Just When I Thought I Was Out ... They Pull Me Back In!!

Nozzlehead note: I received no less than six e-mails about this same incident and this fire department. I thought that was kinda interesting ... kind of a “smells like a duck ... quacks like a duck” situation. So, I merged the e-mails all into one that sums it up. Quack.

Dear Nozzlehead,

I am reaching out for assistance in connection with a firefighter close call at a nearby small, career fire department where a firefighter was transported to the hospital following a collapse at a structure fire. The firefighter should never have gotten hurt. The department has no operational guidelines, no training requirements, no physical requirements, and no accountability on scene and is lacking so much more. It is also without a chief and has been for more than six months, leaving the “safety director” and mayor in charge.

We responded mutual aid recently, and during the incident one female firefighter was transported because of injuries from a partial collapse with entrapment. Unfortunately, this was a predictable incident for a department with no fireground standard operating procedures or command structure. Any thoughts or ideas you have are welcome, as we are very frustrated and concerned that worse will happen to them - and maybe even us - on their scenes.

- Bothered Buckeye

Dear Buckeye,

Remember Michael Corleone? Remember when, in The Godfather Part III, he was in the process of becoming a legit businessman? One of the best scenes ever! He was about to take some actions that would finally take him out of “the family” business for good. It’s the scene when he finds out that he’s been double crossed by his mafia pals as they decided to screw up his plan of becoming legit. His response became these now-famous words: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!” He so perfectly describes his biggest fear - he can’t escape that life. There is nothing he can do to get away from the past. It keeps haunting him. Perhaps, like you, he wants to bring his family forward with positive change, but “stuff” keeps happening.

The Godfather series was fantastic, and if you disagree with me you may perhaps find yourself sleeping with the fishes. So, when you wrote me, I immediately thought about how far we thought we have come in firefighter survivability, and then suddenly you find yourself getting dragged backward into a world you tried so hard to escape.

We could write a book about your situation and that particular fire department (and plenty have been written), but this is about the world changing, and a few fire departments are being left behind. Being left behind falls clearly on the department leadership, and in this case, the chief’s position is vacant. So, as I have said to myself from time to time: “Who the hell is in charge!?”

In your case, it’s the so-called “safety director” who, by your various e-mails, has nothing to do with directing safety - or survival. You essentially have an airplane missing a pilot and the flight attendant or the CEO is trying to fly the plane … but you need an airline captain or, in your case, a FIRE CHIEF. My remarks against this fire department are not personal. It’s strictly business.

It is incumbent on the director and mayor to identify who is in charge. Once that is done, that chief now needs to identify what is being done right and what is being done wrong and fix it based on best practices, applying all available resources. It’s really not THAT hard if the firefighters really wanna fix it. But that’s the issue: Some of the firefighters may not WANT things fixed. And I would say normally, in a democratic society, they would have a choice.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the way someone decided that some fire departments are democratic, which couldn’t be further from the truth. While yes, you have a choice and a right to be or not to be a firefighter (that is the question - sorry, William, I had to), once you make that decision (career or volunteer, we ALL made a choice to join or not) you are expected to follow rules, policies, and orders. You are expected to do as you are taught and do as you are ordered - and, BADA BING, you do it! We make an offer you can’t refuse. (See what I did there?)

This Is NOT a democracy. But be it a democracy or a dictatorship, it requires leadership. That’s the first step: Determine who is in charge. Who is the head of the family?

In each of the e-mails I received on this fire and the department, the writers indicated that a firefighter was transported to the hospital following a collapse at the structure fire. I hope she is doing better. The fact is that there are times when we may get hurt, or worse, and that may very well be a part of the job - a very rare part but a known factor nonetheless. They key questions are: Was her injury necessary? Was she performing a search for possible victims? Was she removing a trapped victim? Was she searching for a down firefighter? No, No, No, and No.

Was she or the crews following their training and operations policies and guidelines? No, because they don’t have any. Does the department have regular training? No. Does the department have physicals? No. Does the department have leadership? No. Is there a plan that ensures mutual-aid departments operate collaboratively? No. When mutual aid responds, does the mutual-aid department place its personnel on an unled fireground with no command, control, or accountability? YES.

Don Corleone said: “I spent my whole life trying not to be careless,” and that comes by preparedness well before one has to be prepared. Unfortunately, the department described is the opposite of that, and its most recent “warning” was the firefighter injury. A warning reminds us that things can get worse. Pay attention to warnings. A horse’s head in a bed, for example, that was a warning for Jack Woltz, the movie director. Heed the warning.

If you have a chance to reach out to anyone at the department who is interested in getting the place squared away, you should do them that favor. Someday, and that day may never come, you may call on them to do a service for you. But until that day, consider this brief list a gift for them through you, a gift on this, the day, the day that I write this column.

  1. Identify the department leadership from the mayor and the safety director. They need a chief. Now.
  2. Develop a plan that includes operational rules, regulations, policies, and procedures, all based on best practices and standards focused on life saving and fire extinguishment.
  3. Identify the risks within the community and within the fire department, After all, it may be time for some to swim with the fishes.
  4. Institute immediate training (hands on and classroom) on #2. Reach out to the state trainers or neighboring departments and use what they have as a start.
  5. Include mutual-aid departments in the training, or have them lead it. And make sure to compare “your” policies and “their” policies - they DO NOT have to be different.
  6. Evaluate staffing and adjust alarm assignments based on tasks, which are based on the structures to which you are responding (example: a 900-square-foot dwelling vs. a multifamily dwelling vs. a nursing home, etc.). Remember, tasks require firefighters, and you can argue all day long, but two firefighters vs. four firefighters can literally make a difference in life, death, and property saving.
  7. Drill, drill, and drill. Every day. No excuses. Make every day a training day, and do it with those mutual-aid partners who respond with you on runs. They are family … always spend time with your family.

So please, do me this favor. Reach out to “that” fire department and help it get its business in order. By doing so, it improves conditions for the public, the firefighters, and your firefighters - it takes care of the family. But also, please remember that Nozzlehead never asks a second favor once he’s refused the first. Understood? Do me this favor, and I won’t forget it. Ask your friends in the fire service about me. They’ll tell you I know how to return a favor.

As Emilio “The Wolf” Barzini so clearly stated in The Godfather, “Times have changed. It’s not like the Old Days when we could do anything we want.” The fireground is no longer a playground but a place where we are fortunate to sometimes have one chance of doing good. And when that opportunity comes up, and it will, we must be well-led, well-trained, and well-functioning to take care of those people, as we may be their final chance.

One final thought: What if the neighboring department refuses to change? It would be a choice it makes and certainly the wrong choice. Hopefully, with a new leader, this won’t be a problem. That leader must spend time with his new (fire) family. After all, a leader who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real leader.

But if that is the case and it doesn’t change, you may be forced to operate without it - and it without you. Responding to its incident would knowingly place your people in unnecessary danger. The members would be nothing to you now. They are not brothers or sisters. Make it clear that they have given you no choice. You understand? You may need to turn your backs on them.

Like you did, people write and say, “Nozzlehead, give me justice!” But they don’t ask with respect. They don’t offer friendship. They don’t even think to call me Nozzlehead. Instead, they write me with their problems and ask for advice; and I, quite naturally, offer it, but then it falls on deaf ears. This cannot be allowed. If you take time to write me and I respond, the very least I ask is that you follow this advice. This I insist on myself. So please now, grab the nozzle, take the cannoli, and allow no one to pull you back in.

Arrivederci. Ciao. A presto la mia famiglia di vigili del fuoco!

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