Jim Lee Jr. and Cathy Hedrick discuss risk that can be found on the fireground—and what the fire service can do to make firefighters safer
There is so much talk in the fire service these days about firefighters and their willingness to take risks—to be “aggressive” firefighters. Some in this business poke fun at those who are “outstanding firefighters” (standing outside in the yard) and “yard-breathers” (those wearing their self-contained breathing apparatus while being outstanding firefighters). Comments such as “This is what we signed up for” and “People expect us to take risks” are often heard. I don’t disagree with this but want to look at it slightly differently. I’ve been in this business for 40 years, having the opportunity to respond to many thousands of runs in heavily urban areas to rural areas and many places in between, and in my experience, risk and taking risk can be an extremely emotional issue. It becomes more so when a risk attacks someone who is close to us.
In the December 2017 issue of FireRescue, David Rhodes wrote an excellent article, “You Bet We’re Aggressive,” where he differentiated “macho aggressive (dumb)” and “dynamic aggressive (smart).”1 I started to write this article before I read David’s thoughts and want to give a bit of a separate, personal perspective to some of the same concepts David discussed.
It can be difficult for some firefighters to understand and accept that everyone’s tolerance for risk is a bit different. Risk tolerance can be influenced by personal situations, training, and experience. I’ve said for many years that one man’s risk is another man’s “Hey, that was fun, let’s do it again!” As an example, some love skydiving while others refuse to even get onto a plane. Watching someone die or become seriously injured in front of you can have a major influence on your tolerance for risk while successfully accomplishing a risky task may boost your confidence to attempt that task or perhaps even something riskier next time.
There is risk in just about everything we do. One of the most dangerous things most of us did today was take a drive in a car. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, more than 37,000 Americans were killed in car crashes in 2016 (the most recent data available).2 That is an average of more than 100 people killed every day, or four every hour. As firefighters, we often see this trauma firsthand when we are called to pick up the pieces of these crashes, yet we hop into our cars and drive off down the road, taking on that risk. Driving emergency vehicles with red lights and sirens and failing to stop at a stop sign or traffic lights is a high-risk behavior that you may have made it through previously, but sooner or later someone isn’t going to see you and you, or they, or both will become victims. This helps one understand that there are significant risks that we all take every day.
To understand these different viewpoints on risk in the fire service, I wanted to get perspective on this from two members of what I, and maybe many others, would consider “Fire Service Royalty”—Jim Lee Jr. from the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), and Cathy Hedrick, a wife of a Maryland fire chief and mother of a volunteer firefighter who was killed in the line of duty.
Jim Lee Jr.
I watched Jim Lee Jr. grow up in the fire service. He started about 10 years after me as a junior volunteer firefighter with his dad at a neighboring department. He then went on from a live-in firefighter while going to college in Prince George’s County, Maryland, to a full-time position with the Washington, D.C., Fire, and eventually to his dream job with the FDNY. He worked hard and trained hard his entire career. Before too long, Jim found himself assigned to the best of the best—Special Operations Command working at Rescue 1 in Manhattan.
Jim was very recently promoted to lieutenant and is now the father of three young children. Back in the day, we responded to a number of incidents together. He has busted my chops at least a few times over the years, and I probably deserved it at least once or twice!
FDNY Special Ops is, to some extent, comparable to our military special forces. These are some of our elites who are trained and prepared to handle the most difficult jobs. This is not to say that there are not many others like them around the country and around the world, but New York is by far the largest city, with the largest fire department, and some of the most diverse and complex hazards in the country. FDNY responds to many challenging incidents, and there have been many, many exceptional firefighters who have worked, and are working, in Special Ops.
Just reading the review of the incident from the FDNY 2017 Medal Day Program brings out many emotions:
“For the night tour of October 27, 2016, FF James P Lee, Jr, Rescue 1, was assigned the roof position. At approximately 0330 hours, the company was assigned to a fire in a five-story multiple dwelling. FF Lee made his way to the roof via exposure #2 and observed fire blowing out of the shaft, with the roof and bulkhead of exposure #4 on fire.
