The answer comes in response to the question “What are you doing?” posited to the young firefighter mopping the floor in the fire station. Clearly, the floor is being mopped. The firefighter’s mind is focused on the mission. In effect, the firefighter’s answer is accurate: As soon as the tones drop, the mop will be abandoned, shoes will fly, doors will open, and brave men and women will rush out to “save a life.” Frequently, the emergency is not a life-or-death circumstance, although there are plenty of instances when lives genuinely hang in the balance. The question is … is being well-trained and mission-focused enough to ensure success on the emergency incident scene?
A Rush to Grow Up
There was a time in the fire service where young members would be tied to the coattails of their company officers-literally in the pocket of the officer for several years. This made it possible for the company officers to guide and direct the actions of their new charges and harness/control the unbridled desire of their firefighters to “prove themselves.”
There is a moment in the film Backdraft that highlights the concept of keeping your rookie close to you: While operating in a high-rise, the company officer asks the young firefighter if he checked a door for heat just as the probie “takes the door.” If you have seen the movie, you know what happens next. Keeping probies in your pocket exists for good reason. The newer a firefighter is, the more likely he is to operate in an offensive mode without regard for his own safety. This is not borne out of a desire to commit suicide; rather, it is tied deeply and subconsciously to the expectation that to earn the trust and respect of fellow firefighters, probationary members are prone to take extraordinary risks without the benefit of understanding the consequences.
The bigger issue in today’s fire service is the rush to release members to function, either because minimum staffing requires it (in career departments) or staffing shortages threaten to prevent a volunteer company from meeting its commitment to its community. There was a time in the not-too-distant past when it was not uncommon for a member to be required to have five or even 10 years of experience within the company before consideration was given to allowing him to enter the driver training program. Today, probationary members are being taught pumps and aerial apparatus practices in initial training and then as quickly as possible placed into positions of tremendous responsibility without the context of experience to buttress their decision-making skills.
There are also organizations where firefighters complete probationary training and are catapulted from the classroom to the right front seat of the apparatus and asked to function as a company officer; they are called on to give accurate and complete initial reports as well as identify rural water supply sites and make decisions about where to place the first line. As dangerous as this sounds, it is occurring today. From a budgetary perspective, this may be acceptable and statistically, if the fire company does not respond to many alarms, it may not have any immediate negative consequences. From a commonsense perspective, however, this is setting the organization and the member up for catastrophic failure.
Running on Empty
The circumstances described point to the need for hard discussions. If organizations find themselves in the circumstance of having to rely on probationary members to meet minimum staffing requirements or, even more dangerously, place new members in the position of functioning as a company officer, it’s time for change. In an all-volunteer organization, this may mean asking for assistance from local government in the form of paid staffing to supplement the dedicated members of the company. In a career organization, it may signal the need to reclassify positions from firefighter grade to officer grade. Neither of these conversations is easy, but accepting the status quo as entrenched only perpetuates the problem, functionally “kicking the can” down the road.
Mopping floors is not a dangerous activity, but saving lives can be. We cannot hope to safeguard the lives of our members if we are not willing to educate and inform our decision makers about the risks and benefits of how we are deploying our firefighters. Self-determination is important but not more important than the interests of the citizens we are sworn to protect.