Make sure that every call you go on serves as a forecast for the perfect storm. (Photo from Pixabay.)
By David Mellen
In the fire service, a perfect storm can refer to that one fire that gets away from us, the vehicle accident that requires more equipment than we have, or the few small things people seemingly always gripe about that ultimately cause a catastrophic event. But what if we saw the perfect storm forming? What if we had the ability to stop one or more events in the chain leading up to it? All too often, after an incident goes poorly, we look at ourselves to answer the “what-ifs.” Unfortunately, sometimes we find faults within our organization or ourselves that, if addressed, could have prevented the perfect storm from ever happening in the first place - had the red flags only been recognized or heeded.
CHANGING FIRE SERVICE
If we look back historically, most fire department operations have been dictated by local influences, equipment, and geography. In today’s fire service, however, social media and a wider range of training platforms allow firefighters from all over the world to learn and incorporate tactics that decades ago would have been considered taboo had they been attempted. Along with this has come a revolution. There, I said it, it’s a revolution of firefighters who question, critique, and analyze every situation and every tactic, not for the enjoyment of pointing out failure but to seek the betterment of themselves, their crews, their department, and the fire service as a whole.
Along with these revolutionaries who seek to better the fire service, there is also the reality that our profession is more visible now than ever before, both publicly and professionally. No longer is it the days of hearing about the massive fire or large incident through print media or word of mouth sometime later. Today, those situations are broadcast for all to see and to be repeated on different media platforms at lightning speed. Whether the outcome is positive or negative, it is there for the whole world to witness.
With the combination of higher visibility and those who seek perpetual betterment, we find ourselves at a tipping point - one that, at best, allows us to perform in a highly skilled way and that, at worst, gives a very public view of our failures. Often, the latter breeds anger, bitterness, and regret within our rank and file.
ADDRESSING THE WHAT-IFS
Obviously, we cannot prevent or prepare for every situation, but we can certainly address the major issues we find by watching the forecast of the future and preparing for the “what-ifs.” For example, take a department that makes frequent medical runs to “big box” facilities but lacks the amount of hose on the rig to make an effective interior fire attack, the department that has several major thoroughfares in its jurisdiction but lacks sufficient extrication training, or the department that has large quantities of highly hazardous chemicals stored in its response area but has no formal haz-mat capabilities. The aforementioned situations are all enormous red flags that warn us of the impending perfect storm. We can recognize and address these warnings to prevent the worst-case scenario, but we must be willing to take a hard look at ourselves and our organizations to do so.
My guess is that, in your own way, you have related some of the previously mentioned situations to something in your own department. I would also bet that at some point you or those around you have made mention of concerns only to have them fall on deaf ears or be put on a list of things for next year. Often, situations that present themselves are the one and only opportunity we get to prevent something bad from happening. If you walked by the rig and noticed that a nozzle wasn’t threaded on the hose completely, would you continue to walk by? Of course not. So why are we still looking back at the aftermath only to find that warning signs weren’t recognized and concerns weren’t taken seriously?
When we examine perfect storms and how they develop, there are several key factors. These situations can be traced back in almost every incident to where the perfect storm collectively formed before our eyes. To understand how to stop the perfect storm, we must be able to understand the parts that create it.
A red flag can be one of many things that get noticed by someone either inside or outside of our organization. This could be a hose load that doesn’t deploy correctly from the hosebed, a radio that intermittently cuts out audio when transmitting, or a firefighter who routinely fails to perform at a level appropriate for his position. While the red flags come in many shapes and sizes, there is no denying that they get noticed, but it is what we do with them that matters.
If you’re paying attention and you’ve seen a red flag, it’s a natural instinct that you will tell someone. It could be a senior firefighter, a company officer, or someone higher up. Regardless of who you tell, the message has been communicated and the hope is that something will be done about it. Usually at this point, we find ourselves at a crossroad. From this point forward, the situation can go one of two ways: The concerns are addressed and corrected, or they are disregarded and the red flags continue.
If the situation has presented itself, communications have been made about concerns, and nothing has been done about it, there is still a chance you can prevent the perfect storm. Sometimes there are opportunities for red flags to emerge from beneath the carpet and give us the opportunity to correct the problem. This could be the hose load we spoke about earlier getting hung up while deploying on a small fire. A second line was pulled and the fire was extinguished, but afterward members talk about the delay and how it could have caused a bigger problem.
THE PERFECT STORM
By this point, something should have been done to rectify the situation. In most cases, this is where we see a catastrophic event that has left us worse for wear and wondering, “How could this have happened?” Sadly, the answer is almost always a laundry list of concerns, statements, and pleas for change that were neither heeded nor corrected. Often these situations could have been prevented had the problems been dealt with appropriately.
Knowing the parts of the perfect storm and how they combine is only one part of the equation. To truly be able to stop the events leading up to it, we must take a deeper look into ourselves, our department, and the fire service as a whole.
