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May 20, 2010

I'm in Ottawa this week, at the FIRE 2010 Symposium, where in this case FIRE is an acronym for Firefighting, Instruction, Research and Engineering. It is lunchtime on day one, and I just commented to my former colleague David Ross (Chief Health & Safety Officer, Toronto Fire Services) that I have rarely, if ever, been in a room with such a rich concentration of expertise.  There are fire officers, academics and fire protection industry professionals here from Canada, the U.S., Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, China, Australia, Croatia, Germany, the UK, Ireland and I hope I haven't left anyone out. This is going to be a fun week!

May 20, 2010
By Peter Sells

Topics

One
of the guys I met at the welcome barbecue yesterday evening was District Chief
Pat Little of the Houston Fire Department (the one in Texas, not British Columbia). The conversation in
our group (Pat, retired FDNY Battalion Chief Jerry Tracy and me) turned to
causes of firefighter fatalities, and Pat put forward the suggestion that the
root cause of every firefighter LODD was duty ambiguity. Intrigued by the term,
we explored it a bit further and I secured Pat's permission to share it with
readers.

So,
we have a new term to add to our lexicon. Let's start by figuring out what it
means, exactly.  Duty is a term that
conveys a sense of moral commitment to someone or something, in this case to a
task or the achievement of a tactical objective. Ambiguity results when a word,
sentence or any other form of communication can be interpreted in more than one
way. Duty ambiguity,then, is a situation in which the commitment of a person or
a team is subject to multiple interpretations, leading to unclear choices among
differing behaviours, tactics or courses of action.

At
the symposium today, Inspector John McDonough of the New South Wales Fire
Brigades in
Australia talked about how
firefighters react to conflict; not social conflict within an organization or
violent conflict at an emergency, but deciding between separate and conflicting
tactical priorities on the fire ground. John put forward the argument that
“firefighters will continue to make poor decisions solely due to a conflict
between fire service culture and tradition, which is often driven by a
perceived public expectation, and the realities of fire behaviour”, and that
“this will occur no matter how well trained we believe they are”. The example
he used was an examination of the tactic of choice upon entering a typical
detached house with a well-involved kitchen fire. Based on construction types
and class-A contents from the 1950s, our standard tactics of a generation ago
would have been to begin a room-by-room search, leaving fire attack for the
second team through the door. With today's higher fuel loads and lightweight
construction, the tactic increasingly being emphasized in training and in
literature is to attack the fire as soon as possible in support of life safety.
Regardless of this information, John reports that the choice of action is often
based on the older paradigm, with the first crew ignoring the fire and
beginning a search pattern. This is clearly an example of duty ambiguity as
suggested by Pat.

This
phenomenon exists, without question, and I don't have any quick fix to offer
you. So let's make that our topic for discussion this month. Does duty ambiguity
affect decision making in your department? What can we, as fire officers and
instructors, do to eliminate the conflicting priorities at the root of this
dilemma?

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