Sunday, May 27, 2007

Working On Dragon's Turf

by: Lou Angeli

(Anytown, USA) -- The fire service here in the USA is extremely fortunate to employ some of the bravest firefighters and most knowledgeable fire officers in the world. But firefighting is inherently a dangerous profession, and things will and do go wroong. When a firefighter loses his or her life in a burning structure it is usually a result of unanticipated or unexpected fire development, not the inadequacies of command or even a firefighter’s skills.

So what’s the problem and how do we fix it? Back in the mid 70's, the fire service modified its approach to firefighting from surround and drown -- to one of adopting an aggressive interior fire attack. This tactic requires that firefighting teams make their way inside the burning structure and remain there under even the most severe conditions. Over the past few years the procedure has become the source of heated debate among instructors and officers because the interior attack assumes that there are victims inside the burning building who need to be rescued.

Since the introduction of superior protective gear (Nomex and PBI) in the late 70’s, virtually every fire-training instructor nationwide has taught their students to conduct an extremely aggressive interior attack, sometimes referred to in the books as Offensive Strategy. The idea is to take an pro-active stance, moving nozzles and hoselines deep inside a building to meet the fire monster on its own turf. But my personal belief is that -- unless a life safety issue exists -- firefighters should never attempt to inhabit the same space as fire. Being there is a lot like snorkeling in shark-infested waters, then poking a Great White in the eye.

Inadequate Staffing

According to a report issued by Captain William R. Mora of the San Antonio Fire Department, many firefighters (often Truck company members) choose to begin search and rescue operations without the assistance of an Engine company and their hoseline. "It's in our blood to rush in." one rookie told me. "Try keeping me out!"

Unfortunately, in far too many situations, the search begins prematurely because of poor staffing (career) and lack of responders (volunteers). The obvious concern in these situations is that teams that have entered won’t have the extinguishing tools to cool a blaze should flashover rear its ugly head. (Ever wonder why FDNY has a "can man.") And with no hose (or lifeline rope) to follow back to safety, firefighters often have no way out!

When the search and rescue effort goes south, a firefighter can easily become disoriented and lost in the blaze. Without a buddy by his or her side, they face the unknown alone. Panic sets in and it’s just a matter of time before they breathe-out their bottle, collapse and succumb to the blaze.


“The root of the disorientation problem in the fire service,’ the San Antonio study reads, ‘is the lack of knowledge about the extreme danger posed by enclosed structures and the disorientation sequence.”

In many communities, especially those protected by volunteer companies, firefighters sometimes ignore the important fact that fighting a structural blaze is a team effort. Rather than wait for next arriving units, the few who have assembled on the fireground often begin search and rescue -- or the hoseline advance -- lacking appropriate support and resources.

Crucial to fire extinguishment is proper vertical ventilation, which we’ve all been taught should take place simultaneously with the hoseline attack below. However, before the chain saw is on the roof, well-meaning hose teams – working alone -- may quickly find the seat of the fire and bravely open the nozzle to dampen the blaze. But with no vent opening to release smoke and hot gases, the team destroys the delicate thermal balance, allowing super-heated air from above to drop down to the floor and bake them like lobsters.

In cases like this, inexperienced firefighters may panic and abandon the line, leaving their partner behind. The team is now separated, company integrity is lost, and it can only go downhill from here. Call in the FAST team!

“Firefighters must be warned of the extreme dangers associated with enclosed structures,” says San Antonio’s Captain Mora. “(They) must be informed that (waging) an aggressive attack immediately on arrival may be ineffective and unsafe in many cases.”

Life Safety Issue

There’s no denying that firefighters must enter flaming structures to conduct search and rescue operations, especially when civilians are reported trapped, or the commanding officer feels that an interior attack is warranted. However, changing the behavior of two generations of firefighters, who have had the term “aggressive interior attack” drilled into their helmets, will be a tough assignment for company officers and training personnel. But change is coming slowly and some more forward thinking administrators have begun to embrace alternate tactics, like large line blitz attacks using portable master stream devices.

A reminder: We’re told that the most important tactic in any type of firefight is size-up. So, the next time your company pulls up in front of a burning building, quickly establish command and learn as much about the situation at hand as you can. I f there is no life-safety issue and no danger to surrounding structures, hold back the hoseteam, by their SCBA straps if you must. Wait for second due companies to arrive, then engage in a coordinated attack. Like they say, “Everyone goes home!"

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Fickle Public

Volunteers at the mercy of the communities they serve

by: Lou Angeli

(New Castle County, DE) -- I became a firefighter on a dare. I lost the bet and have been calling myself a volunteer ever since.

It was 1973, and the smoke from Wilmington’s “King Riots” (Martin not Rodney) had not yet cleared. Even though the rioting had been suppressed in a matter of weeks, the city remained a “police state” for several years, with heavily armed National Guard and State Police patrolling Wilmington's neighborhoods each and every night. Whether the constant military presence was really justified is still being debated in the First State. But one thing’s for sure - the riot patrols were a constant reminder that the city had somehow gone bad.