BUT WE’VE ALWAYS DONE IT THIS WAY
We spoke earlier about historical aspects of the fire service, and how we operate is a large part of that. Statements like “But we’ve always done it this way” or “We’ll never do that” are not only inhibiting our ability to make positive change, they create toxic environments that prevent firefighters from being able to perform in an efficient and effective manner. While these statements get thrown out a lot, I’m not speaking of the next trendy tool or the latest YouTube tactic. I am talking about well thought out plans to make our operations better. I have seen time and time again personnel spend countless hours researching, perfecting, and correcting issues, whether they be administrative or operational, only to present their findings and be shot down because it was not within the “operating norm” for the department. For us to make effective change when we find problems, there must be a culture of acceptance that starts with us. Change and progression in the fire service are inevitable; otherwise, we’d still be fighting fires with buckets.
IF WE DON’T ACT, THE PROBLEM WILL GO AWAY
Frequently, the fire service deals with problems by avoiding or ignoring them. A great example of this is the firefighters who cannot, or will not, perform to the level expected of them. “Well, they’ll get washed out during probation” and “They only have a few years left, so we’ll move them to the slowest station” are common phrases we hear during these conversations. By taking the stance that we are going to avoid or ignore a known problem, we are setting ourselves up for bad situations.
Retraining, corrective discipline, and even termination are all options when dealing with a firefighter who just isn’t making the grade; pretending there isn’t a problem, however, is not an option. Whether it is a firefighter not performing to the standards, a piece of equipment that doesn’t operate properly, or an outdated policy in place that prohibits us from doing our job effectively, any action is better than no action at all.
IT’S NOT MY PROBLEM
News flash: It is your problem. As firefighters, we are the ones people look to for help. We are ambassadors of safety and protection. When we show up, people expect us to be professional, efficient, and skilled in every aspect of what we do. The people we serve don’t care what style uniform we have, what color our trucks are, or what brand our equipment is. What they care about is that when they call 911 at 3:00 a.m., we can help them. When we are presented with a red flag that warrants addressing, there cannot be a reason to pawn it off on the next firefighter, shift, or agency. Our responsibility to perform at the level expected of us lies solely on our shoulders and no one else’s.
SO WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
While no situation is absolute, we must stop and take a hard look at how we as a fire service are operating. There are departments that excel at providing effective and professional emergency services to the communities they serve. They function with high levels of honesty, collaboration, and open mindedness while allowing their members to work toward betterment within their organization. It is our responsibility as firefighters to take ownership of our duties and ensure that we are not holding ourselves back.
The perfect storm can happen anywhere, to any one of us. It shows no preference to career or volunteer personnel. The situations that combine to be the perfect storm are ever present in all our agencies, but it is what we do about them that can take a tragedy and turn it into triumph. It is our responsibility to seek out and correct those things before they manifest themselves into, at best, the next headline and, at worst, a line-of-duty death.
To the political figures in our communities: Listen to your fire departments. Allow open lines of communication and, when there are things that need to happen for the safety of us or the members of the community, don’t hide behind excuses and falsehoods. Don’t be afraid of having honest conversations that lead to positive change. While you might not like the answers you hear, they may be the cold hard truth. Standing up for what’s right and making change will almost always land you in a better position than having to answer to the public for a tragedy that could have been prevented.
To the chief officers of our departments: Listen to your people. Ensure that there are open lines of communication from the newest person hired to the one who will retire in a few days. Make sure that your organization’s culture embraces autonomous problem solving. You trust us to drive millions of dollars worth of equipment with lights and sirens blaring, but you don’t trust us to know the difference between right and wrong, effective or ineffective? Take the time to review issues with an open mind and prevent persecution or retaliation for bringing topics to light. We know the answer might be no, but when it is, at least give us an honest and respectable answer.
To the company officers: Be the leader. Stand up for your people. We know that you are stuck between “the crew” and “the administration,” but in the end, that is the perfect place to be when trying to make change. Allow your people to innovate, adapt, and develop solutions. While you may have to play gatekeeper on which ideas are obtainable and which are not, when there are things that must happen, you and your crew are the first line of defense against the perfect storm.
To the firefighters: Don’t be afraid to think. Know your job and make the most out of every opportunity to learn. Be the round peg in a square hole. See things differently, imagine, invent, explore, and create. When you find things that you know must change, develop the solution before you come up with the complaint. While there is always the chance that your concerns and ideas will fall on deaf ears, there is also the chance that you may make the change needed to prevent the perfect storm. We all have a responsibility to each other and to those we serve, and it starts with you.
I challenge all of you to review your department operations and look for the “what-ifs”; look to address things that may have slipped through the cracks and been forgotten. Take the time to review your standard operating procedures to make sure you know what needs to be done. And, most importantly, look for the red flags. Make sure that every call you go on serves as a forecast for the perfect storm.
David Mellen is an 18-year veteran of the fire service and is a captain with the Reno Township (KS) Fire Department. He is a medical officer of the Sherman Township (KS) Fire Department and a fire science instructor at Johnson County Community College. Mellen is an instructor at FDIC and a contributor to various fire service magazines.