I Broke the Rules Today (Oh boy)
I worked a day shift at my firehouse today, and I have to admit that I broke a lot of rules during one of our numerous emergency responses. This is notable because this has become the norm on the Providence Fire Department over the last several years. Those of us in Company Officer positions are faced daily with the options of doing our jobs “by the rules” or performing our duties to the best of our abilities and at the greatest possible speed – we can’t do both.
In the business of fire suppression and emergency medical response, seconds truly count. The difference between a favorable outcome and a complete failure can literally be determined by seconds. The difference between a favorable outcome and complete failure can be the difference between saving a life and witnessing someone die. For this reason our trucks are equipped with sirens and airhorns to assist us in clearing the traffic from our congested streets in order to allow us to reach our destination as quickly as possible.
So too, our trucks are equipped with pre-connected attack hoselines with nozzles already attached – ready for instant deployment at a fire scene. Larger hoselines, which are pre-connected in lengths of over 500 feet, are packed onto our trucks in a manner as to facilitate connecting to street hydrants in the quickest possible manner. Everything we do at an emergency scene, particularly at a structure fire, is time-critical in nature. We prepare our equipment and continually run through training exercises with this crucial factor in mind.
In this modern politically-correct and liability-conscious world there have been a number of rules and constraints put on the fire service. Many of these changes, although intended to make the job of firefighting less dangerous, make our job much more difficult – and in some cases, utterly impossible. Even with this unintended effect, implementing changes in the way we go about doing our jobs on a daily basis would be much more acceptable to us if the true intent was a sincere effort to minimize jeopardizing firefighter health and safety. Unfortunately, the actual reason for these changes is often simply to remove any legal liability (and thus any financial risk) from the department or the municipality in the event that firefighters are injured or killed in the line of duty – particularly if they are taking a “risk” at a fire scene.
This belief is supported by the fact that our fire department leaders (Fire Chiefs) who command emergency scenes continue to expect the same results, and in the same time frames, as they expected from fire crews prior to implementing these safety “rules”. This fact remains constant – even when the Chief of Department is on the scene.
It is difficult for non-firefighters to understand the complexity and the contradictions to which I’m referring without a tangible example of how the scene actually plays out at a fire – as opposed to how it would play out if these “rules” were followed on the scene. I offer this example of a typical response to a fire in an occupied dwelling in Providence, as I’ve typically led my crew on many occasions in the past.
The bell tips at the Mt. Pleasant Ave. firehouse, alerting us of an imminent emergency response to which we are being dispatched. As always, there are three of us on duty – myself (the company officer; Lieutenant) and two firefighters. Although we are in the middle of lunch we put down our forks and head directly for the apparatus floor and the truck. The chauffeur hops into the truck and turns on the radio as I and the other firefighter begin to don our bunker pants and fireboots. By this time the dispatcher rattles his oratory over the radio frequency and the old speakers in the station, “Attention Engines 15-14-6, Special Hazards 1, Ladders 6 & 3, Rescue 6 and Battalion 2; a Still-Box”.
We pull up our pants and climb on the truck as the chauffeur starts the diesel engine and the dispatcher finishes the first round of his dispatch. We head out of the station before he can begin the second round in which he will inform us of the type of call he’s sending us on and the location. We instinctively know, due to our experience and the order in which the companies were dispatched, the direction we will be heading. Leaving the station before being told the specific nature of the call and the location is against policy. (Rule #1)
We turn left out of the station as the second round is being finished with the addition of,”… 27 Victoria Street, report of a building fire”. As we head down Mt. Pleasant Ave. the chauffeur attempts to close the station’s overhead garage door via the remote. As we roll down the street the door fails to close before we are out of range. This happens from time to time because the batteries go dead. We continue on. Leaving the station garage door open (for any reason, at any time) is a violation of departmental policy. (Rule #2) During this time the back step firefighter and I have climbed into the truck without fastening our seatbelts. The truck is not supposed to move without all members sitting and belted – no exceptions. (Rule #3) We do not have our full turnout gear on yet – only our pants. We hurriedly finish dressing in the cab on the way – against policy. (Rule #4)
With siren and airhorns blaring and all our warning lights on, we cruise through the intersection of Mt. Pleasant & Chalkstone with only the slightest hesitation. The chauffeur has slowed enough to see that traffic has stopped in all directions, but we didn’t come to a complete stop – another violation. (Rule #5) As we approach the scene of the fire I can plainly see the heavy black smoke, “Engine 15 to Fire Alarm, we have a smoke condition”. When we turn onto Victoria Street I can see heavy flames leaping from the first floor front windows and a large crowd in front of the building waving at us franticly. I pick up the radio and transmit; “Engine 15 to Fire Alarm, Code Red, 3-story, wood-frame, occupied, heavy fire showing first floor, Side 1”. This is an incomplete initial size-up transmission by departmental policy. (Rule #6) I should also state the presence or absence of any exposures (other buildings nearby which may be endangered), color of smoke, whereabouts of occupants, and more. Being on a 3-man engine company I don’t have the time to properly size-up the full fire scene upon arrival or spend too much time talking on the radio, because I need to head to the back of the truck and help with getting the attack hoseline off the truck and into position. (Note: with a 4-man engine company [the NFPA minimum standard], the 3rd firefighter would do this work)
