were there to take over, because we weren’t. Not only would that be extremely callous and insensitive to the situation, we have no statutory authority to do so, short of a gubanatorial declaration of disaster (and that wasn’t coming). So this was going to be a mission of extreme delicacy and an offer of assistance from the State Fire Marshal’s Office, and as such, I felt like it would be best if I went personally, even though we had an IST sitting across the river in Mt. Pleasant.
I called up Ed Boring and Jason Walters, who at the time were both Task Force command officers and work with me at Hilton Head Island, and told them I was heading up to Charleston on direction from John Reich. Ed and Jason continue to work with me and over the years have become two of my closest friends not just because of our shared interests, but also because we served together at Katrina. Nothing like a disaster and riding around in a dark-colored Suburban to create a bonding experience.
On our arrival, we were each stupified by the absolute desolation on the scene. We got there before midnight, and at that point it was still not clear how many souls had been lost. Everyone was in shock, or so it seemed. The fire was still burning in places, but everyone seemed to be moving like their feet were in concrete. Not in a slow, poorly organized way, but in a stunned, defeated, bewildered way. It was definitely the scene of an enormous and horrendous event.
We delicately announced our need to report to the command post so we could speak to the incident commander, and kept getting pointed in a direction until we were finally pointed toward an empty pop-up tent with a single fold-up chair in the middle of the parking lot. No one was there. So we began to again poke around a little bit more, until we found Battalion Chief Robbie O’Donald, over by the ladder truck, which was still in the air. Robbie, who was a member of SC-TF1 and also a member of the Charleston command staff, had very obvious burns across his hands and arms, but was standing at the front of the building with a portable radio. I remember very softly calling to Chief O’Donald, because I honestly believed he was in total shock. The burns on both of his arms were pretty graphic, with skin literally falling off of his arms, but here he was, still at his post.
After a brief discussion about who was in charge and where he was at, I asked Robbie if he realized his arms were burned. He just kind of nodded and made a quiet, brief comment about trying to get someone out. I asked him if he wanted to get his burns checked out, he just said he’d be okay. Ignoring my suggestion, he led us over to a nearby gas station where the police had set up a command post of sorts, but no one was there either, so we went back over to the front of the store and stood around for a little. Finally, I said to Robbie, “Hey, John Reich sent us up here to see if there’s anything we can do for you.” Without answering me, he began to detail out for us where all the firefighters were lost at, including two on the other side of the wall from where we were standing.
I remember there was a back hoe sitting in front of the store. ”You aren’t going to dig them out with that, are you?” I asked. Given the state everyone was in, I didn’t quite know what to take for granted. ”Man, I can bring you the entire task force down here, or just trucks and equipment if you guys want to do this yourselves, but you tell us what YOU want, we’ll do whatever it is YOU want.” Trying to push him a little, I gave him my official business card, to indicate the official nature of my being there, and told him to take it to Rusty, and to let him know that whatever he needed, we’d get it there, just name it. So Robbie took the card and went into the building and out of our sight, which was where Chief Thomas was.
After a while, Chief O’Donald came back out and told me, “Chief Rusty says we’re fine.” Something in his face told me differently, and I’ve had enough experience to also know that things weren’t fine. But I wasn’t going to argue.
“Robbie, we’ll be right over there,” I pointed to the street, “if you guys change your mind.” He was staring back into the building again and I put my hand on his arm to let him know we were serious. ”I don’t have the authorization to make a decision for Hilton Head, but given what’s going on here, if you need people up here to cover you guys, I know we can get a bunch of guys up here to cover you at least on a volunteer basis.” He shook his head again and said, “Chief Rusty said we’ve got it.”
So we just wandered back to the road and got out of the way. I called John Reich and gave him my report and said that we needed to send another representative later on when some of the shock wore off. Then Ed and Jason and I stood by the road and watched as they carried the first five or six out, I don’t even really remember because at that point, I felt like this was something they needed to do themselves, and I wasn’t going to push the matter. If they were my people, I’d want to be the one who carried them out, so I understood. I also felt like our presence there, at that point, was more of a bystander than being of assistance, so we made our offers again, and with them saying once again they had everything under control, we left. The ride home was pretty quiet.