Civil disorder had ruined a huge section of town, and well populated Irish, Italian, Polish and Hispanic communities surrounding the devastation, were being abandoned for the safety and comfort of the city’s western suburbs. My parents and our family followed the lead.

The same scenario was being repeated up and down the East Coast as cities along the I-95 corridor lost families (and tax base) to suburban communities. In most cases, growth came so quickly to suburbia that government was ill prepared to cope. With the emphasis on providing better roads and a more appropriate infrastructure, Fire-EMS-Rescue protection was the last thing on most legislators’ minds.

“The Volunteers will handle it!”, was the reaction from many county seats and state capitals. But there was an inherent problem with their thinking. Volunteer fire departments were originally designed to protect small rural communities - not extensions of the big city.
Me and Citizen Fritz

Still in college, and a cub journalist for the local newspaper, my editor had assigned me to develop a feature expose’ on Delaware’s volunteer Fire-EMS system for the first-ever edition of Delaware’s first Sunday newspaper.

It seemed that some very vocal residents of a rapidly growing Wilmington suburb, Pike Creek Valley, were complaining that their community was being denied adequate Fire-EMS-Rescue protection. “The Valley” was a no-man’s land, developed on rolling farmland, miles from the nearest stores, churches and volunteer fire station. The community's mouthpiece, “Citizen Fritz” claimed that under the best of conditions, response time to “The Valley” was in “excess of 15 minutes.”

Although I didn't want the story, the editor claimed that I was best suited for the assignment, because I was already a Reserve Firefighter in the Wilmington Fire Department’s CD incubator system. He also knew that as a career advocate, I’d make the story controversial.

While researching the story, the local volunteer department’s President suggested that I join the company as a “probationary member” to get a firsthand look at how the volunteer system worked. But there was a catch to his proposal. If my report was favorable to the volunteers, I’d have to join as a full-blown member.

The Pike Creek Valley community lobbied heavily at the county and state levels to have a career fire station built - the first ever in Delaware, outside the city of Wilmington. Politicans promised quick action, which came in the form of an “outside” study. The results from Princeton, “not enough call volume to warrant a career station...’ but ‘the community is a prime candidate for its own volunteer station.”

At first, County government suggested that the existing volunteer agency relinquish the “valley” section of its district to the local community. And both the county and state agreed to fund the new entity as Delaware’s newest department. But there was just one problem, a big problem, as I reported in that very first edition of the Sunday paper, “ one in Pike Creek Valley wants to man their proposed new volunteer fire station.”

Since then Delaware’s Mill Creek Fire Company has built, recruited personnel for and manned a well equipped fire station not far from the spot where I first interviewed “Citizen Fritz”, whose complaints of inadequate volunteer service were among the loudest. 25 years later, I’m told that “Fritz” has never stepped foot in the station that he so vehemently demanded.

“Citizen Fritz” is just one of millions of citizens nationwide, who enjoy the tax payer friendly protection of a volunteer system, but who are unwilling to join the “community of givers”, a term coined by Chief Ken Farmer of North Carolina. In most cases, “takers”, like Fritz, are also unwilling to dole out the money needed to support the career system that they believe they deserve.

So the controversial decision as to “what level of protection a
community deserves” is not one that we as firefighters make, but
a choice that falls smack dab on the laps of the citizens we serve.

“Fire, Rescue and EMS volunteers continue to provide a valued and low cost service in many communities, as they have for hundreds of years.” says volunteer activist Jim Wick, who was a member of Mill Creek Fire Co during the Pike Creek controversy. Today, Wick heads the Oregon Governor’s Fire Council and reminds us that “the volunteer service is still a good service, but it’s a changing service.’ He adds, “We need to keep the focus on service and cost to citizens.”

Case Study - America's Fire Station

What would be the cost to citizens of converting their local volunteer agency to a career system? That’s the question that we posed to a half dozen fire service administrators, both career and volunteer. Their answers were remarkably identical, and is best illustrated by using the Pike Creek Fire Station, the one that “Citizen Fritz” demanded, as an example.

The Pike Creek fire station is operated as Mill Creek Fire Company’s Station #2, and serves as a remote sub-station to its main headquarters, which is still located in the heart of the original community, Marshallton, Delaware. The department operates as a corporation and is contracted by the state and county to provide emergency services. When the department was founded 75 years ago, it was a small farming community with less than 1,000 residents living in the district.

Today, the department serves a community of nearly 60,000, covering 17 square miles and a wide variety of risks. Annual call volume for both stations is in the thousands, and increasing each year.

Although the department has 300 members on its books, Station #2 is covered by 24 or so “active” volunteers, who are commanded by two company level officers and an Assistant Chief. During daytime hours, the department employs a core group of “paid” members to man and operate first-out equipment. The members of Station #2 operate a BLS ambulance, quint, rescue pumper and brush rig.

Even though “our administrators” disagreed on manning levels, (some suggested three and even two person engines) for the sake of argument, it was agreed that two firefighter-EMT’s would be assigned to the ambulance, with three other firefighter-EMT’s and and a shift commander assigned to cross-man the fire suppression and rescue rigs, 24x7, 365 days a year.

