The Consequences of Complacency

Accidents can happen on the roadway if we're not careful, and if we don't speak up when we witness unsafe driving on the part of our engineers. "Tommy's" unsafe driving ultimately led to a fatal accident that killed one civilian driver and seriously injured two firefighters. Photo AP/The Repository,Bob Rossiter

There’s a danger that accompanies you every time you climb aboard an apparatus and drive out of the firehouse door: complacency. It can kill just as many firefighters as disorientation, burns, structural collapse, hazardous materials or terrorist incidents. At the very least, it can leave you and your company extremely vulnerable.

To prevent complacency, as one busy FDNY engine company in the heart of Harlem likes to say, “All you have to be is ready.” But are you? On every call? If not, why not? Certainly, fire officers have an obligation to say something when they see complacency, or inappropriate or unsafe behavior on the part of their members. If they don’t, their inaction would also be considered complacent.

But what about firefighters who witness other firefighters being complacent? Don’t they have an obligation to say something, too? And what about the obligation to ourselves and our families? Let’s all be selfish for a second: If your life depends on the firefighter sitting next to or across from you, and you witness that firefighter do or act in a complacent manner, and that same firefighter’s complacency leads to their inability to assist you or someone else in an emergency, would you feel justified in saying something?

Of course it’s easier said than done, but remember, it’s not always what you say but how you say it that may matter most. Speak with the person in private; never criticize someone publicly. When speaking with them, try not to be accusatory or confrontational—remember you’re trying to help them. Perhaps let the firefighter know you expect more from them and are disappointed in their actions. If you’re rather upset by their behavior, wait until you’ve calmed down, but also keep in mind that you should address the issue as soon as possible or the message will seem out of context and the “teachable moment” may be gone forever.

Example: A Waist Waste
One of my (albeit, many) pet peeves is SCBA waist straps or, more accurately, the non-utilization of them. I try to lead by example and wear them correctly every time I hoist that 30-lb. rock onto my back. And when the opportunity presents itself, I ask other firefighters why they don’t wear theirs. Usually the question is greeted with blank stares or awkward smiles. Sometimes, those who do answer come up with excuses like “There’s not enough room on the rig,” or “I forget” or one of my all-time favorites, “What waist straps, Capt.?”

Following the usually short exchange, I endeavor to point out the benefits of wearing them (e.g., less strain on your back and shoulders, particularly with 45- or 60-minute cylinders; the fact that SCBA harnesses are made to concentrate the weight to the waist area; it helps maintain a lower center of gravity for improved balance; and hanging straps can become caught or snagged). If I haven’t lost them or alienated myself by then, I like to remind them of one FDNY officer who almost lost his life and suffered severe third-degree burns during an interior high-pressure steam explosion as a direct result of his unbuckled waist straps becoming entangled on a railing of an open grate catwalk.

Silence as Complacency
As stated in the beginning, officers have a responsibility to say something when they see something. If they don’t, they are the ones who are complacent. Example: As a relatively young firefighter, I responded to a multiple-alarm fire on a Sunday morning in Manhattan. The building was a very dangerous loft-type structure, with deep, open-floor areas, high ceilings and only one narrow staircase.

My ladder company arrived on the second alarm. Making our way into the building, we were stalled on the narrow staircase. As conditions started to go from bad to worse, members above were screaming to get off the stairs and to keep them clear. While we waited for our chance to advance up the stairs, another ladder company with a very senior officer and his two forcible entry firefighters fought their way past us. I wondered why nobody—including my officer and the battalion chief at the top of the stairs—said anything to try to stop them.

Shortly after they passed us, the incident commander (IC) issued a mayday and ordered an immediate evacuation due to a partial collapse and a rapidly extending fire condition. As my company made our way out to the street and prepared for an emergency personal accountability report, I noticed the bucket of our company’s tower ladder being extended into the now boiling, pressurized, black smoke that was emanating from the large, 8-foot-tall windows of the fourth floor. Through the smoke I could make out the figure of that same senior officer who had pushed passed us on the stairs. He entered the bucket and frantically called back to his firefighters to follow his voice to the window. The officer, his firefighters and the firefighter controlling the tower ladder bucket were in a very dangerous position and no one said a thing.

Sadly, less than two years later, that same officer and his young interior team were caught in a flashover and killed while attempting to force a door and conduct a search on the floor above the fire floor in a small, non-fireproof multiple dwelling.

Three positive changes that occurred as a result of those horrific deaths: 1) Our department changed its floor-above standard operating procedures (SOPs), 2) it ended the department’s 10-year pilot program on bunker gear and 3) the city committed $14 million dollars to outfit every firefighter with bunker gear within one month. But I still can’t help but think that perhaps if a chief had questioned the officer’s tactics or motivations at that previous fire, they may have tempered his aggressiveness at getting to the floors above so hastily.

The Driving Lesson
As a first-hand example of the importance of saying something (or not), one day I was working as a covering officer of an engine company in a city suburb. I arrived early and relieved the officer on duty. As we exchanged information, the officer gave me the low-down on the day’s events and told me that a regular chauffeur—we’ll call him “Tommy”—would be driving me. I don’t recall if there was any inflection in the officer’s voice as he gave me that information, but what I do remember quite clearly is that every firefighter coming in for that tour said almost the exact same thing to me: ”Oh, Tommy’s driving?” One even wished me good luck.

