Saturday, July 30, 2011

Maintaining Perishable Skills

Perishable skills are those skills that depreciate in effectiveness over time if they are not practiced. The fire service is a veritable minefield of perishable skills, some of which, conducted in an inefficient and/or incorrect manner, can have devastating consequences. There are very few “like learning to ride a bike” skills in this business where neglecting them for a period of time still allow them to be performed with a large degree of success when we need them.

The skills in question are not only individual skills, but more often team-based skills, where the outcome depends on the competency of a team of firefighters working in concert with each other to achieve an outcome. Departments that do not reinforce both individual and team-based perishable skills are headed for tactical breakdown. Individual skills such as tying knots, operating aerial equipment, starting and operating a power saw and conducting operations with extrication tools are some of the areas where the disintegration of skill can have severe repercussions in safety and operational completion.

Team-based skills are also perishable, not only due to the corrosion of skill by the individual members, but the loss of coordination of the team as well. Think about a pro football team. All plays are created for success and all players are “the cream of the crop” in the field, but when the timing and efficiency of the team as a cohesive unit is off, the play goes nowhere and the team is unsuccessful. Do you think a fire department is any different and when our plays don’t work due to rustiness, there is more at stake, isn’t there?.

Have you ever watched a fire company raise a ground ladder? Their ability to properly and effectively perform this evolution as a team is quite apparent to anyone watching. This can run the scale from a well-orchestrated, smoothly-run operation to a Three Stooges routine. Hose line stretching, forcible entry, and technical rescue operations are other perishable skill areas that require continuous training and reinforcement of skill. How does your department and its individuals measure up? Are they razor-sharp or rusty? It is up to you as a member of the team and the department to hone your skills and to ensure that your firefighting team is operating at maximum efficiency.

Be safe out there

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Unintended Consequences

As firefighters, we must always consider the unintended consequences of our actions or in many cases, our inactions. Unfortunately, we often do not think that far ahead and live in the now instead of the proactive future. That is why that puddle of water or, worse yet, oil that you saw but stepped around on the apparatus floor caused one of your fellow firefighters to split his or her head open when they slipped on it. No one intends for that to happen, but it often does. That is unacceptable in a business where risk analysis is such a critical; part of the job. This attitude often has larger consequences when they are transferred to the emergency situation.

Consider this situation which took place not so long ago and was related to me. On a Saturday, an engine company we will call Engine 1 responded on a spill that required them to utilize all of their speedy-dry. There was none in storage at their firehouse as it was stored in a central location in the department. It was late so the Company Officer decided to wait to pass the need for more speedy-dry to the next shift on the following morning. He passed the information on, but since it was a Sunday, the Company Officer on that day did not take the ride to one of the other firehouses to secure more speedy-dry for the company. The day passed without incident, but at about 0600 the next morning, they were dispatched to a single engine squad run to the scene of an MVA where a spill of vehicle fluids required speedy-dry. Since they didn’t get it the day before, they had to request an additional engine company, Engine 2, to bring some down from their supply. Engine 2 responded from outside that the Engine 1 district. While this “special-called” Engine 2 was operating at the MVA, a report of a structure fire was transmitted in their first-due area. As Engine 2 was at the scene of the MVA, basically doing the duties that Engine 1 had been called to do and it was rush hour, there was a delay in the arrival of another engine into Engine 2’s first-due area.

The officers did not take into consideration the unintended consequences of failing to secure more speedy-dry in a timely manner, a relatively non-essential item in their view, but the consequences of that failure could have been severe. They did not do their job. The job of a Company Officer (and of all firefighters regardless of rank) is to always do your job and always take into consideration the unintended consequences of your actions, your inactions, and those of others.

Competence vs. recklessmess

Experienced firefighters are worth their weight in gold. They are the “go-to” guys when a difficult task must be completed and can be a valuable tool in assisting in training younger, less experienced members. The trap that we cannot let these human assets fall into is allowing them to let their experience lead to recklessness. Too often, we have seen veterans fall victim to casualties during routine “firefighter I” type operations because they have done it too many times before and it is now routine. There is no routine in this business. We must never let ourselves fall into this trap because at that point what was an asset now becomes a liability with potentially severe consequences for all of us. We need to recognize when our comfort levels are causing us to drift into failure.

Last fall, we had access to an acquired structure in which to conduct training operations. In addition to search and RIC evolutions, we chose to do vertical ventilation on the slightly sloped roof using the cutter’s edge fire service chain saw. One of the things I noticed was that the firefighters who did not have a lot of experience with the saw were deliberately over-cautious in their actions, moving gingerly on the roof and working the saw. On then other hand, we had some who were very experienced and were very comfortable handing the saw, but that competence caused them to be a bit too cavalier in their actions, failing to brake the saw (stop the blade) between cuts and while moving from one area to the next, cutting with one hand, etc. While they were very good at what they were doing, a slip-up caused by their obvious comfort with a very dangerous piece of equipment could have brought severe consequences.

The moral of this story: Don’t let your competence turn you from an asset to a liability. Always operate with respect for your tools and for the conditions, never allowing complacency to affect your performance.

Do you know your rig???

One of the most basic requirements of a firefighter is to know his equipment. Even more basic is to know where it is on the apparatus. There is nothing worse than having to rummage through the compartments for a tool that your officer has ordered and expected you to return with. The consequences of this can run the gamut from embarrassment (and having to have someone show where a tool is that you should have be able to locate in the first place) to lost time in completing an assignment or tactical objective. All roads here lead to tactical breakdown, which leads to a compromise in safety.

You, as an integral part of the company (team) must carry your weight. In fact, your Company Officer will expect you to do your part. To that end, what is your responsibility? As a firefighter in a volunteer department, you should be opening the compartment doors and checking the equipment location every time you are in the firehouse. Before you head to the lounge or take part in an evening drill, get in a little early, open the compartments, take the equipment out, and examine it. In a career department, as soon as you get to the firehouse to begin your shift, you should go through the apparatus, and make sure your gear is in place, ready for response. The cup of coffee can and should wait.

If you are an officer, the aforementioned are expectations that you must set with your subordinates. You cannot expect them to meet these expectations unless you explain them, support them, and enforce them all the time. The fireground is not the place to find out that your personnel are not living up to your expectations. To that end, and in context with this discussion, you must demand and expect that your people know where everything on the apparatus is, what it is used for, how it works, what to do if it doesn’t appear to be working, and, equally important, know its limitations.