Let's Talk Fire: Internal Risk Management
The topics discussed in this article are issues I feel have hindered the volunteer fire service and kept many departments from reaching their full potential. These issues have been brought up time and time again during discussions with over 100 firefighters from over 30 different departments over the course of a year. It is not my intention to offend anyone who may read this. I want it to be known that the topics discussed in this text are not to be taken as direct reflections of my home departments. As mentioned earlier I do not wish to offend anyone but I ask that if you are offended you take a step back and examine your career as a firefighter and ask yourself if it is the right thing for you to do.
One of my favorite things to do is to attend fire schools in my district. They afford the volunteer fire departments the opportunity to gain free training that otherwise would be impossible to get. They also grant an opportunity to meet firefighters all over the state. I try to use my time at these schools to meet as many brothers and sisters as possible and get to know a little about them and their departments. Getting to swap stories and experiences is a great learning tool as well as a way to continue to expand the family that is the fire service.
My last trip to one of these such schools was Hazard's annual school hosted at the beautiful Hazard Community College campus. Now usually I am the guy who goes to survival and rescue to lend support to the probies and to help them get through the training. This time around however I was able to take 2 classroom oriented classes. My second class, "Fires in Manufactured Homes" was an amazing class taught by an awesome instructor by the name of Everett Roberts. I really enjoyed the class but it was my first day class that really opened my eyes to a great deal of things going on across numerous departments. That class "KY Fire Commission" was a real wake up call.
I got to listen to people from all over the state discuss issues within their departments that were severely limiting what they could do. As time progressed I started to see these trends developing within various departments that seemed to be a constant regardless of paid or volunteer status and even of location and demographic standards. I took the discussions a step further during breaks to speak with members of departments not represented in my classroom and what I heard was earth shattering. While every department is going to have some problems and times are going to get rocky here and there some of what I was being told was just appalling and needed to be addressed. I decided to write this article hoping that it would bring to light some of these issues and make it easier for administrative authorities to seek this behavior out and do away with it before it gets to far.
Great Points To Ponder
You would think dealing with grown men and women that this would not be an issue in the fire service but sadly it came up many times in my discussions. It appears to be a very pivotal problem as far as keeping a department working together goes. I am sure this one as well as all these issues translate into the paid departments as well but for some reason seems to be more prominent on the volunteer departments I spoke to. The two most common types of favoritism I was spoken to about where administration favoring one firefighter or a small group of firefighters within their department over the rest of the staff, or trainers who did the same. This is a childish behavior that should not be accepted under any means.
Favoritism creates a distrust among the staff and the administrators of the department, making it nearly impossible for any orders to be carried out without some flaw. It also causes the staff to distrust the members being favored, driving a wedge between them as a team. If distrust exist in the firehouse it will be present on the fireground as well.
One story I heard really had me floored. A department in southern KY had a chief who favored one new member so much that this member was allowed to use the SUV designated as the command vehicle and search and rescue supply truck for personal use. Not only did this "goldenboy" get that privilege he was also allowed to use the credit card the fire department used for gas to pay for his travels in the company car. To make matters worse the individual was also permitted to use the station on weekends to host poker games. The individual who told me about this said it was never uncommon to come in on Monday to drill to have to clean beer bottles and cigarettes out of the station. I can't see how this is acceptable behavior of a firefighter, or any human being for that matter. Basically the department started to lose hope in their leaders and thus that wedge of distrust is driven and you now deal with a very dangerous reality. When leadership fails to lead accordingly the entire structure of a department will be thrown for a loop.
Other stories were told, most of which were petty or not that threatening but I did hear one story from a young firefighter who had transferred from Indiana. He was a member of a department that had been rather noted for their quick response and team work. Shortly after the new year last year a new member joined. Within weeks this member and the assistant chief became friends and the assistant chief granted the new comer authority over the filing, run reports, computer database and training record maintenance. Of course this caused a good deal of concern for the department and they continued to question this choice of authority. A new guy handling the vital paperwork could be a very disastrous way to handle things.
Within a few months it became evident that this member was placing his name on run reports he was not present at, and being a paid on call department meant he was gaining money that he had not really earned. Shortly after it was discovered that he had added almost 70 hours to his training that no one could verify. The chief held a meeting and decided to rid the department of both the assistant chief for making such a foolish decision and the firefighter himself. Problem solved, right?
Wrong. The state audited the department for the false training records and there was a hefty fine levied against them and they came under probation for a year. When this young man, who told me to only mention him as James, informed me of this I was shocked that something like that could not be brought to the attention of the chief sooner. James simply said that when an authority on a fire department picks a favorite you fall in and try not to stir up conflict because in the end it may be you who is punished.
