Remember when you got passed over for promotion because your co-worker’s dad happened to be an old buddy of the Chief?  Even though your training, experience, and expertise were superior in every respect, you still lost out: bet you still get mad when you think about it.  If you were bold enough to question the promotion, you likely got an explanation along the lines of “It’s nothing personal – it’s business”.  I bet you remember that as well.

An event here in North Carolina several years ago put a perspective on taking things personally.  One car ran a stop sign and hit another car broadside, severely injuring the little girl inside.  The girl’s father took it personally and wound up in jail for breaking the face of the guy who caused the accident.  What he did wasn’t right – he didn’t know what caused the other driver to break the law and in any event, you can’t do things like that.  However, it probably made a lot longer-lasting impression than a ticket ever could.

The above story has nothing and everything to do with firefighting.  I’ve noticed a casual acceptance of the fact that we are losing around a hundred firefighters a year.  Somewhat like an insurance company that coldly calculates how long you’ll live in order to set rates, there are firefighters who just assume that’s the norm – it takes a year like 2001 to make people think twice about the men and women who die protecting life and property.

Some deaths we sadly accept as unavoidable – a floor that gives way unexpectedly, a drunk barreling through an accident scene, things like that.  But if you read through the LODD notices, it’s a pretty consistent thought “if only they’d done this”: “if only they’d done that”.  Then you hear CSI coming on in the common area and it’s time to close the browser.

I guess its human nature:  Several years ago, gas prices spiked to $2.00 a gallon and everybody went nuts – six month waits for hybrid cars, gloom and doom, etc.  Now we’re closing on $4.00 a gallon and people are buying more SUVs than ever.  We accept the price of gasoline as part of the cost of doing business, and make the necessary changes in our lives to allow us to continue to burn the amount that we want to.

In much the same manner, many of us have come to look at one hundred as “the number”.  Unless you knew them personally, they’re just another heart attack, suffocation, vehicle accident, or burn victim.  Faceless and likely far from your station, it’s not going to generate any emotion unless it makes the evening news and you see a widow or an orphan wrestling with the loss in their life.  That brings it a little closer to home, but then you turn the TV off and the moment is gone.  It’s a part of “the job”.

Firefighting is a business, no doubt.  Accountants play a large role in determining how many fire stations you have and how many people are on your team.  Bureaucrats with few attributes beyond a photogenic personality talk a good game and then turn their backs once the spotlights go off.  But when the alarm bell rings at 3 AM, you and your team are in charge of the office, determined to succeed no matter what the task.  It’s a job, this is what we do, and we do it well.  However, the “team” concept only goes so far.

The mentality of some firefighters doesn’t help.  You fasten your seat belt, your partner doesn’t.  He watched you buckle up, so it’s not like it’s a foreign concept.  You start to say something to him about it, then shrug and sit back: after all, it’s his problem if the Captain sees him.  Besides, he’s been doing this longer than you have, he’s made it this far, and you’ll just get “the look” if you open your mouth.  So you don’t.

If you’ve had an opportunity to work with serious Technical Rescue people, you’ve seen that they do something we firefighters often don’t: the good ones take responsibility for the safety of everyone close by and not just themselves.  Sure, we’ll check each other’s gear before entry, but I have heard firefighters say “you check your own gear, I’ll check mine”.  Conversely, if my best technician just came off the roof after tying an anchor and I don’t send someone up to check his work, he will.  Can you imagine that kind of attitude on the fireground? “Hey Joe, Bob says the front bedroom has been overhauled.  Go check to make sure he did it right”.  At that point, odds are good that Bob will stalk off with muttered epithets in his wake.

What if we started to take every line of duty death, every injury, and every near miss personally?  Instead of letting your partner slide on the seat belt issue, maybe you should think about how you would feel if the truck rolled and he was ejected and killed.  If that doesn’t move you, then think about how you would feel if the truck rolled and his two hundred pounds landed on you with a three-foot running start.  You may like him a lot, but I’ll bet a high-impact lap dance isn’t in your plans for the evening.

The truth is that when one of us makes a mistake and dies or is seriously injured, the firefighter and family are not the only victims.  It impacts everyone around him: neighbors, friends, and… brothers.  The public reads the newspaper, gets the bare facts, and makes a judgment.  They could care less about his easy laugh, his killer recipe for fried chicken, or the rapt look in his son’s eyes every time he got to visit dad’s other family.  From a few lines in a news story, Joe Citizen will develop a pessimistic opinion about what we do and how well we do it.

It’s time we changed the “business as usual” attitude.  The truth is that most “individual failures” are actually team failures.  Somebody gets burned because complacency kept him from putting on a hood and an apathetic crew let him get away with it.   A truck rolls because the Engineer has been driving recklessly for 10 years and his luck finally ran out.  Nobody told him to slow down because they didn’t want to break the “Macho Firefighter” code.

That code is dying, you know, a long overdue and well-deserved death.  I remember a live fire exercise many years ago where three locally renowned Live Burn Instructors got into an informal contest to see who could build the biggest, baddest, and hottest fire.  The winner got a trip to the hospital for burns – the rest of us got damaged gear and a lesson in arrogance overcoming judgment.  Even with all we’ve learned, though, we still get the occasional case where somebody obviously thought that the 1403 standard was for lesser instructors.

So the next time you see a fellow firefighter doing something dangerous, stupid, or careless, get in his face.  Tell him that he is not going to make you and the rest of the team look stupid, get reprimanded, or do something that results in you having to put on a Class A uniform and stand in the summer heat just because he’s a few slices short of a loaf.  If you’re an Officer, tighten things up.  Start working on items like fitness, teamwork, and escape skills.  Start leaving footprints on posteriors, egos, or personnel records when basic safety guidelines are ignored or bypassed.

If you’re an Instructor, take responsibility for the people you teach.  You know in your heart that if someone aces your PPE class and then gets burned the next week because he improperly donned his gear, it’s your fault as much as his.  Don’t teach so that people can pass the test – teach so that the people understand the importance of the subject and the risk of ignorance.  In the real test, getting the answer wrong can have a much higher cost than a red “X” on a piece of paper, and failure means you don’t ever get a chance to retake the exam.

Most of all, mandate from the top down that times are changing, in every position from where the buck stops to where the fire stops.  Strengthen your guidelines, start enforcing them, and get rid of people for whom the “life safety” part of the firefighter’s priority list comes in third.  Make it crystal clear to every person in the organization that it’s no longer “business as usual” – it’s personal.

Luke