During a recent test for our department’s ISO rating (a very stressful time for a small department), we were performing a test where we lay a couple thousand feet of Large Diameter Hose (LDH) and using our large 2000 gpm pumps relay the hydrant pressure down to the attacking engine. The objective is to reach at least 750 gpm output from the attacking engine and to sustain it for a given period of time. Our department can easily reach well over 1000 gpm using the strong hydrants at our disposal. To assist in moving water, my engine company and I took up position at the roughly 1800 foot mark and began boosting pressure on the line. With such high pressures involved, the danger of the apparatus sustaining damage or bursting hoselines is always present. Sometimes you just can’t move fast enough…….
I hadn’t gotten away from the hose in time. I don’t remember going airborne, or coming back down. I don’t think my brain was able to keep track of what was actually happening. In my mind, all I could think was “gotta get away from that hose!” and “son of a …!!” I don’t remember anything else, yet somehow during the tussle, I caught a glimpse of Chris being tossed like a rag doll and I thought to myself “someone’s gonna get broke”. Reflecting on it afterward, Jake and Cody both said I went airborne. “How high”, I asked. “Well” said Cody, “you were upside down and as high as my head, but I didn’t see you come down”. I do remember the hose coming back passed me and I felt it dribble me like a basketball, but I was trying to roll free and I think that kept my profile closed enough that it didn’t do much damage. When I stopped moving, the first thing I did was to try to find the boys. I could hear Cody saying to someone nearby, “Don’t move! Keep still!” and I thought “Oh, God. He’s hurt bad”.
As we go about the “job” on a day-to-day basis, we often forget or downplay the danger of the work we are involved in. I find that it is characteristic of firemen to note that one can get hurt doing this or that task, or “acting the idiot”. But as we do the same things day in day out without physical cost, we tend to come to believe we are not really in any great danger or tell ourselves that it won’t be us that catches hell. Its romantic and glorifying to feed the ego that firemen lead dangerous lives, but really, how much of our time is really spent walking on the razor’s edge?
When I stop and take a reckoning of the times I have nearly been hurt, have been hurt or really, really should have been hurt it can be a little staggering. How dangerous is this job? Of the several hundred thousand active firefighters in the United States, how many actually suffer loss due to “the Job”? Annually a few over a hundred die in the Line of Duty. Of those, a full 50 percent are cardiac arrests, often in men that have probably moved well past their days as physically efficient. For those that are in their physical prime, doing the job on the line, the number is much lower. Only 30 – 40 percent of the Line of Duty deaths in this country are attributed to firefighting tasks. If you follow websites such as firefighterclosecalls.com and fireengineering.com then you are already aware of these numbers. What is shocking is not the amount that die, but much more so the amount that are injured on a yearly basis. THAT is a much bigger number. On an annual basis, over 100,000 firefighters are injured every year. That figure comes from the IFSTA Essentials Manual V ed., and I still remember the II ed. I studied twenty years ago, it stated 80,000 per year. In two decades we have not changed anything.
So in a twenty year career, you can expect to be injured at some point, provided you are consistently responding on calls, training actively and not hanging back on the job. Being in the “job” means you will probably be hurt by the “job”. This wasn’t my first time being near a bursting hose. The first time it was me in the hospital and I was missing teeth and needing my soft palate re-installed to its former place. I lost a few stars oughta’ my head on that one. After 18 years as an active duty fireman, I have been hit in the face more times than I can remember. Landed on my head more than the average man and nearly fell off or slid off roofs, ladders, trucks and slopes. Been stuck, confused, snorted too much smoke and walked away with a burn or two. A man only has so many stars in his head to lose, ..if you know what I mean.
Since so much of what we do is clearly pushing the limits of hazard control, we really need to limit the potential for the danger to become uncontrolled. Once let loose, the potential force we deal with daily can be as vicious as a rampaging elephant and the injuries correspond. I’m not only talking about fires, but climbing ladders, driving and pumping apparatus, ambulances and maneuvering ladder trucks, racing through traffic, riding in rescue boats, ropes and tools. Everything we do has the potential to backfire and cause injury or death. To control this potential, we attempt to follow procedures and when the procedures are violated or fail to be adequate, we pay a stiff price. Sometimes, the ultimate price.