“Conditions were deteriorating when FF Lee heard a radio report from Rescue 1’s chauffeur, FF Francis Rush. A civilian had shown at a top-floor window. FF Rush told the elderly male to stay in the window because help was on the way. FF Rush radioed FF Lee, gave him the location of the trapped man, and said a lifesaving rope rescue (LSR) would be required.
“FF Lee established contact with the victim, as heavy smoke vented out over the man’s head. He told him to stay at the window. He radioed Battalion Chief James W Manning, Battalion 10, that there was a victim trapped and a LSR rescue was being set up. Inside the fire building, interior hoselines could not make it past the second floor because of the extreme fire conditions, making any attempt to reach the victim from the interior impossible.
“Moving in line with the victim, FF Lee dumped the LSR bag and handed the hook off to Ladder 43’s chauffeur, FF Andrew Hawkins, who tied the rope off to a short chimney. FF Lee ran the rope under the fence and back over the top where he attached it to his harness. Unbearable conditions forced the victim to disappear from the window a few times. Firefighter Rush told the man to stay at the window.
“The victim stated he was within seconds of jumping. Once FF Hawkins was anchored to the chimney and took his four wraps on his rappel hook, FF Lee climbed over the fence and positioned himself to be lowered to the trapped victim. The victim’s yells served as a beacon for FF Lee, who operated in zero visibility. Firefighter Rush directed FF Lee to the victim’s window.
“The man was crouched below the windowsill with fire lapping out over his head. Using all his strength, FF Lee reached into the window and got one arm around the victim’s back and one under his knees. The man could not hold onto FF Lee because of cuts and burns to his hands and arms. While not the conventional way in which a victim is removed when performing this evolution, FF Lee worked to save this victim from certain death.
“Once the victim cleared the window, the momentum rotated FF Lee 180 degrees; his back was against the building. FF Rush ordered the resumption of lowering FF Lee and victim. The rescuer used his legs to kick off the building to avoid being hung up on parts of the rear wall, while cradling the weight of the man in his arms. The LSR began to burn as firefighter and victim reached the third floor. When they reached the ground safely, the LSR burned through and fell to the ground. Firefighters Lee and Rush carried the man through exposure #4 to the front of the fire building where he was handed off to EMS personnel.
“For his extraordinary efforts and under extreme personal risk, FF James P Lee Jr. is awarded the James Gordon Bennett Medal and NYS Honorary Fire Chiefs Association Medal.”3
In addition to the prestigious FDNY awards, Jim was also awarded the following national honors:
• 2017 Ray Downey Courage and Valor Award.
• 2016 Michael O. McNamee Award of Valor.
I asked Jim to give me his thoughts on risk and firefighting, and they included the following:
“Risk is what we do—we signed up to protect people!” Repetition and training pay huge dividends when the time comes to perform. “I always try to get dressed the same way for every run, because that way I’m sure that I’ll be ready with everything that I need. When I was a firefighter and assigned to the roof, I’d follow the same routine every time.”
Now Jim is on the roof with others when the message gets passed that there is a victim at a window and that a rope rescue would be needed. Here’s the kicker; Jim only knew one of the seven firefighters on the roof with him. The other six he had never worked with or never trained with. The firefighter who directly had his life in his hands? Jim didn’t know other than he worked on a truck company. Would you go over the edge of the roof under those circumstances?
But … “Every single FDNY company carries a lifesaving rope, and everyone trains on it. Lifesaving rope training is conducted on Mondays for the trucks and rescues, Tuesdays for the engines and squads (they get the lifesaving rope bag out and repack it and often then do a drill on it). This evolution is the single evolution that everyone in the department trains on most frequently. It is drilled into your head trained on while members are in the fire academy, and this was the first drill that I did on my first shift when I was assigned to Rescue 1.”
