In the early days of America’s war with Japan, the U.S. Marines assaulted the atoll known as Tarawa. As a young Marine I was taught to revere the name, remember the sacrifice. It was an incredible sacrifice for a rotten hunk of coral. But the men that stormed Tarawa, young and old Marines, felt it was necessary. They had volunteered after all. Many fell, many, many died. Tarawa lives on in Marine lore, not only for its strategy and tactics, but more so for the lessons learned and the fortitude involved. There is a reason the Marines have sought more effective methods for storming a beach. Tarawa was a very bloody beach. We can take a lesson from this, ..war is going to cause casualties and the boldness and the bravery involved in obtaining victory is to be admired. But there is no glory in needless death, not in war and not in the fire service. Sit down, lets fill our cups.
So Brothers and Sisters, the pot o’ Joe has been too long on the back burner.
The Marines have learned to fight in less costly ways. They understood that to needlessly throw men’s lives away was bad for the reputation and didn’t sit well with America. It still doesn’t. This is the IAFC Health and Safety Week, as I’m sure many of you know. N’ while I”m not into “hot topics” much, (I tend to blather on about what-the-heck-ever), I do believe that any weight that can be thrown in this direction is worthwhile. Like so many things, its all just talk unless you apply it. I believe the middle ground is often the most successful, so taking a few risks at times is to me acceptable, when you have just cause. I also like a stogie, from time to time. But I’ve also come to believe that if you don’t take a responsible approach to health and safety issues you will have it rammed down your throat like bad tasting medicine, …and I was never a fan of Penicillin and my mother made me take Castor Oil once, ….uuugghhh..
Look, brothers, you and I both know that there is and must always be a balance. Problem is we fire types tend to tip the apple cart..a lot. Rational, reasonable firefighters understand what is at stake, understand that we will sometimes see and suffer loss, understand that there is acceptable risk. Leadership establishes that balance, for better or for worse. Poor leadership will lead to freelancing and poor practices. Its the loose cannon’s and those who are ignorant of the consequences of irresponsible action that need to be reigned in. Constantly. Add on to that all of the firefighters lacking experience, ..watching those who do, but do not use that experience wisely. They won’t ever go away, so we have to do our part in mitigating their influence or accept that their behavior will continue to drive the fire service towards a sensitization of risk that will perhaps eliminate our ability to effectively do our job altogether.
I don’t know that we will ever fully get a handle on this. Let me give you an example. In spite of all the publications, blogs, bad press, legislation, education and survivor testimony, we still find in our own communities firefighters who choose, out of sheer audacity to breathe smoke at car fires, structure fires and during overhaul. If you doubt this, brothers, just look a few fires up on YouTube, it won’t take you long to find some not so unfamiliar communities where the people on duty have not only not received the message, but have thumbed their nose at it. I have been a firefighter long enough to have been influenced by the older generation that believed you should “save your air”. I remember blowing black gunk out my nose after a job many a time. Even today, I still end up taking a feed, ….but never intentionally. I have had to retrain myself. I’ll be honest, …I like the smell of smoke, I like the feeling of exhaustion at having given everything I’ve got on a good workin’ fire. I like the punishment. We do, we thrive on it. But I have had to force myself to rethink my habits; disengaging my regulator whenever I feel inconvenienced, continuing to work after my bottle is dry, not masking up at car fires, just wearing the darn thing at all during overhaul.
Overhaul, that’s the big one, we’ve all been told. We also know that they are finding more and more nastiness present during overhaul (ever-present CO, Hydrogen Cyanide, Benzine, etc), but there is still that temptation to take off that mask. Why do you do it? Why flirt with it? For me, there is that voice in my head that has been there since I was a probie, “Hey kid, take off your mask..save your air!”..Save my air, why? Do we have to pay for it? (Back in the day in the large department I was in, air bottles were filled at headquarters and someone had to make the daily run. So supply really did matter to an extent.) That voice is always there. But there is also the moments when it just makes the job harder breathing through that damn tube that governs everything we do. It hampers everything, movement, communication, work effort. It makes noise, it freezes and malfunctions. Its a pain. And through the years I have taken my share of life-threatening feeds, as I’m sure many of you have also. You almost do it without thinking. After all, its only momentary, a gulp here, a whiff there. And then all the CO you’re taking in from the PPV fan, or the exhaust pipe on your life-protecting fire apparatus.