It is sad that in today's fire service this is still going on. But we also must understand not everything that looks like favoritism is that. Sometimes when a trainer brags a little on someone or they try and motivate them more it has nothing to do with favoritism and everything to do with trying to get them to be the best they can be. Sure maybe the chief bragged on Billy Bob for doing the hose maze in like 40 minutes when you did it in 3. Does that mean he favors that individual? Maybe, but it can also mean he is trying to motivate someone to reaching their highest level of ability.
We have to be able to seperate the two. Usually it becomes obvious as to whether favors are present.
Some disturbing facts.
Firefighter LODD 2013
Firefighter LODD 2014
Firefighter LODD 2015
75 as of this writing
12% Failed To Mayday
17% Failed to mayday
19% Failed to Mayday
Ego makes this difficult.
Ego Run Wild
It is no secret every department has that one know it all who has a piss poor attitude and doesn't feel the need to be a part of the force. These are the people who only come to "glory calls" and who seem to miss every class you have simply because they feel they already know the material. These are the people who have read the book and think that makes them a firefighter. Does reading a Essentials of Firefighting make you a doctor? These are the ones who show up at every scene and assume they are in control and when they do show up at class they spend their time on a phone, or trying to correct the instructor. When they are not doing that they are spouting first aid book laws and codes off thinking it makes them some kind of fire authority.
In my opinion these are the worst representatives of the fire service and should be canned immediately. They create an image that we can't afford to present to the general public. Mind you this is not limited to firefighters. I have been to training sessions where the instructor used the time to brag about themselves and their accomplishments.
It is these moments I thank God my instructor is nothing like that. He is actually concerned he does not do a good job even though he is noted all over our district for amazing lessons. (hell the guy made aircraft fire response fun)
Egos lead to hard feelings and they really serve to make the firehouse a place of despair. My thoughts are we deal with enough of that on the fireground, let's leave it in the truck when we get back home and move on. I will share one story from my experience with you, but I will leave names out. When I hear a volunteer firefighter with a response crew of 5 say I am an interior only guy I kind of start hoping a freak accident sends a pike through his foot!
I was first on scene to a structure fire with flames showing on the B/C corner. I assumed command of the scene and sized up what I was dealing with. Soon one of the officers arrived and I radioed to pass command to them. They informed me to retain the position to which I agreed and made the radio call into post to get mutual aid in from another department. Shortly after Mr. Knowitall arrives and radios me, despite the fact I was only 8 feet from his vehicle, that he was assuming command. I quickly inform him to stand down, he was not an officer nor a ranking member of the department and my chief had ordered me to retain the position.
Situation under control? Nope, than ego man begins to scold me for making the call for mutual aid. "We don't need anybody man, we got this." I contact my chief and he settles the drama. Shortly after my assistant chief arrives and I go ahead and relinquish command and join the interior attack crew. We pound out this fire and call it a day. Later that week we have training and what does Mr. Allaboutme do? He brings up the fact I called mutual aid.
He tries to make it a question of my pride in the department and than he informs me that he was more qualified to handle the scene than me. He had taken an online ICS class. I wish I could tell you I did not laugh at the guy, but I did and I let him know real quick to read the first few chapters of the essentials book again and learn how the ICS system really works.
This is something every department is dealing with at some level and it getting to be a real hassle in smaller departments. These individuals who contribute nothing but aggravation to the department need to be put away from the department and not allowed to threaten the safety of other members.
Learn It! Know It!
Lack of Pride
This one is one I feel most confident about being removed from our departments. If you are going to make the claim to be a firefighter, be a firefighter. It isn't something you can just turn on and off, especially on a volunteer department who never knows when their next call may be. We have to be firefighters 24 hours a day 7 days a week. I can not tell you how much I hate it when a firefighter misses a training session for something that is not essential or even important. I have seen guys miss sessions to finish a level on an X-box game. This is disturbing to say the least. I understand if you are sick or have a job but missing just because you wanted to is unacceptable.
I also can't stand when firefighters miss events that were scheduled for the department. My depts do a lot of charity and community events. One of my departments had a roadblock early one Saturday morning. We had several members miss due to being sick but later when we were paged to a very brutal car wreck guess who showed up?
Allowing these members who have a lack of pride to be a part of the department makes the members who do have pride feel as if they are less important. I was told a story of a group of guys putting new hoses on a fire truck and one of their lack of prides shows up and goes inside the training area and fails to return. When checked on he was on his ipad playing a game. He told the members that he was no going to put hoses on the truck he had better things to do. My chief would have choked me to death in that situation.
I feel if we don't expect the same of every member of the department than why bother at all. We need to let members know that what is to be expected of one is top be expected from all the members.
We must take the steps needed to erase these negative behaviors that plague our departments. If we do not we are inviting a good deal of bad events and possibly losses to our firehouse. I have seen many departments crumble because they failed to step in and see these behaviors for what they really were. Learn from the past, for survival in the future.