We can’t have it both ways. The “Job” is dangerous. If we ignore these dangers, we will get hurt. If we acknowledge them readily and take steps to avoid the potential dangers, we run the risk of not adequately doing our job. Firemen will always have to face these things until fires cease to be a problem for society.
Engineers (driver/operator or chauffeur depending on your preference) are a good example of this and have to be constantly monitoring the rig. Chris had to be at the pump panel. He could have stepped back for a time, but not too far or for too long. How could we know the hose would break? There is not indicator on it. Only experience told me to warn the crew to get back. Chris was the last to move, and didn’t even come close to getting away in time. The task we were performing was in itself, pushing the limits of the equipment. Something in the system has to be the weakest link. The weakest link gave way.
I cannot begin to describe how I felt, for the second time in my career, as I realized that one of my men was down. Overwhelming stress. Another officer who witnessed the accident said I no sooner stopped flying through the air and I was up and running toward my injured man. I don’t really remember that. I knew I had shouted into the radio “Fireman down!” and I recall that I asked the hydrant engine to shut down immediately, but all this was being shouted over a screaming pump, the discharge water gushing out the open port and my head still spinning from my own impact. I looked at the pump for a moment to see if it was still dangerous and as my mind began to focus I realized I just needed to move around the water and hit the emergency shut down. That done, I knelt down next to Chris who was lying halfway under the tailboard where the hose had left him after its rampage. He had been standing next to the hose and he is a tall man, well-built. A smaller man would have been busted to pieces. The hose initially caught him in the chest and then catching his jaw, flung him around into a horizontal spin by his neck. He landed under the engine tailboard, the impact knocking his helmet off and his gloves flying from his hands. The hose drove him under the tailboard and how he missed the many sharp metal corners, steps, handles and diamond plate step hardware I’ll never know. I think the good Lord intervened.
I was afraid I was going to find a missing limb or a huge gaping gash, twisted neck or worse, no feeling or movement. Cody had Chris by the head, and was holding C-Spine. “Don’t move!” he was saying. I asked Chris if he could hear me, his eyes had a vacant look and he seemed to be somewhere else. I called for an ambulance.
When Chris finally looked at me with recognition a wave of relief swept over me and I found myself having a slight mental breakdown. I began to pace back and forth, holding my neck and fighting back the urge to just let out a howl of anger and anxiety. The other part of the fireground injury or death is those who feel responsible. Coming so close to having one of my men horribly and needlessly injured just about sent me over the edge. But stress has been high the past several months and we are all worn out. Perhaps I was merely giving in to the long haul.
Today Chris and I sat chuckling in amazement at how we both walked away. He has a sore neck and throat, pain in his hip and his scalp is glued up. I’m just sore all over. But we did walk away. When Chris came to he was found to be a little loopy, but not too badly banged up. Each of us popped a lot of pain killers for a time. But we also share a deeper bond now. He knows how badly it shook me up to see him hurt, and how I had understood the danger and taken steps to protect the men, a few seconds too late for Chris.
Why anyone familiar with these experiences would willingly allow his people to disregard safe practices is really beyond me. Yet we have a job to do, and sometimes, we have to lay ourselves down to get it done. I do not advocate being so safe, that we forget who were meant to work for. We are meant to stand in between danger and society. I don’t advocate that we refuse to run risks when there is still something to be gained. I am a public servant for a reason. But the risks we take should be ones that we have prepared ourselves for, through training and risk assessment. Ongoing education to keep us aware of what is out there to hurt us and studying leadership so that we are ready to stand up to those who would hurt our brethren, either with intent or through ignorance. I renew my pledge to seek out aggressive, but smart tactics and methodology, because I believe the way to move the ball down the field is through such a mindset. I will continue to expect the best out of my people, as I give them every thing I’ve got to give.
So let’s be careful to watch over each other, so that we can be there for those times when our lives are on the line, in the performance of our duty, for those whom we have been sworn to protect. There is no greater calling.
“I am not here for me,..I am here for we, ….and we are here for them..” — Unknown.