As the chauffeur sets up the pump so that we can use the 550 gallons of water we carry in our tank, the two of us head to the back door of the first floor apartment. We enter. This is a direct breech of departmental policy as well as being against National Fire Protection Agency guidelines and, as such, an OSHA violation. The recognized standard is called the “2-in; 2-out rule”. Simply stated, this means that no fewer than two members shall ever enter a potentially dangerous environment, and then “only” when there are at least two members on the scene outside the building ready to be deployed for rescue in the event the firefighters inside become trapped or injured. (Rule #7) We enter the apartment from the rear door and begin to make our way to the front room where the bulk of the fire is located. We quickly search the apartment as we crawl toward the fire. Our air masks are not on our faces yet. This is a direct violation of policy. (Rule #8) If we put our masks on as soon as we enter the building, as is called for by policy, we will use up our air supply too soon to be able to adequately extinguish the fire. We will also be unable to easily spot any victims we may encounter along the way due to the extreme limitations to visibility these masks put on us. (Visibility in a smoky environment with face masks on can be as little as an inch in front of your face)
As we get to the hallway leading to the front room the smoke is banking down from the ceiling and getting thicker. We stop and don our face masks. Just before I put on my mask I call for water, “Engine 15, charge our line”. (Note: when I call for water over the radio, the Chief in charge of the fire can plainly hear that I do not have my mask on, but says nothing) As we await the water we can hear the air being pushed through the hoseline in front of the oncoming water – then it goes quiet, and only a minimal stream of water reaches the nozzle. This means that there is a kink in the hoseline somewhere behind us. I tell the nozzle-man to “stay put” as I head back to the rear door to pull the hoseline out of the stairway entrance to clear any kinks. This is a clear violation of policy – leaving a member alone in a fire building. (Rule #9) (Note: Again, with a 4-man engine company, the 3rd firefighter would do this work)
The water begins to flow freely and I head back to my firefighter. I tap him on the shoulder and we begin to attack the fire and advance into the room. Once the fire is knocked down and the smoke lessens we take our masks off once again. (Rule #10) By now we are almost out of air anyway. We remove our masks so that we may better view the fire area while scanning for hot spots and smoldering debris. We also initiate a secondary (more complete) search of the first floor apartment. (Note: once again I contact the Chief, either via radio or by yelling out the window, and notify him that the secondary search was negative. Once again he can clearly see that I have no mask on, but says nothing.)
I send out my firefighter once the hoseline is shut off and drained so that he can begin to pack it back on the truck – with help from other firefighters on the scene. I remain in the building with the arson investigator to assist him by giving him information on where the fire was located upon our arrival and various other information from the early stages of the fire that could be useful to his investigation.
I head outside to take a break and the dispatcher at Fire Alarm is asking the Chief if any of the companies on the scene are clearing because he has a report of another house fire in our first-in district. I check to see if our hose is all re-packed on the truck, it is. “Chief, we’re all packed up, we can take it”, I call to the Chief. “OK”, he says, and we head for another possible fire. This is another violation of departmental policy and NFPA guidelines, as we had no rehab time after the initial fire. (Rule #11)
This type of situation is a very common occurrence in the Providence Fire Department. This is why I state that the policies in place are there merely to cover the department and the city from any liability if something goes wrong. PFD Chiefs expect that we do the job exactly as I’ve described it here. They will not state this for the record, however, because it is clearly impossible for any fire company to do the job as effectively as possible and still follow all the rules the department has set forth. It is impossible to do “any aspect” of first-in firefighting effectively with a 3-man company. This fact is well known in fire-service circles, and as such is very familiar to our Chief of Department – Chief Farrell.
That is why the article in today’s Providence Journal (Jan 15, 2008) is such a farce. For Chief Farrell to state that reducing the number of men of engine and ladder companies to 3 men would not be a safety issue for the firefighters or for the general public is a lie – and a disgrace. He argued that 4-men companies were much more effective and much safer (very effectively, I might add) when he was the President of Local 799. How can he now justify his new position on this issue? The only difference now is that he doesn’t ever have to ride a truck again and put his life on the line.
Lt. Tom Kenney
Providence Fire Department