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Company Officers: Fire’s First Line of Safety in the Field

Clay Fenwick | Nov 21, 2017

Most paid Fire and EMS departments or organizations have a dynamic on their fire apparatus that isn’t included on their ambulances. No, this isn’t the pump, water tank or extrication tools. It has nothing to do with the cost difference nor the color. It’s there whether there are two or six personnel on the fire truck. It’s generally found on pumpers, ladder trucks, quints, rescue trucks or hazmat units. It’s optimal for accountability and paramount for safety.

How Fire & EMS Dynamics Differ

The dynamic I am speaking of is the company officer. This position has many terms. Whether it’s Lieutenant, Captain, Corporal or other; most organizations place ultimate responsibility to what happens to the personnel, equipment or scene square on their shoulders. When things go wrong, equipment gets damaged or there is an accident, they are the first person called to explain what happened. Many of these officers spend considerable time getting to that position and work hard to keep it. They may aspire to do more in the organization, but it’s doubtful any Chief Officer doesn’t occasionally yearn to be back in this position. There are times I’ve stated “if I only knew then what I know now, wow what a time it would be.”

Why do we keep having fire truck crashes, especially ones involving two fire trucks at a crossing intersection?

Why Does Fire Still Struggle with Safety?

So recognizing that the fire service has spent so much time, money and effort in developing and promoting personnel into these positions, and considering they have specific responsibilities placed on them (through job descriptions and policies) then why do we keep having problems? Why do we keep having fire truck crashes, especially ones involving two fire trucks at a crossing intersection? Why do we have freelancing on the fire scene and horseplay in the fire stations? Why are there terminations and demotions because of inappropriate behavior? Why are personnel not in appropriate personal protective equipment and not seated and belted when the vehicle is in motion?

Because I have gotten some of your attention and likely upset a great many others let me qualify the above statements. A great many of these officers are fine individuals, very knowledgeable, keenly concerned with everyone’s safety, and willing to hold themselves accountable and accept responsibility when warranted. These are awesome folks, with many of them working in my department, and strive to do the best for the citizens at all times, on-duty or not. Knowing this makes me more comfortable that my personnel and officers are doing the right thing.

Read the Article: Learn More About the NFPA & How You Can Make a Difference

Considering that most people want to do right and follow policy then I still wonder why? Why do some of the earlier-identified things happen? Why does the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) have to dictate seatbelt warning systems? Why do some departments put a speedometer on the officer’s side of the truck? Why must organizations enact policies that tell personnel they have to inspect their truck and equipment?

Company Officers Must be Vigilant at All Times

I don’t have the answers to all of these questions, but strike much of it up to the fact that we are imperfect beings and live in an imperfect world. I know I need reminders at time, as I’m sure most do. What this realization tells me is that we have to be ever-vigilant. Company officers are the organization’s front lines in the field. They are usually given the authority, based on their judgment and policy direction, to direct a vehicle at the highest liability means of responding to a call and allowed to enter people’s houses with no one present. They can initiate destructive activities at people’s homes with little to no permission. They can direct their crew to enter a burning building with little hope of survivors. Or not!

The “not” is what I would like you to think about. Each decision has one or more alternatives. It’s those alternatives that should be rapidly processed through our brains prior to anything final coming out. Do we have to respond emergency to this call? Should I check the location of other responding apparatus? Is it practical to make a fast attack on this specific fire? After any decisions are made, the officer(s) should then continually reassess the conditions and not be afraid to make adjustments. Some people have no problem going from “offensive” to “defensive” operational mode, while others do so reluctantly. There are then those who will stay there until the building falls in around them, if there isn’t someone else looking out for them.

The “someone” looking out for them is a key. As a profession, the time has passed for us to cover for each other. Instead, we should all be continually looking out for each other and speaking up whenever concerns arise. This should be encouraged at all levels and to all levels, because none of us are immune from not seeing the whole picture and making mistakes. None of us can see or process everything nor do we have the capacity to have complete situational awareness of everything going on during an emergency. I challenge us all to watch out for our brothers and sisters, not be afraid to speak up and, most importantly, not be afraid to listen because #EveryoneGoesHome should be more than a hashtag or slogan. It is a way of life.

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