Now of course, I didn’t know any of these firefighters or Tommy, so I couldn’t tell if this was just some firehouse ribbing or if these guys were serious, although my sixth sense told me they were serious. Our first run came less than an hour later and I found out just how serious they were.

The call was for smoke on the 11th floor of an apartment housing complex, and this company was first-due. The members turned out quickly. Tommy careened out of the firehouse, through a red light (without taking his foot off the gas pedal, which was pushed down to the floor), up onto a sidewalk and over a bridge clogged with rush-hour traffic. We then flew directly at a group of four teenagers walking on the same sidewalk. My first thoughts: “Surely he sees them” and “Surely he’s going to slow down.” Well, he saw them, but he never slowed down. Three of kids ran to the outside wall of the bridge in terror and the fourth, a young girl, started in the same direction as her friends but then doubled back at the last second into the stopped traffic. Tommy never even blinked—or slowed down.

As we passed the kids, my attention quickly turned to the construction barricades in front of us on the downward slope of the bridge and the large pothole they were protecting. Tommy drove right through the plastic barricades like he was part of a chase scene in a movie. The barricades exploded into pieces, causing loud crashing and banging noises—and the distinct hissing of an air leak. At first I thought we had just punctured a tire on the edge of the pothole, but it soon became apparent that the air leak was coming from an airline underneath the apparatus. The dispatcher was now calling us to report that they were receiving multiple calls for a fire on the 10th floor.

Knowing that stopping the apparatus would lock up the breaking system, I told Tommy to keep driving as long as he could and radioed the ladder company following us to pass, as we were having mechanical difficulties. Finally, the apparatus was at a controllable speed.

I thought we were never going to make it to the fire, but when we did finally make it, we were the third engine to arrive at our first-due assignment. The large rubbish fire in the 10th floor hallway was already being extinguished by the first-arriving companies.

After the fire, as we left the building and started walking toward the apparatus, I met the IC—a friend of mine—and asked him if he knew of this guy Tommy who was driving the engine and his dangerous driving habits. He said he did not.

Saying Something …
Later, while the department mechanic (who’s quartered in the same firehouse as the engine—coincidence?) made some temporary repairs, I told Tommy that for the rest of the tour, if he drove like that again, I would relieve him of his driving duties. I had never before, and thankfully never have since, been so terrified and angered by the way a firefighter drove an apparatus. I also let the crew know that they should have said something to Tommy about his driving. Of course, there was stunned silence. I was fuming.

Luckily, the next run didn’t come in for several hours, and after the first minute of that response, I told Tommy to pull over and stop the apparatus. I turned off the lights and siren and notified the dispatcher that we’d be delayed. I took a breath to calm myself, turned to Tommy and said (in my best controlled tone), “You will not drive like this while I’m working here.” I then asked him if he could drive more safely and, if not, I’d have one of the other firefighters drive us back to the firehouse until his replacement arrived from another company. He conceded, and we continued to the call in what I considered a “normal” response mode. Thankfully, there were no other runs for the remainder of that day.

… Versus Saying Nothing
At the end of the tour, a regularly assigned officer relieved me, and I asked him how they could allow such a dangerous driver to be a regular chauffeur. The officer replied that he was just a lieutenant and that it wasn’t his decision. I thought, did he ever question the driving abilities of this man? Did anybody? Were they all willing to let this ticking time bomb play Russian roulette with their lives? As it turns out, they were.

In a disastrous, yet almost predictable twist of fate, just four months later, the same company was involved in a major, fatal accident at an intersection. One civilian driver was killed, and the officer and two firefighters were seriously injured, two of them with career-ending injuries. Upon hearing about the accident, I called a friend who is a chief in a neighboring battalion. It turns out that he was working that tour and responded to the accident. When I asked him if Tommy was the one driving the engine, he said yes.

How did so many firefighters, officers and I allow this to happen? We saw something but nobody said anything. This man clearly should not have been driving that fire truck, therefore, it was just a matter of time before the inevitable happened. Looking back, as a covering officer, I could have spoken with the company commander about it or made an anonymous inquiry to someone. What would you have done?

The Quiet Probie
Irecently read about another fire tragedy where two firefighters were killed. They were in the process of stretching a hoseline into the first floor of a private house when the floor suddenly collapsed, dropping them into a roaring basement fire. A third probationary firefighter survived when he fell backward out of the front door.

When speaking of the incident later, the surviving firefighter tells the story of how, while stretching the line up the front stairs, he saw smoke coming from the cracks between the bricks of the three-step front stoop. Even with his extremely limited experience, he thought that was odd. Unfortunately, the culture of his department wouldn’t allow him, the junior firefighter, to question his officer’s orders. However, if he had said something about his observations (without questioning his officer’s directives), the officer might have changed their tactic of stretching into the first floor.

It’s All About Going Home
The bottom line: When it comes to safety, everybody has a say. We’re not talking insubordination, mind you, but if someone has a feeling that something isn’t right, they should at least bring it up. In fact, one of the rules under the IAFC’s Rules of Engagement for Firefighter Safety says that everyone has the right to state their concerns on the fireground, and that officers and ICs must stop, listen and decide before blowing off a firefighter’s concerns.

Are you strong enough to stop and say something the first or next time you see something that’s wrong, inappropriate or out of place? I hope this article gives you the courage to answer yes.

Current Issue

November 2017
Volume 12, Issue 11