“When I first saw the man who was trapped, I got a knot in my stomach, because here in front of me was what I had trained so many years for, but that feeling lasted for a second or two before my training took over and we went to work. When I was lowered over the edge, I didn’t think about keeping myself safe, I got burned right away on my ears from the fire below me, but thought, no matter what, I have to get this guy. At that point, I didn’t really have the option to go back. This guy was screaming for his life; he needed us. I wasn’t thinking of risk vs. reward at that point. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time—anyone else on that roof would have done the same thing. As a matter of fact, those people on the roof who I didn’t know were now pinned to their position on the roof to protect me. They could not leave without dropping me; they were tied off to the building’s chimney and the roof of the building was on fire.”
“I was able to complete the rescue without losing my cool since I had trained for it many times and had complete confidence in those who were lowering me. This is not to say that we don’t consider risk vs. reward. When we respond to a fire in a vacant building, we will try and get in if we can because we always assume someone is in there until proven otherwise. But, when we know someone’s life is in jeopardy, we will do every single thing we can do to get them out.
Everything you do falls back on your training, and that is what happened that night. I’m not saying that I’m crazy or not important, but our job is to take risks. You don’t have to be a career firefighter to be well-trained. Many years ago, I was a member of the Kentland Volunteer Fire Department in Hyattsville, Maryland. They take pride in everything that they do, and we drilled there every day. In my opinion, the riskiest thing that we have at an emergency incident is an untrained or unmotivated firefighter, and a well-trained fireman is a huge asset.”
Cathy is a mom. You might ask, “What is so special in the fire service about a mom?” First, everyone has a mom. Cathy is a fire chief’s wife; her husband has served as chief of the Morningside Volunteer Fire Department in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Besides being a fire chief’s wife (which by itself may qualify for sainthood), she lost her son, Kenny, also a firefighter with Morningside, in the line of duty. He was killed after conducting a search to rescue a seven-year-old child at a house fire, then becoming trapped after reentering the house to continue to search for any further victims. Nothing is easy about losing your child, but it becomes much more difficult when he dies doing something that is weaved into the fabric of your family. Those circumstances would be enough to provide a knockout punch to many people who are not Cathy Hedrick.
She could have quite easily withdrawn from society, shunning the fire service that took so much from her and her family, but she chose otherwise. She got up, determined to share her experience with as many others as possible who would listen to her so that others might not have to go through what she had. She jumped right into the deep end, becoming the first survivor to take a position working with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, eventually filling the role of corporate relations specialist for the foundation and helping coordinate family registration during the National Memorial Weekend. But she has done even more than that. She took the time to study many other incidents that were like Kenny’s, that were found to have similar issues with training, experience, and leadership, and presenting the Taking Care of Our Own® and Courage to be Safe training programs.
Cathy is a true warrior whom I have had the opportunity to watch present a number of times. I have admired her tenacity and dedication over many years to work to convince others of the importance of working safely on the fireground. I’ve heard her say on many an occasion that every fireground needs a “mother” there on scene to help firefighters think about what risks they are taking and why they are taking them. She has applied those lessons that were so personal to her to help ensure safety and accountability for firefighters everywhere. That includes presentations to firefighter recruit classes.
I also asked Cathy to give me her thoughts on risk and firefighting, and they included the following:
She has never been a firefighter, but it has been a huge part of their family life. She said that, when they started dating, her now-husband told her, “Sometimes the FD comes first. Your family must be in it with you, and you must have the support of your family, especially when dealing with all the risks that we face.” Many firehouses have up to three different generations of firefighters, and each generation has a different perspective on what risks are and if and how they are taken.
“When Kenny was growing up and coming through the ranks at Morningside, it was all about the image—being a part of ‘Squad 27’ meant a great deal of pride. Much of that pride was wanting to be the best and the busiest. They didn’t have an attitude of a safety culture, but wanted to be the first and the best at all costs. The thrill of the fight of the fire is their primary motivation. ‘All that I want to do is get in and put that fire out.’
