Fire and Football Revisited


CarolinaFireJournal - By David Greene
By David Greene
01/23/2014 -

Although this article will be read at the end of football season, it is being written while the NCAA football teams are making things exciting. There are many parallels between the modern day fire-service and football teams. Short of having “scheduled games,” we function very much the same. We could also learn a few things from the well-managed football teams. Being a huge fan, I have previously mentioned that while I do not want to minimize the importance of college football, I do think our job of saving lives and property is more important than how your favorite team performs on Saturday — at least a little.

First, consider the amount of time a football team spends in preparation. A college football game lasts 60 minutes and each team possesses the ball for maybe half of that time which gives both offensive and defensive players from each team approximately the same playing time, roughly 30 minutes — although sometimes it can be different.

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I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.”– Vince Lombardi

Players may spend 30 to 40 hours each week in preparation for 30 minutes of playing time. That’s 30 hours or 1800 minutes preparation for 30 minutes. Practices occur at least once a day during the week. This is accompanied by workouts in the weight room and cardio training. Team meetings are conducted to discuss the next opponent and strategies that will be used to defeat them. Players may then participate in separate meetings that discuss individual tactics and review game films from the other team (i.e. quarterback meetings, offensive line meetings, defensive secondary meetings, etc.). Players may then meet with dieticians to plan their meals in preparation for Saturday. Finally, players may review their playbooks before turning in for the night.

Shouldn’t we all be doing these things?

First, we should be practicing enough. Our practices take the form of training drills. These drills can consist of “half-speed, non-contact” skills where we walk through the steps and have no live fire. They can also involve “full-speed, full-contact” skills where we fight a compartment fire inside a designated training building in full personal protective equipment and self-contained breathing apparatus. Both have a great deal of value to us (“players”) to prepare us for “game time.” The strongest parallel here that can be drawn is to examine how much “the team” practices. As outlined above, if we are practicing fire fighting 60 times as much as we are actually fighting fires, then that is in line with the football folks.

The team that practices to the point of mastery are very successful scoring points/saving lives and property on “the field.” Remember that football teams practice two-point conversions, fake punts, and fake field-goals routinely during practices although rarely do you see them used in a game. Those types of incidents that are low in frequency — hazmat calls, technical rescues, and fake punts — are also high in risk. You must dedicate even more time in training to these types of incidents so that you will be properly prepared if that situation presents itself.

If you examine the line of duty death announcements, you will find that a lot of them include a description where a firefighter dies from cardiac arrest or stroke. While all of these do not include physically unfit firefighters, we know that firefighting is one of the most physically demanding jobs. As a result, we should insure that we are physically fit. Just like football, both strength training and conditioning are important in the fire service.

Next, we should dedicate part of our training time to examining who our next opponent might be — the fire and the building. While we do not have the luxury of knowing where and when our next “game” will be held, we do know who our toughest “opponents” are. These are normally large buildings or could be mixed occupancy buildings such as strip malls and/or high occupant load buildings without sprinkler systems. We should use our pre-incident surveys to build as much information about our toughest “opponents” and use a portion of our training time discussing how we would “play” them. We should also consider how our “opponent” has become stronger throughout the years. Old man fire used to produce lower heat release rates and less toxic smoke by consuming natural products such as cotton and wood. Today, our foe consumes readily available synthetics, produces extremely toxic smoke and four to five times greater heat release rates than decades past. Moreover, we should always remember what I like to call the “Appalachian State” rule. Just because we are at a small residence, have enough resources there to completely overwhelm the fire inside, and enough water to literally wash the building off of its foundation, we should never underestimate our opponent. If we become relaxed and complaisant, we run the risk of being defeated.

On Sept. 1, 2007, Appalachian State traveled to Ann Arbor to play the then fifth ranked Michigan Wolverines. For whatever reason (perhaps complacency), Appalachian State won 34 to 32 and the game was quickly hailed as one of the greatest upsets in the history of college football. Don’t get complacent when you are faced with a seemingly inferior “opponent.” Remember, we are not “playing” for points but rather we are “playing” for everyone to go home at the end of the shift.

We should also have separate “meetings” that involve each “player’s” position. Beyond our team-based drills and pre-incident surveying, we should insure all of our driver/operators, inspectors, investigators, fire and life safety educators, and particularly our officers receive additional training that is specific to their roles. Reviewing “game films” from other fires or incidents can also have a profound effect on helping our personnel learn. Someone once said, “Learn from others’ mistakes as you won’t live long enough to make them all yourself.” Maybe a short video of a poorly handled incident can spark a discussion of how it could have been handled better.

Conversely, a video of a well handled incident can give a frame of reference to those who have never encountered the type of situation addressed. Our pre-incident surveys can also be used in these types of trainings. By looking at the drawing of a large occupancy, we can get our driver/operators thinking about apparatus positioning, our inspectors thinking about what types of violations may exist, and our officers thinking about how command and control of a large fire in the building would be managed.

Sadly, we do not have department dieticians. However, many of the vendors that provide departments OSHA/NFPA compliant annual physical fitness testing can provide information on proper eating habits and foods to avoid. This information may help to replace the often prevalent rule of “If it’s green, it’s trouble; if it’s fried, get double,” that exists in many fire stations. Whether its fried Oreos or fermented beverages made from barley, wheat, and hops, we should be careful what and how much we put into our bodies. Being a firefighter today requires you to be an athlete of sorts. Dieticians will be quick to point out that you will only get out of your body what you put in. Nutrition and hydration are extremely important on both sides of this discussion. You should not take that for granted.

Finally, we should continually develop, review, improve, and review (again) our “playbook.” While many departments have a set of standard operating procedures, standard operating guidelines, or whatever you call them in your department, they often include many administrative rules alongside the operational rules.

I never understood why there were so many administrative rules when I was a firefighter. Now that I am a chief officer, their existence could not be any clearer. The administrative rules are often written in response to an undesired behavior. For example, if you examine a department’s “playbook” and you find a rule that “Employees are not permitted to cook moonshine at Station 22 on Wednesdays,” then there is a high probability that at some point in the past, that department found an employee cooking moonshine at Station 22, on a Wednesday. The “playbook” often becomes convoluted and overwhelming when those types of rules exist along with desired behaviors for operations. However, the entire “playbook” is designed to get everyone’s behavior, or what everyone does, aligned. While this is important administratively, it is critical operationally.

A quarterback won’t know what to do if his running back never takes the ball because he ran in the wrong direction on a running play. Likewise, an engine company that begins an exterior attack with large caliber hand lines and master stream appliances will probably not know what to do if they or someone else didn’t establish a water supply for their engine. While not every conceivable scenario, operation, and/or circumstance encountered can be written into the “playbook”, the strategies, tactics, and tasks that are to be performed can be. The “playbook” can then become a reference so that everyone is working “on the same page” at incidents. Knowing ahead of time, how, when, where, and at what point we will perform certain tasks is extremely valuable during operations (“game time”). That, along with the other items discussed here, gives us a tactical advantage over our “opponent.” In both fires and football, effort is irrelevant. Only victory matters.

Mr. Lombardi could have been a firefighter.

Be safe and do good.

David Greene has over 20 years experience in the fire service and is currently the Assistant Chief with Colleton County (SC) Fire-Rescue. He is currently working on his PhD through Oklahoma State University. He is a certified Executive Fire Officer through the National Fire Academy, holds the Chief Fire Officer Designation and is an adjunct instructor for the South Carolina Fire Academy. He can be reached at [email protected].
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