Problems Lying in Wait?

Issue 3 and Volume 20.

Chris Mc Loone   Chris Mc Loone

I had the pleasure of sitting in on a keynote by Gordon Graham recently. During his presentation, he spoke about his specialty-risk management.

He applied risk management to apparatus operation, maintenance, and training. Graham discussed the many facets of risk management and how risk managers study tragedies to identify their causes to prevent future tragedies. However, he asserts that not enough people have been taught that a given tragedy has multiple causes: proximate, contributory, root, and problems lying in wait. The problems lying in wait are what got me thinking.

The Debbie Downers among us will take a look at problems lying in wait and identify numerous items at their own fire departments within seconds. It will always be that way, and there is nothing we can do about that. But, when you put those numerous items through a strainer, some actual problems lying in wait might emerge, so it’s never a good idea to dismiss the complainers.

By identifying problems lying in wait, a department is actually predicting potential issues before they occur and should then be determining control measures to ensure they don’t become causes for tragedies. Basically, Graham sums this up by saying that predictable is preventable.

Do we have problems lying in wait in the fire service? We sure do. From the health and safety side, we have stations without diesel exhaust systems in which our walls and often our personal protective equipment are coated with a layer of diesel soot-an identified carcinogen. And, we have firefighters who are not physically fit enough to do the jobs they are called on to perform. Don’t misunderstand-I’m not talking about overweight firefighters here. I’m what some would call “lanky.” To look at me, one probably would not think I have any potential health issues that would bring me down during or following a fire where I am humping hose, clearing windows, carrying equipment up ladders, or removing fire victims. I get my annual physicals, including bloodwork to ensure my cholesterol isn’t too high and my blood sugar is in a good zone.

But, what about firefighters out there built like me who do not get their physicals? What problems lying in wait are there for them? You can be skinny as a rail, but lack of exercise and conditioning along with a questionable diet could be the problem lying in wait that could quite frankly kill you.

On the apparatus side of the equation, the fire service has been experiencing a fair amount of apparatus accidents in recent months and, in 2014, preliminary figures indicate that the second leading cause of line-of-duty deaths was vehicle crashes-sometimes in personal vehicles responding to the firehouse and sometimes resulting from apparatus crashes. What are the problems lying in wait there? Is it poor driver training? Is it lack of strong leadership from the officer’s seat? Is it undisciplined driving practices? If your driver training program is poor, that speaks for itself. If the officer “riding the seat” won’t tell his driver to slow down, that’s a problem lying in wait and a tragedy waiting to happen. Undisciplined driving practices grown from lack of leadership and poor driver training are also tragedies waiting to happen.

As I have come up through the ranks, my chief has often suggested stepping back at the scene to observe-obviously not in the heat of things. It is amazing what you see if you step back from time to time and observe what is happening vs. being in the thick of a situation. This isn’t always easy in volunteer departments during the day. But, when possible, step back. What you’re really doing when you take the time to observe an operation is identifying potential problems lying in wait. You’ll be amazed at what you see.

None of this is meant to be negative and indicate that the fire service is heading toward a premature end because of all the problems lying in wait. But, it’s never a bad idea to step back. Take a look at your operations, the administrative side of your department, and definitely the training division-however it is comprised. Remember what Graham said: Predictable is preventable. Are you doing everything you can to identify what you can prevent?