The committee arrived at the calculations by various methods and formulae, but the final average cost to the community came in loud and clear. Converting Station #2 to a career system would run a little over $840,000 per year, excluding capital expenditures such as training, PPE, tools and equipment, apparatus and building maintenance. Add to that amount projected overtime to cover vacations and sick leaves, a solid benefits package, and of course, a pension program, and the final number is well over $1 million. That’s the cost of running one small volunteer station, as a career job.

The benefits of such a career model are obvious. Immediate response by career professionals, day or night, as opposed to a delayed home response by well trained volunteers. In an ideal world, with no financial restrictions, my choice would be crystal clear.

But the ideal world only exists on paper, and the hard, cold reality is that the general public is not ready to bear the financial burden for the perfect system. At the same time, the chances of persuading John Q to devote a dozen hours each week to what we consider to be a noble profession are slim to none.

Without the level of dedication provided by local community volunteers’, says Chief Rod Carringer of Indiana, ‘fire rescue services in this country would be forced back upon state, local and federal governments.” And the thought of inviting federal management at the local level has many administrators shaking in their boots.

“If the federal government intervenes at the local level,’ notes Chief Michael Perkins, ‘the quality of protection will be based on a community's ability to lobby in Washington, not at the town hall. And that’s where small communities will lose out.”

Forcing The Community To Get Involved

“We have to take stock and the populace must make up its mind, which way they want to turn?’ says John Adams, recently retired LA City Battalion Chief. “If they (the community) want quality fire protection, they’ll have to pay for it one way or another.” He adds, “Money makes the system work, and that is the bottom line.”

“If volunteerism is replaced by a career system, we may have better coverage and quicker response’, says Pennsylvania volunteer Penny D’Ottavio.. “But one thing’s for sure. The local community will finally be forced to get involved -- by paying higher taxes.”

And so the debate over career vs. volunteer is not one in which we, as firefighters, should be engaged in at this time. In a very real sense, the antagonist in this story is not the stubborn volunteer or the head strong career advocate - it is public apathy.

Change is blowin’ in the wind. Will change in the fire service be a breeze, or forced upon us like a gail force wind? Only the general public can determine how hard this wind blows. But one thing's for certain. We can affect the outcome of the approaching storm by taking our message to the street, and allowing the public to decide.

Why Must Firefighters Die?

by: Lou Angeli

More than 1000 American firefighters died in the line of duty during the 11 years up to 2004 (excluding the extra deaths associated with the terrorist attack on 11 September 2001). A close look at the national records showed that nearly 40% (449/1114) of them died of heart disease.

One third of the deaths from heart disease occurred while fighting fires, which takes up only 5% of an average firefighter's time. The odds of dying from heart disease while fighting a fire were 10-100 times higher than those of dying during non-emergency duties. Responding to alarms, returning from alarm calls, and training were also significantly riskier than non-emergency duties, but to a lesser extent than the actual firefight.

According to Dr. Simeon Margolis, “The heart disease risk among firefighters rose to as high as 100 times greater while actively fighting fires, compared to performing administrative duties."

Most firefighters are likely to be healthy and physically fit when first recruited in their 20's. But their ability to serve in a physically demanding and stressful environment appears to decline over the years. And volunteer firefighters, who make up approximately 80 percent of the America's one million firefighters, have less-demanding health requirements at the time of recruitment and are rarely subject to regular physicals and fitness tests.

Margolis comments, “The message is clear: Firefighters and others in similarly demanding occupations must be particularly careful to identify and control heart disease risk factors." Margolis feels that all firefighters, regardless of avocation, must remain physically active not only to control weight but also to maintain a proper level of fitness. And as a firefighters gains more time on the job, regular check-ups become even more important because their age already places them at greater risk for a heart attack.

F-16: Super-fighter and Fire Starter

An F-16 training over the Warren Grove Gunnery Range near Atlantic City inadvertently launched a flare, igniting one of the largest Pinelands Fires in New Jersey history. The resulting conflagration burned for 16 days, stopped only by a huge rain system that drenched the mid-Atlantic states.

Photos of the Pine Barrens fire by Kate

New Jersey is one of the few states in the mid-Atlantic that is prepared to do battle with a fiery Mother Nature thanks to the Division of Forestry which operates wildland firefighting teams statewide. During this series of fires, the forestry teams were backed up by nearly a thousand rural and suburban volunteer firefighters, who worked at protecting exposures and providing water supplies via tanker shuttles.

According to retired LAFD Fire Captain "Mike," "I have to say watching the TV coverage I'm taken back by the ferocity of this blaze. Crowning in May on flat terrain in New Jersey has me scratching my head." Mike continues on his blog. "Combined with the fire activity in Georgia and Florida this month I have to believe the California and Western states region are in for it this season."
The fires have been extinguished by the potential for more fires remains extremely high. Hopefully, the USAF has altered the training flight pattern -- perhaps over the Atlantic:)