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Between Alarms: April 2010

I love hearing stories about the job.

April 12, 2010
By Jesse Challoner

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I love hearing stories about the job. Portrayals of smoke-filled houses as hot as liquid metal and as loud as firecrackers, where the fog of water in front was the difference between walking out and being carried out; or accounts of the horrific car crash and how the tools were wielded around a mangled wreck of steel and flesh with the precision of a surgeon brandishing a scalpel to save the trapped victim. These are great stories, especially when told by members who have been around for many years and have come close to seeing and doing it all. Somehow these guys have the ability to recount an event from years past and will it to take on a personality; they have the ability to make the story come alive. I think the characteristic that all of these tales of adventure share is danger; that’s what we find interesting – the possibility of disaster. Although I love the stories, I wonder if when I find myself in similar situations I will have the skill set to make the right decisions.

We all know that this job comes with risk and danger and we assume that the risk is at least somehow weighed, calculated to assure us that we are acting in the safest manner in an unsafe situation. But who is evaluating the safety of the environment? Who says the roof will hold us or the room won’t flash over? Our officers account for a size-up of the scene and senior members have an eye and ear open for dangers inside but, ultimately, all of us are accountable for our own safety and we are responsible to watch the backs of our brothers and sisters. We cannot make the mistake of always thinking that someone else is going to watch over us; we have to be that watcher too. This issue poses an interesting dilemma for members who are new on the job and lack experience: How are we supposed to identify danger if we aren’t always sure what to look for? How are we supposed to mitigate risk when we are unaware of the warning signs? And what should we do when we find ourselves in that dire situation?

One answer to these questions is training – getting together as a crew and using different techniques to learn what to look for and what to do if we identify a hazard. Another way to prepare for problem situations is to read up on different scenarios that have posed issues for firefighters in the past. There is a wealth of information on the Internet and in the pages of magazines that can be applied to personal and crew safety. I believe that one of the best learning tools is experience – practising and going through the motions until they are reflexes. The goal is to have all members of a crew be apt at dealing with any adverse circumstance, or better yet, able to identify problems and act to avoid disaster before the unthinkable occurs.

I am not at the point in my career where I can say with confidence that I see all the angles of any situation, but through experience, training, and study I am slowly becoming more comfortable sizing up situations as they arise. As junior members of a service it’s easy to be gung-ho and leap before we look; the real challenge lies in consciously doing our jobs effectively while maintaining a low risk threshold, and not being afraid to speak up when the time arises. I’m not talking about hiding in the shadows or taking a back seat on the big call; I am saying we should always be thinking a few steps a head and having a plan, and a plan B. Whether it’s our own safety, the crew or the victim we are trying to save, the goal is that everyone goes home alive.

I’ve seen the topic of safety discussed from both sides. One school of thought is that the fire service has become too safe. The argument might be that almost any risk is too great and only in perfect conditions should we execute the rescue or attack the fire. Although this attitude may create a safer working environment, it may also precipitate few extinguished fires or, worse, fewer saved victims. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are those who simply say it’s a dangerous job and we do what it takes to get it done. Unfortunately, I would venture that this perspective would elicit frequent accidents and more risk than is necessary. I think the most acceptable perspective is a balance between the two – calculated risk where needed. It’s our job to look at the environment and make a plan geared toward accomplishing the task, and do so in the safest manner so that we can move on to the next task.

I heard a terrific analogy for our job once and it stuck with me. “When the garbage man heads off on his route, he expects to pull around the corner and see garbage; he expects to pick up trash. When we go out on a call, we should expect to pull up and see smoke or flames; we should expect to fight fires and rescue victims.” The point of this statement is that we basically already know what our tasks are; we should be ready to perform, and always be re-evaluating our plan of action. If we head into a call prepared, and with the mindset of doing the job, we will be proficient at dealing with whatever is thrown at us. We will also be able to perform these tasks using the safest approach possible.

Our job will never be 100 per cent safe; I would wager that none of us would really want that. The excitement is part of what draws us. There will always be new stories about inferno-like fires, exploding airbags or smoke so thick a hand in front of your face is invisible. It’s inevitable that risks will be taken but with planning, preparedness and safety we will be able to come home and tell the tales we all love.



Jesse Challoner has been involved with fire/EMS since 2002 and has been with Strathcona County Emergency Services in Alberta since 2005. He is a second-year paramedic student and instructor at the Emergency Services Academy in Sherwood Park, Alta.


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