Last week, I got a visit from a very competent, young, rural officer who was extremely frustrated and looking for some advice. The night before his visit, he and his crew responded to a mountain road vehicle rollover with entrapment. During the call, this officer observed his people yelling and barking to and at each other while trying to effect a fairly difficult extrication and extraction—with the large SUV upside down, on the side of a rather steep embankment. He explained that his crew was seasoned and knowledgeable, but that the normally expected amount of chaos at the scene quickly and continually seemed to escalate throughout the course of the rescue operations. He said that despite his attempts to keep order and calm, both older and younger (than him) members continued to bark and yell.
I knew right away that this was not going to be a comfortable conversation for either of us to have, but in light of this officer’s desire to better himself and his crew, I felt that I owed it to him to tell him the hard truth, straight up. After all, his life, his crew’s lives, and their patient’s lives depended on it. I asked him two simple questions that got him thinking. The first question was: Has this type of crew behavior occurred on scene before? And the second (and much more difficult) question was: Who was in charge?
It dawned on me, after this gentleman’s visit, that I see this type of situation in many departments where I offer training throughout the United States and abroad. Is this an issue in your rural department? If so, do you know what causes it and, more importantly, do you know how to constructively rectify the situation. Unfortunately, this very issue has been the demise of many a rural volunteer fire department.
Brad (the names have been changed to protect the innocent) answered my first question by telling me that indeed this type of behavior seems to happen during high-intensity/low-frequency responses such as violent vehicle wrecks with entrapment, rollovers into the river, lost or missing children, etc. He also said that it seems to be happening more frequently. In answer to my second question, Brad sheepishly told me that he was in charge the night of the call mentioned above, but that it doesn’t seem to matter who is in charge when this happens.
I am no expert in or on any subject. I am still a student of my craft—I just happen to have more than 35 years on the job and see this type of thing more than I’d like to. That said, in my opinion, there are two simple deficiencies that typically cause unexplained yelling and screaming during operations: lack of training and lack of leadership, which can also be attributed to lack of training.
How much training do you get? How much training do your officers get? Please forgive me, as I know this is a sore subject, but if your department only does training one evening for a couple of hours each month, you are not getting enough training to remain proficient. Two hours x 12 months (provided that you make every training) = 24 hours per year. For the purposes of Brad’s issue, how many of those 24 hours are dedicated to vehicle rescue, high-risk stabilization, and possibly high- or low-angle rope rescue? See where I’m going? The old saying holds true: What we don’t use, we lose.
Career departments have a distinct advantage in this situation as most career departments require some sort of training or drill each and every shift. My math says that is an average of roughly 24 hours of training and drilling each month. Rural, suburban, and urban volunteer fire departments alike share the challenges of getting their people to training.
This situation was not lost on my department as it had and still has the same challenge. A lot of the members simply don’t understand that participating in a class once or even twice doesn’t make you proficient at a given set of skills, such as auto extrication. Running one or two vehicle rescue responses a month doesn’t make you proficient either. The reason we drill and drill and train and train and train is so our responses and our training become second nature. When our responses are second nature, our fear is overtaken by our training and our confidence in what we are doing. The motto “we train like we fight” is for that very purpose. If we are truly well trained, there is little difference between how we train and how we respond during calls. If our responses are primarily second nature, there is no (or very little) fear of uncertainty, and therefore no need to speak to each other in a way that escalates the chaos, ultimately sending a message to our patients, family members, fellow responders, and community members with cell phone cameras, that we are a bunch of buffoons running around screaming at each other.
The same answer holds true for whoever may be in charge of the scene. Are you a leader? Are you trained and knowledgeable enough to be the voice of calm and reason on scene? If not, no worries, just commit to getting yourself more training from real, quality instructors who have actually walked and crawled the smoky halls of our profession so that you can be better at what you do.
Leaders do not need to yell on scene for any reason other than to be heard above noise levels. If I get on scene and am unsure of myself and am an emotional mess, I convey that to everyone around me without having to say a word. Additionally, if I start yelling and barking orders like a crazy person, I do nothing for my situation or that of my crew and our patients but make the situation worse. If I’m a well trained, knowledgeable, calm ,and confident officer or leader, then I also relay that to everyone around me without saying a word. Calm prevails, and the operations typically go much smoother as a result of directions and instructions having been given in a clear, calm, understandable fashion. You instill confidence in your patients, those you are working with, and the public you are working for (especially those with cell phone cameras).
A saying found on firehouse wall says: “Let the ghost of no man ever say that his training let him down.” Regardless of whether you’re a firefighter, officer, search and rescue member, or EMS provider, train like your life depends on it because it does!
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.