“After they brought the first child out, they thought that another was in there, and that is why he went back in—alone. Kenny was well-trained; he did lots of Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute and other classes. He seriously lacked experience, and there wasn’t that experience in the leadership to guide them at that time.
“This is what we signed up for; I’m OK, I know what I am doing. Yes, that is true, most of the time, but in the fire service we have tiptoed around risk for such a long time. People expect firefighters to take risks, but you must understand the other side of it—extreme risk without reason can be dangerous. That is where experience and leadership come through, understanding when a risk is extreme. In the report after Kenny died, these young firefighters did what they were trained to do, but they lacked leadership.
“A well-trained firefighter is certainly an asset, but well-trained leaders are also a huge asset. Every crew will have members who don’t have the experience, and young members need to learn why things are done the way that they are. We need experienced leaders to watch over their crews; we need that “mother” on the fireground. But even then, there will always be something that even the most experienced leaders may not have seen. You learn by the examples of your leaders, but you also need to have the courage to be safe. Have the courage to stop unsafe practices and your leaders should welcome constructive criticism.
“The first-in/last-out attitude is disappearing. The working environment is changing and needs to continue to do so. I’ve got high hopes for the future of the fire service as safety and accountability continue to improve. I just wish that someone was there to account for Kenny back on that day. You never want to be the one to come and tell me that my firefighter was killed and that you didn’t do everything you could to not let that happen.”
Ready for the Risk?
What does taking risks mean to you? Your perception of risk will likely change over time as you gain additional life experiences and events. Even having children can change your perspective on taking risks. After having children, many drivers would probably admit to taking fewer risks when driving.
Your training has a significant impact on your ability to understand and take calculated risks. Folks have said to me, there are many things that you cannot learn sitting behind a computer or in a class. My response is that is true but, while experience is best gained by doing something, you won’t know how you will react when a situation presents itself, and training and preparing for that situation should involve both classroom and hands-on education. This includes those taking the risks along with those leading those who are taking the risks.
If you have the right equipment and the right training, you are able to do more than if you don’t. However, if you haven’t trained/practiced on it, over and over, you will not be able to perform flawlessly when needed.
Risks can be taken, but it takes excellent training, preparation, confidence, and leadership to take those risks in a dynamic manner.
Will you be ready when the time comes and the situation presents itself for you to take a risk and make entry into a dangerous condition to attempt to save someone’s life? Will you be ready to lead those who must take the risks and enter that dangerous environment? Will you be “macho aggressive” or “dynamic aggressive”? What level of risk will you be willing to take? It will depend … how well-prepared are you for this?
Author’s Note: I have had the opportunity over the years to watch both Jim and Cathy do great things, and I sincerely appreciate their willingness to openly discuss this topic and provide their candid comments to me so that I could share them with you.
1. Rhodes, David, “You Bet We’re Aggressive,” FireRescue, December 2017, www.firerescuemagazine.com/articles/print/volume-12/issue-12/departments/hump-day-s-o-s/you-bet-we-re-aggressive.html.
2. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, “General Statistics,” www.iihs.org/iihs/topics/t/general-statistics/fatalityfacts/state-by-state-overviewsvvqbxxybdfr.
3. FDNY, “FDNY Medal Day 2017,” June 2017, www1.nyc.gov/assets/fdny/downloads/pdf/about/Medal-Day-Book-2017-06.pdf.
Greg Jakubowski, a fire protection engineer and certified safety professional, started his fire service career in 1978. He is a Pennsylvania state fire instructor and a former chief of the Lingohocken (PA) Fire Company. Jakubowski is also a member of the IAFC and a principal in Fire Planning Associates, a company dedicated to helping fire departments, municipalities, and businesses with preemergency planning.