Lesson from the IAFF Fire Ground Safety and Survival Class

Plan for the things you cannot control

CarolinaFireJournal - Jonah Smith
Jonah Smith
04/23/2012 -

During my tenure as a firefighter and officer, I have attended some great symposiums, conventions, and networked with firefighters from all around the world. This past August I was able to attend the International Association of Firefighters’ (IAFF) Redmond Symposium, a symposium held every other year to bring together the experts on health, safety and wellness.


During the symposium I attended a great presentation on the IAFF Fire Ground Safety and Survival Class that is currently in its rollout phase. Battalion Chief Alkonis from Los Angeles made some great points and presented some interesting information on why firefighters get in trouble. However, out of this presentation two quotes stuck with me. They both came from Laurence Gonzales in his book “Deep Survival.” This book discusses the lives of extreme mountain climbers and how some make it and some die in their pursuit of making the summit.

To paraphrase his exact words “There will be things that you cannot control, for those you must have a plan.” The one that touched me the most, “There are variables that you can control, therefore you must control them all of the time.”

If there have ever been two quotes that should hit home to firefighters, these would and should be them. We all understand that we show up for our shift, or put on our pager and never know what we may encounter at the next call, or where it may happen, it is the nature of our profession (volunteers included). We will never be able to predict all of the dangers that a scene may bring, but we can prepare for the ones that are inherent in our job.

I began to think about this to figure out what this included. Think about all of the variables we can and can’t control at a fire. We know our air pack, our SOGs, our apparatus, our radios and numerous other items. We need to understand all of these items prior to even operating at a fire. “Knowing” these pieces doesn’t mean learning them in recruit school five years or 25 years ago, this means staying current with all of the skills all of the time. Too often we would rather watch HBO than look over our air packs. To often we would take a nap rather than go over an SOG for our department, or practice hose deployment.

Training so that we control all of the variables that we can control is so important that no article, symposium or classroom session can emphasize it enough.

We are put in harms way many times in our job, so why add to that danger by not acting in the safest and most knowledgeable manner possible. I’m pretty sure we can all control putting on a seatbelt, but we can’t control the likelihood of someone texting and not seeing the fire truck. This is just one example, but I urge you to reflect on which variables you think you can control in your firehouse, on your emergency scene, and on your apparatus.

During Chief Alkonis’ presentation he made the statement that when a firefighter uses a predetermined set of actions (SOPs/SOGs) to get himself out of trouble he aides in his/her own rescue more than they could by doing anything else. If we know how our people will react to a MAYDAY we can rescue them more effectively. Again, this falls back on each member’s familiarity with departmental procedures. This can only be accomplished through training, either in the station or through the department’s training academy.

If I act in accordance with my department’s procedures during a mayday and the RIT, RIC, FART, whatever you want to call it knows how I will react, I will make it home to kiss my wife and my son in the morning, and if not, well you know the rest. I know that if I control the things I myself can control, I will be safer no matter what I am faced with. I don’t want to gloom and doom too much, but today could be the day you need these skills, so don’t wait until tomorrow to study.

I challenge you to ensure you can control all of the variables you can control, and to have a plan for the ones you can’t. Please take the time to enroll in the IAFF Fire Ground Safety and Survival Awareness class. It is offered online and can be taken by anyone, not just IAFF members (although only members will receive a certificate). The class has so much information to make you a safer firefighter, I can’t even summarize it in this article. It takes time to take it, but we all have 24 hours, 10 times a month to complete it. This class is a good basis for more advanced survival schools such as North Carolina’s Breathing Equipment School, South Carolina’s Rescuing the Rescuer and many others. Please look these up and take them.

We must realize that we should live by the statement about controlling variables every day. We must control them every time we can. Our job is dangerous enough by itself, we don’t need to increase our danger by not preparing to deal with the dangers many of us face each shift. If we control the things we can control all of the time there is no doubt we will be a safer and more efficient fire service.

For more information on the IAFF Firefighter Survival Class visit: www.iaff.org.

North Carolina Breathing Equipment School: www.ncdoi.com/OSFM/FRTraining/frt_NC_breathing.asp

Jonah Smith is a Relief Captain with the Charlotte Fire Department. He is also a member of the Adjunct Faculty of Rowan Cabbarus Community College and Fayetteville State University. He currently serves as the Health and Safety Committee Chair for the Charlotte Firefi ghters Association. Smith currently is assigned to Ladder 32/Haz-Mat 3 and volunteers with the Pleasant Valley, SC Fire Department.
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