I look back on that night with a certain amount of disbelief. Did a department who fought as many fires as Charleston did really think they were going to make a knock on a commercial building fire with a single 2 1/2 inch supply line from a distant hydrant? Did they really think an attack on a heavily-loaded big box with booster lines was a sufficient attack strategy? Did they completely forget about the thermal imager sitting on their apparatus? Did their hubris really lead them to reject the notion of calling for outside resources early into the incident? Did the idea that “we fight these fires every day” with no semblance of modern command and control overwhelm the logical need for a coordinated rescue supported by protective lines? Rather than trying to attack a fast-mover without opening up the overheads, might we have not approached this with a more defensive attack once it was realized that a victim was trapped in the rear of the building?
We can “what if” this incident to death, but it doesn’t reverse the past. I personally know many of the key players in this saga and I can reassure you, none of them went to work that morning thinking, “Hey, I think I’ll kill off a few firefighters today”. But that’s what happened and no matter how sure you are of yourself, when you lose nine firefighters and someone asks you, “Given what you know now, would you fight this fire differently?” and you say, “No”, you have got a serious problem.
Resources will always be a problem in the fire service. We never have what we really need to do our jobs and we are always going to be understaffed. We will always be questioned by the public as to why it takes so many of us to fight a fire and why does it all cost so damn much. Then when all hell breaks loose, if we don’t make things happen, the public will scream that we didn’t do our job. It’s the never-ending dichotomy of public service. But to look at the lessons learned that evening and ignore them, well, it’s tantamount to killing your people.
It’s this simple: if you can’t fight the fire without killing your people, then why bother? If a rescue were being made, it’s one thing, but the men who lost their lives weren’t in any position to mount a defense for the rescue teams; they were in attack positions and eventually retreat positions with nowhere to go. They were actively trying to seek out a hidden fire while the whole time they were playing a game stacked against them. There WAS no “Plan B”. I’m not sure there was a “Plan A”. If you drive by there today, it’s a big vacant lot. These guys gave up their lives for their community, they gave what is identified in the Bible as being the greatest gift one can give to their fellow man: their lives. But just like the 343 men who died in the World Trade Center, the public has a short memory of these people and their mission. And when we ask for more funds, more manpower, or more equipment, more training, more support, or more apparatus, unless the stain of blood is still on the hands of the civilians from the latest disaster du jour, they have moved on to the next media extravaganza of the week.
Me, I have an obligation to my family to come home in the morning. I have an obligation to the families of my personnel to make sure they leave in the morning as well. If I don’t keep sharp, if I don’t fully comprehend the situation I am sending companies in to engage, and if I don’t have the means to put the tools in their hands they need, then I am failing them. No amount of pride, a patch, a label, or honors will do you any good when you are carrying out your dead and for what? If we can’t be there for each other, what have we really got?
Where were you that night? You may not have been there, but the lessons are all available for us to read and to learn from. If we fail to address the deficiencies, or short of that, at least identify methods of modifying our approach, or even less, realizing we simply don’t have the appropriate resources and stating: “we’re going to let it burn”, then we are ignoring the legacy of these fine men, these Charleston Nine, who have gone on before us. As leaders, we have a responsibility to learn and not make the same mistakes again. Honor these men by perfecting our craft and striving for positive change in the fire service. I never knew them, but I’ll bet that’s what they’d have wanted. Let’s keep them forever in our memory and insure they are never forgotten.
That got your attention, didn’t it? However, I strive to maintain a “G” rating on FHZ, and the language is not that bad. I’m not interested in pushing any of your buttons; I just want to get this safety message across.
So let’s just jump right into it. Depending on where my shift falls, I drive my youngest daughter to school three or four times a week. Without fail, there is one dumbass who every morning, manages to tie up the carpool line for an extra five minutes while she yaks incessantly to one or another of the other parents waiting in line.
When she finally decides to pull up her tricked-out Escalade and discharge her whiny little brats, she ties up those exiting by stopping and talking to someone else. Thus far, I have not succumbed to the (strong) urge to walk up and pull her out through the partially open window of her status machine. But even as I originally contemplated this post, she ran a stop sign, swerved across three lanes of traffic at carpool pick-up, cell phone in one hand and double decaf frappe crappacino in the other, cutting cars off, just so she could pull up next to one of the other moms (there for the afternoon social, of course) and gab some more. (Breathe deeply).
