Training Scars Potentially Fatal Wounds

Tragically, performing the difficult and dangerous work of firefighting often results in scars and sometimes fatal wounds. This is the reality of our profession. We sometimes receive scars from our training, from both the formal settings and our on-the-job training. It is difficult to recognize these scars, as our training is often crafted to make us successful in the context of the training. Our on-the-job training often provides us with tricks of the trade, so to speak, or behavioral patterns that enable us to get our work done when under extreme time pressure and stress. The problem occurs when the context of the training does not mirror the reality of our work or the ingrained behavioral pattern is incorrect and has not yet resulted in a tragedy.

A tragic example of formal training that fatally wounded occurred on April 6, 1970, when four young California Highway Patrolmen lost their lives in a shootout. The law enforcement community learned several lessons in a review of the intense four-and-a-half-minute shootout. The report identified the fact that the officers were issued .357 Magnum ammunition, which has a significant reaction when fired. The officers had been trained using .38-caliber ammunition, which has much less reaction. Additionally, all of the officers had only two years of service time, and they were either 23 or 24 years of age. The lack of an experienced officer on scene was also identified as potentially contributory.

A classic example of an on-the-job training wound occurred on November 12, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 587 crashed within moments after taking off from Kennedy Airport. The first officer flying that day was named Sten Molin; he was flying with a very experienced officer, Captain Ed States. A review of the log tapes shows that Molin was behaving oddly and his conversation revealed a very high level of anxiety. The copilot’s conversation exposed that he was particularly nervous about flying into the wake turbulence of the aircraft that took off before them. As a matter of fact, he delayed almost 27 seconds between the time he was cleared for takeoff and actual takeoff as he tried to avoid hitting that turbulence. When the aircraft did strike the turbulence, he reacted by violently forcing controls, including the rudder, from side to side, causing the plane to break apart and crash.

Subsequent investigation revealed that Molin twice before had reacted in the same unusual manner when encountering wake turbulence. Both times, the officers with whom he was riding commented to him about his reaction and the extreme danger in which he was putting himself and the plane. However, the copilot was not referred for retraining or any other corrective actions. He now had a behavioral script or a game plan for dealing with wake turbulence that was not a safe or an effective response.

What happens to us under stress and pressure is that we react intuitively, without thinking, using behavioral scripts or game plans our minds and our muscle memory have created. Under pressure, we will often react in whatever manner we did previously, regardless of whether or not the result was for the best. The problem is that unless we critically analyze our actions using our evaluated experiences, it is extremely difficult to discover what scars we have that are going to cause us to behave in a way that might end up creating a fatal wound.

The fire service, because we inherited our terminology from the mining industry, for years has referred to our self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) as 30- or 45-minute bottles. All experienced firefighters know that there are no 30- or 45-minute bottles, that air consumption rates vary greatly among firefighters, and that the average firefighter consumes somewhere between 80 and 100 liters of air per minute while working. This is a training scar; the potential wound is that mentally some of us believe that we have 30 or 45 minutes worth of air when really the free gas in the bottle generally lasts somewhere between 1,200 and 1,600 liters. That is a much better way to think about your air capacity. We don’t know how many firefighters have behaviorally adopted a 30- or 45-minute behavioral pattern scar.

We have all been to training fires where the lead instructor has directed us to go in and hit the fire but not to put it out completely because it has to be relighted for the next evolution. So, we go into the fire, and we don’t put it out completely. How many of us are walking around with the scar of failing to put out a fire completely and leaving it to come back and attack us potentially fatally?

Another formal training scar from the ’70s and ’80s is the use of the REVAS acronym, which stands for Rescue, Exposure, Ventilation, Attack, and Salvage. The adoption of this acronym led the first-due engine companies to believe that their primary goal on the fireground was to extend a search for rescue and then, sequentially, exposure protection followed by ventilation and then, last but not least, locate and attack the fire. Prior to this acronym’s widespread acceptance, it was commonly held that the role of the first-due engine, in the absence of a known victim or a need for rescue, was to locate the seat of the fire. Assuming that rescue is universally the first task without knowing the location of the fire is the scar, crews can put themselves in tremendous danger (fatal wound).

One of the most common on-the-job training scars is our failure to wear respiratory protection at all times when in immediately dangerous to life and health environments—for example, on the roof. We often operate on the roof without our SCBA on with the belief that we need the improved visibility and that the smoke conditions on the roof aren’t “that bad.” That is a training scar that if scratched enough times will become a fatal wound. We all have scars. Let’s tend to them well before they become fatal wounds.

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