Todays dynamic American Fire Service is overflowing with algorithms and abbreviations of projections, efficiency, survivability profiling, reading smoke, and the always popular “safety.” Like all occupations, we have seasoned veterans and the young hot shots. Both have their place and both have something to bring to the table. What we need more of are the members who are an open-minded mix of both. The guy who is in his 30’s – 40’s that is not only educated, but has relevant experience and understands that we need a healthy mix of progressive and traditional tactics alike.
With the addition of social media as a training tool, many places must rely heavily on it because their district is not able to support “OJT” or the type of organized constructive/destructive training required to truly teach young firefighters how to operate and what to look for.
In many instances, the majority of our training comes from a structured syllabus that has been designed by accredited teaching and/or training institutions such as a local or state fire school. These programs, although very important and necessary, do not delve into the dirty topics with hard discussion. With safety being the #1 goal of everyone, it appears as though we’ve lost sight of our primary objective.
When going through your initial fire training and again to become a company officer, the student learns the three main objectives of the fire service: “Life Safety, Incident Stabilization and Property Conservation.”
There are many topics that we could discuss with this, but today I would like to address primary searches of “vacant and/or abandoned” buildings. Seems like a bit of a taboo topic these days, wouldn’t you agree? We constantly see comments in online threads saying, “let it burn,” “surround and drown,” “risk nothing to save nothing” and so on.
I cannot agree more that I do not ever want to see another member killed in the line of duty. Like you, I am tired of going to funerals for members who died needlessly. I have lost a family member in the line of duty so I truly understand the magnitude of such an event.
However, I can not sit idly by and watch as our sworn duty to protect the public slowly becomes just a tradition at graduation and not a virtue that we hold to its highest regard.
Vacant buildings are plentiful in our country. They are in every jurisdiction, in every district, in every setting, both rural & urban. So what do we do about it? Some jurisdictions are active in the identification and demolition of these buildings. To them, I say, outstanding!
However, there are countless places that are just not financially stable enough to support such programs and also have other circumstances leading to frequent incidents in these buildings. A fire in a vacant building does not just magically ignite, there has to be some human intervention there, except of course for lightning. There are countless reasons why people set fires, kids playing with matches, arson for profit, a squatter for light and heat, to cover another crime and the list goes on. It is not our job to rationalize, reason or judge why it is on fire, just to extinguish it as quickly as possible and confirm nobody is inside. There is only one way we can prove its unoccupied, to find out for ourselves.
As a firefighter that works in a city that is riddled with vacant and/or abandoned buildings, I too, do not want to be injured, mamed or killed in the execution of my duties. However, more often than not, while operating at incidents in said buildings, we find conditions that although are beyond deplorable, represent that someone is using this location as their means of shelter.
In today’s urban society, the homeless, unemployable population is expanding. Social programs have become the norm and have resulted in a tremendous social gap. When I became a firefighter I raised my right hand and took an oath to protect lives AND property in the city to which I am employed. While in the discharge of my duties, it is not for me to decide who deserves to be searched for and rescued versus who does not based solely on their social status or the condition of the building to which they occupy.
Day in and day out, we respond to fires in what society deems “vacant and/or abandoned” dwellings, cars, commercial buildings and so on. Time and time again, firefighters who act upon the oath to which they swore to uphold, find fragile life of many states inside these buildings. In some instances, the life saved was not that of a vagrant, but of a person who has no choice to this lifestyle such as the young child of an addict or one who has become a victim of violence.
Victims who are bound, gagged, tied to objects and worse are found in these buildings. In addition, an exterior attck in a vacant or abandoned structure does not solve the problem of injuries on the fireground but actually exacerbates it.
When an exterior attack is initiated, you cannot gaurantee the effective mitigation of the incident due to the inability to extinguish fire in voids or other spaces not accessible from a master stream. To compound upon this statement, all that water you are pouring in is consistently weakening a structure that may already be in disrepair thus causing a greater collapse potential. The principals of convection and conduction have shown us how fire will travel and also be pushed by the defensive stream that is attempting extinguishment.
As mentioned earlier, the three main concerns of active firefighting are “life safety, incident stabilization and property conservation.” Although third in line, property conservation cannot be accomplished when fire is allowed to spread. The vacant structure that you are taking a defensive stance on is attached to several occupied dwellings further down the row. If you don’t effectively extinguish the original fire building, you may quickly find yourself chasing fire in the occupied exposure. Will you search them because you know they’re occupied? How do you know they’re occupied? How do you know the original fire building wasn’t?
Perhaps we need to review our safety initiatives and re-evaluate why we are firefighters in the first place. What did you sign up for? A man does not sign up to be a Marine or a Soldier with the intention of never being put into harms way. It is part of the job description and a brutal reality as soon as he is deployed. Like us, he hopes for the best, but trains for the worst. They (military personnel) execute a pre-determined plan with calculated and often uncalculated risks. If you want a safer profession, train hard, expect problems and research the most effective way to mitigate them.
The taxpayer that calls 911 is NOT a customer, they are a victim. A victim requires a life altering intervention from a trained professional who has sworn to protect them. A customer is a person who purchases goods or services from another and requires assistance in aisle 5.
In the firefighters prayer, it explicitly states “If according to your will I am to lose my life…” For decades if not longer, statistics on firefighter fatalities while operating at structural fires has not changed. There have been the occasional fluctuation as with all statistics.
However, with all of the technological improvements to PPE, SCBA, apparatus, NFPA standards (which staffing never seems to be followed because when that standard gets brought up “NFPA is only a guideline”) firefighter injuries and deaths are still occurring. The problem is not so much with the safety of the scenes, but I think that a more pressing issue is our emphasis on firefighter safety and putting ourselves ahead of everyone else. In everyday life, if you put yourself ahead of everyone you would be labeled as selfish.
I truly do not think that we are a “selfish” group of people by any means but maybe we need to take a step back and look at our methodology. We’ve become soft. Yes, compassion and empathy are crucial characteristics of our profession. I do not condone treating anyone with anything other than respect or dignity, but at the same time, we need to stop appeasing everyone. Accountability is more than just a PAR on the fireground, it is also part of being an adult.
In conclusion, we are here to protect the public and our brothers at all costs. That is, after-all, what you swore to in an oath, right? Do your searches, make educated decisions, put the fire out and do your job.