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Flashpoint: February 2012

Knowledge is power; action is wisdom.

February 14, 2012
By Peter Sells

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Knowledge is power; action is wisdom.

The first part of that quote is from Sir Francis Bacon. I added the second part. Knowledge without action is power without purpose. Deep enough for you? When we have knowledge of fire-ground conditions, we have the power to act wisely, and safely.

In December 1978, a fire at a paper products plant resulted in the deaths of three Etobicoke, Ont., firefighters. Plant staff had warned that the large bales of rolled paper stock would become unstable as they absorbed water from firefighting operations. Regardless, firefighters were placed on ground ladders leaning against the rolls in order to gain a vantage point to direct hose streams further into the warehouse area. Accounts I have read of this incident state that the next thing that happened was that the bales buckled and collapsed without warning, crushing the three firefighters. Without warning? How much warning do you need? Knowledge without action is impotent folly.

In June 2001 – on Father’s Day – in the New York City borough of Queens, teenage boys were fooling around behind an 80-year-old hardware store. The boys overturned a can of gasoline. The gasoline flowed down the back stairs of the store, under a basement door, and found an ignition source in the pilot light of the store’s water heater. FDNY crews responded to the basement fire and were aggressively fighting the flames when an illegally installed propane tank exploded, bringing down most of the structure. Three firefighters were killed. Legal action is still in progress over this tragic incident. The strategy would certainly have been more defensive if the presence of the propane tank were known. In this instance, and in the rear-view mirror, lack of knowledge led to unwise action.

Time and again, firefighters are injured and killed when knowledge of incident conditions is lacking, is misinterpreted or is ignored. Sometimes it is possible in a post-incident analysis to figure out where the chain of information broke down and take steps to avoid a recurrence. Sometimes it is not that simple, and we are reminded that the chaotic, rapidly changing fire-ground environment can withhold information from us and strip us of our power. We have just experienced two such incidents in Canada.

In the last week of December, Enderby, B.C., firefighters responded to a fire at a log-home construction business. During firefighting operations, a small shed became involved in the fire and something exploded, injuring two firefighters, one fatally. In the wee hours of the first Monday of January, four Winnipeg firefighters were thrown several metres by the force of an explosion at a fire in a fibreglass window and door manufacturing facility. Serious injuries were avoided, although one firefighter was briefly hospitalized. As I write this, no further details are publicly available on either of these incidents, but it would not be a stretch to suspect the involvement of a liquefied petroleum gas cylinder in the Enderby fire and some type of flammable chemicals in the Winnipeg fire.

Knowledge of such hazards would have provided a source of power to act wisely; however, knowledge of fire-ground conditions is limited to that which is knowable. According to a very good article in the Vancouver Sun by reporter Kelly Sinoski, Enderby’s volunteer firefighters were confident the fire was under control when the explosion occurred. Many B.C. fire services, including Enderby’s, have a fire-protection protocol in place, which includes regular inspections at commercial businesses with the frequency of the inspections dependent on the level of risk involved. Also, WorkSafeBC’s health and occupational safety guidelines require commercial employers to notify fire departments of the location and handling of controlled products if they are in quantities that may endanger firefighters. Sinoski quoted Langley Township Fire Chief Steve Gamble, past president of the Fire Chiefs Association of B.C. and first vice-president of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, as saying that even the best of plans can go awry if firefighters are not aware of temporary conditions, such as if construction crews or roofers had brought hazardous materials or equipment on site temporarily.

At the Enderby, Winnipeg and New York fires, incomplete or incorrect information robbed the incident commanders of the power to make the safest possible decisions. From a journalistic standpoint, Sinoski made a few phone calls, got her facts straight and obtained the power to write an objective and informed article.

Knowledge without action is power without purpose. Wise action is knowledge empowered.


Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire-service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. E-mail Peter at peter.nivonuvo@gmail.com


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