“Where is he going with this?” you ask (cautiously). Well, while watching this daily comedy of the bizarre, I was thinking that perhaps our apparatus operators are also too distracted while driving very large, inertially-challenged, parade beasts, and maybe this is part of the cause of so many minor and major vehicle collisions each year.
Take for example, the discussion that I encountered this past week. I am the Chair of our department’s standard operating guideline committee and people sometimes pull me aside to discuss recent changes to our manual. With recent changes to the way we back our apparatus, our logic is to make everyone get off the apparatus (except the drivers, obviously) and act as spotters to provide some more eyes on the blind sides of the apparatus. As you can expect, there are those who think more than one spotter is a bad idea. I think that given the number of accidents we have had, we should be doing anything in our power to change things, since the current modus operandi doesn’t seem to be working all that well. If one spotter isn’t working, two or more might be better, but one certainly doesn’t seem to be doing the job now.
In our organization, the command staff (unreasonably, I guess) believes that any number greater than one is an unacceptable statistic for collisions. We LIKE being proactive. Consequently, we have people who think a few collisions is okay. ”It’s the price of doing business”, I heard someone say.
Of course, when assigned to spot the apparatus, if we happen to be doing so with a spotter who can actually manage to do more than fog a mirror, that’s all well and good. I say this because we have drivers who still manage to back into something even with an individual out there to plausibly prevent such an occurrence. Of course, that’s if THE SPOTTER isn’t themselves distracted by their own cellphone, the hottie crossing the street, shiny objects, or the flashing lights.
Between the radio going, the siren blaring, the other distracted drivers, the officer ordering, and the three swans-a-swimming, our modern fire apparatus operator has a serious challenge when it comes to paying attention to the road and the myriad hazards encountered between Point A and Point B. In today’s emergency services, and having read some interesting posts by members of some of the forums, while many of us believe the foremost concern of the apparatus operator should be the safe operation of their vehicle, there are people who are more concerned with what music they should be blasting on their way to “the big one”. Then we wonder why we have accidents.
Years ago, I heard someone say that if every vehicle on the road was equipped with a nine-inch stainless-steel spike in the center of the steering column, we would probably decrease the number of traffic accidents ten-fold. While I agree that a sharp object pointed at my chest would probably cause me to think twice before exceeding the speed limit, I think a less lethal solution, like a machine that would punch you in the balls for exceeding the physical limitations of the rig, might just be the answer. Trust me, if I were smacked in the cajones every time I unlawfully exceeded the speed limit, it would get my undivided attention. I certainly wouldn’t make that mistake twice. So, if you’re sincere about avoiding this terrible contraption: FOCUS ON DRIVING THE (Pick one: engine/truck/medic/rescue) SAFELY, because I’m off to get the patent.
It is painfully obvious each time we roll a vehicle, smash one into a car at an intersection, park one on the train tracks, or run over our back-up man that there are serious issues of attention at play here. Instead of focusing on getting to the fire first, we need to focus on getting to the fire in one piece. And so long as officers on these rigs sit silently and pray that the ride ends up well instead of speaking up and ordering the driver to slow down and drive reasonably, we will continue to lose our brothers and sisters for what- so some hopped up adrenaline junkie can pretend he’s Mario Andretti racing in a 25-ton killing machine?
Just as my story about the clueless soccer mom riled some of you up, so should the image of a fire apparatus driver ramming into the side of a carload of kids be equally, if not so much more, reprehensible. After all, our subject mom is just another dumbass civilian with a cell phone. But you, my friends, are caretakers of the public trust. The taxpayers chose to allow you to drive the biggest, shiniest example of the American Fire Service down its public thoroughfares because they had a semblance of trust that you wouldn’t mow them down like a dog when you were running to that alarm activation.
Let’s be serious about safe driving of our trucks. If you really want to kill yourself, do it at the scene where at least you can pretend you were saving someone’s life. Driving down the highway like a maniac isn’t helping anyone, may likely kill someone, and is really just an excuse for showing off. Don’t be a dumbass.
Do your job and be proud you are a firefighter, and keep your community safe by easing back a little on the throttle. Focus on what is important; delivering your highly trained crew with the necessary equipment to the scene of the emergency, and insuring that not only they arrive safely, but everyone and everything encountering you in your travels survives the experience as well.