By Carl J. Haddon
It’s no secret that fire departments/fire districts in some rural communities or areas throughout this country are far better budget wise than others. Some areas, (like mine) fight, bite and scratch for every new piece of equipment or technology that they can get. Fundraising certainly helps, but it only goes so far. As a result, we have to “make do” with what we have and very often employ the “adapt and overcome” philosophy.
Last week, I returned from a training assignment that forever changed my thought processes about “making do” and “adapting and overcoming.” My fire training assignment was to the communist Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam.
Before I dive in, allow me to set the stage a bit. Although Vietnam is a communist country, you would be hard pressed to know it from the outside looking in. Additionally, having been blessed to travel the world teaching firefighters for many years, I can assure you that “firefighters are firefighters” the world over and communist or not, these guys in Vietnam are no different. We’re family, period.
Our assignment was a week’s worth of live fire training according to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1403, Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions, in two live fire trainers that Vietnam purchased from the United States. We were tasked with training the trainers, and that is where the real story starts.
Here at home, I’m pretty confident that we have certain “givens” when it comes to even rural departments. It’s usually a given that at some point in time, we will be issued personal protective equipment (PPE), or bunker gear, right? I would also venture to say that many (hopefully most) departments issue individual, proper fitting SCBA face pieces—at least to those members who are qualified for fire operations that require the use of an SCBA. Having gear that includes helmets, firefighting gloves, and eye protection issued to each active member is all fairly standard practice here at home. Our apparatus and equipment may be another bag of cats. Some of us have newer trucks and equipment, and some of us have older equipment and trucks that we have to “make do” with. At varying levels, we all strive to “work toward” meeting NFPA standards with the understanding that we may never be able to fully meet said standards. The same ideology holds true for training. Some of us train daily, some weekly, and some monthly. But, the goal is to meet or exceed a minimum standard that we set for our department, or that we have set for us.
Not wanting to be ignorant American fire instructors, we realized that our first task in Vietnam was to assess the fire apparatus, the equipment we’d be using, and the skill level of the instructors/firefighters that we would be working with. Offering them a training program that depended on them employing methods, tactics, and equipment that was different than what we used could be a challenge. Little did we know just how challenging that would be.
We had no plans to get crazy. We would be working with them for a week, in two 53-foot live fire, two-story training trailers. Each trailer had two burn rooms, flashover prop, forcible entry door, roof and ceiling prop, and a multilevel confined space prop built into each unit. We figured we’d need an engine, water source, hoses, nozzles, irons, hooks, ladders, saws, and whatever else they wanted to throw into the mix as part of THEIR training SOPs. We admittedly took for granted that this great group of Vietnamese fire instructors would have all of the necessary PPE for doing live fire evolutions. After all, we figured that, like ours, their gear would be no different for live fire training than it would be for structure fire response. We anticipated bunker gear that included boots, pants, jacket, hood, gloves, helmet, and complete SCBA with plenty of spare bottles (or a refill station) for the duration of the week’s training. Our mission was to teach their instructors how to maximize the number of different realistic training evolutions that could be produced with their new American-made training trailers.
In the rural fire service scene here in America, sometimes we “make do” by repairing, or patching, when we can’t afford (or don’t have the availability) to run out and buy a new one. Sometimes we depend on neighboring mutual aid companies to back us up with certain equipment that they might have, that we don’t, and vice versa. Simply stated, we figure it out and do the best we can with what we have access to. After this trip to Vietnam, I have a pretty good idea that I won’t be bitching about what we don’t have ever again.
I admit straight up: we may have learned far more than we taught. First thing we learned: A cat doesn’t know, what a cat doesn’t know. The second thing we learned: the philosophy of the “canary in the coal mine” (Google it) approach to firefighting is still common practice in other parts of the world. The third thing we learned: we take for granted just how good we have it as firefighters in the United States.
Our brave and dedicated souls showed up bright eyed and very eager to learn every morning. They didn’t arrive in company cars or chief’s cars. They arrived on motor scooters, some traveling two hours among literally millions of other scooters that travel the highways and byways and dirt roads each morning and evening. The temperature on the training grounds remained constant for the entire time we were there: 95°F to 99°F with 98 to 99 percent humidity mixed with some serious monsoon rain storms. Our students all wore their standard USAR gear, which consisted of single-layer nomex pants and top. Some wore boots, some wore tennis shoes, and some wore flip flops.
As we prepped for our first live burn evolution, we secured a water tender (circa 1970), and the personnel went to work stretching 1½ inch lines with connections unlike anything we’d ever seen (many involved the use of bailing wire). Our attack lines and our backup lines were both single-jacket cotton (forestry) hose, with roughly two-foot-long “adjustable” fog nozzles that were late 1960s or early 1970s vintage. We asked them to charge the lines to 90 psi or roughly 6 bar. They sheepishly told us that they could not charge the lines to that pressure because it would likely blow the fire hose. They could comfortably flow at 70 to 75psi, so we went with that. Adapt and overcome.
As we were gearing up, we learned that firefighters weren’t issued their own gear. Gear was issued to the specific seat on the apparatus, and they had to hope it fit them. As a result, we did not have any bunker gear for the students on the first day; however, these souls were ready, willing, and authorized to go into a 500-degree burn building with USAR gear and cotton work gloves! We chose to demo their new facilities with them observing from outside for the first time, so that they could see why we needed them to be in full gear. “A cat doesn’t know, what a cat doesn’t know.”
The next days were a bit better, and these guys worked their (and our) tails off in the heat and humidity. Although we had requested SCBA for all involved, including us instructors, we received FOUR SCBA for 16 students and two instructors. The good news was that almost everyone got turnout gear for the balance of the week. The bad news is that their complement of gear does NOT include Nomex hoods, nor did anyone have real firefighting gloves—just those bright white cotton work gloves. Another time we had no choice but to adapt and overcome by modifying our methods and tactics to meet the reality of the situation.
I will never forget the morning that I had a group in the trailer doing live fire/flashover work. The attack crew was doing a great job making the knock. I had a cameraman from the national television station (in my extra gear) inside filming the training evolution. It was crazy hot and banked in that trailer when suddenly someone opened the man door behind us, and one of the students ran in with a message for the camera man. As I turned with a WTF expression on my face, I saw the student enter the trailer in nothing but his USAR gear, AND…wait for it…he was barefoot! “Canaries in the coal mines.”
During our roof ops evolutions, we were surprised to see a great complement of late model, good quality, working saws, which included rotary and chain saw types. Ironically, on the other hand, their roof and ceiling hooks consisted of bamboo poles with homemade hooks that looked like they were made (literally) from bent horseshoes tacked together (see photo). Perhaps the “best” feature of these hooks was that they were attached to the bamboo poles with a single rusty nail that was bent over at the end.
In the end, our student instructors were a fantastic group of Brothers who were eager for knowledge and filled with the will to hone their craft. They learned from us, and we from them. The culture of fire in Vietnam is very different from ours here at home. I believe we broadened each other’s horizons, and I am grateful for the opportunity to have shared with our new friends from Vietnam. Moreover, I am beyond grateful for having had the opportunity to grow up in the fire service here in the United States. We are blessed. The next time you might want to complain about this or that regarding your station or your equipment, take another look at the hook photo and think about having to do your job with nothing more on your hands than white cotton work gloves. It’s all about perspective.
CARL J. HADDON is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He served as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country.