But three things have helped me change my ways:
1. Positive peer pressure
2. Understanding how my role as a senior line officer and mentor affects those who follow me
3. Being a father, and seeing another firefighter and father struggle to breathe as he slipped away with cancer.
Peer pressure has its good side. Having another fireman whose respect you hold, and holds yours in return, question your behavior can really give you pause..and should. IF you truly respect the other members around you, especially the peer group you work with, then their professional opinion of your work, your standard, your competencies and your ethics should be of pivotal importance to you. Their respect for these things in your professional life define you, not your own estimation. You are not a professional because you are in the union, nor because you have twenty years in, nor because you say you are, ….but because your peers say you are. If you are constantly ignorant or delinquent in personal performance or safety, they will know it. They may not mention it, their respect for the “Code” may keep them from bringing it up, but their respect for you will diminish.
As a leader in the fire service, it is your duty to see to the welfare of those you are responsible for. Duty is one of those “not an option” things. You don’t have a choice. Not convinced? You can just look at how many officers are being held accountable for the actions of others, read the daily news on your favorite firehouse rag. But even if you don’t worry yourself about that kind of end result, you still have to look them in the eye in the end. I have found without fail, that when I choose to “unplug” my regulator, take off my mask, take shortcuts, the people I lead and whose understanding of right and wrong practices relies on me setting the example will follow me into these habits. I cannot fathom the kind of thinking and personality that can be willing to accept this. Specifically because you and I both know it goes deeper than just pulling off your mask during overhaul. It includes not knowing or understanding your job to begin with. Failing to accept the role you have taken on as an officer, failure to keep up to date with the changes in fire behavior, building construction and recognizing that things have changed in every aspect of our job. Pure and simple it involves setting a really bad example, one that will most likely not cost you your life, but the poor sap that copies your behavior. The guy that just doesn’t see it coming. There are no words for such gross negligence.
Finally, not to get too long winded, there is the simple fact that as you go, people in your life begin to depend upon you. As a young happy go lucky firefighter, life is good, the pay is nice, there is little to worry yourself about. Being selfish with your life has been up to you. Risk is just part of the job and the adrenalin rush. But when you begin to build a family, when you have those children in your arms, when you hold your wife or husband close at night, ..these lives are interwoven into yours.
When I slow myself down and take stock, I realize just how vital I am to this family. They rush to meet me when I come home from the fire house, they are full of stories and tales of woe, small things, big things, first moments, cuts and bruises, victories and failures. And pressing in around them all the time is the world with all its good and bad influences and pressures. They do okay when I’m gone at the firehouse, but they also make it clear to me just how much they want me home. You can see it in their eyes. You can feel it in the way they cling to you when you say goodbye. They value your presence in their lives. Its not just the dangers every day, brothers. It also includes all the lurking nasty, cancerous poison that our lives hold every day we report for duty. I want to watch all my children grow up. I want to enjoy sitting on the porch swing, sitting in the twilight with my wife.
Wives..you know, the strong ones don’t tell you what their thinking. They don’t ask questions, they don’t want details. But its important that you call at night on duty. Its always in the back of their minds if they’ve been through this with you all these years, even if they aren’t willing to talk about it. How many of them like to watch “Ladder 49” or the annual “9/11” documentary with you. Every morning as I leave for the firehouse, she tells me to be “safe”. She knows. I have a very rational wife. She is my best friend. She knows I am passionate about what I do. She also knows that life can hinge on a seatbelt, a turn of the wheel, a step left, a step right. She also trusts the Good Lord to watch over me, but she doesn’t’ figure that gives me free license to act irresponsible. If I die doing something stupid, she’ll gi’ me an earful when she catches up to me in heaven.
Somewhere you have to find balance in all of this. There will be times for taking risk. No one can be there in that moment but you. There will be times to hold back and value your life and the lives of those you have to account for. There will be times to step out into fate. But they should be few and rare and should be marked by the chance to do great service. All other moments must be recognized for what they are. Routine hazards that we should recognize and mitigate. You will not die if you walk through the firehouse in your bunker pants, and if you pull the plug on your regulator for a minute, you will not necessarily get cancer right away. You can get away without wearing your seat-belt today. So many Marines stormed the beach at Tarawa. Each one was hoping his number wouldn’t come up. We are fortunate in our profession to have the choice to affect that. If even a little bit. Maybe you won’t have an appointment with that bullet today…. But one of us will.