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Oct 2, 2012, Winnipeg – We had two German exchange students arrive on Monday. Katha and Janna are part of a school contingent of Grade 9 students visiting Winnipeg. Next spring, I ship my teenager to Germany to live with them for two weeks. I’ve been thinking how I’m going to explain my safety rules to these young women without embarrassing my own kid and getting my message through to two teenagers who barely speak English (you know, fire plan, smoke alarms, safety spiel . . . don’t talk to weirdos, white vans . . . and Roughrider fans are crazy).

October 2, 2012
By Jay Shaw

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Oct 2, 2012, Winnipeg – We had two German exchange students arrive on Monday. Katha and Janna are part of a school contingent of Grade 9 students visiting Winnipeg. Next spring, I ship my teenager to Germany to live with them for two weeks. I’ve been thinking how I’m going to explain my safety rules to these young women without embarrassing my own kid and getting my message through to two teenagers who barely speak English (you know, fire plan, smoke alarms, safety spiel . . . don’t talk to weirdos, white vans . . . and Roughrider fans are crazy).

Running my new extended family through a mock disaster and fire drill may sound like a great idea, but if I ever want to have a conversation with my teenage daughter again, or have her not duck down in the car while I’m driving, I’m going to have to come up with a better plan to get my message across, or I may end up being “that” dad the other kids talk about. I have a whole new respect for public education firefighters and the challenges they face.

Speaking of challenges, I received orders from my lovely wife a couple of Fridays ago that she wanted the bathroom upstairs renovated before the girls arrive. I am not a carpenter, but like most firefighters I pretty much have no problem tackling most projects head on with a bit of research and a get-it-done attitude. I was amazed at how much I was able to figure out just through previous experience, a little pre-planning and a bit of trial and error. Even while hanging a super-heavy mirror I used some angle theories from rope rescue on load forces. I can’t have the huge mirror falling onto my German exchange students causing seven years of bad luck.

The point of all this is that half of what we do on the job comes from heuristic learning (trial and error) and paying attention to experienced people on the job. We learn from our experiences – for better or for worse – more than most other professions. Yes, I agree we have rules we should always follow – SOGs, SOPs and guidelines – but with no two calls ever being the same you have to be able to act, react and make educated guesses within your department’s framework with a high degree of success. Here is an example of what I’m talking about and a decision-making theory to chew on.

One afternoon at the hall we had an import from another shift and he was telling us about a a call he was on when he was a rookie many years ago, about a captain who saved a kid’s life using his brain, a hunch and some mechanical advantage. The engine was dispatched to a house for a kid trapped under a car. The young man was fixing something under his car in the slanted driveway when the supports for his jack gave way and the car came off, crushing his legs and pinning his body under the vehicle. With no heavy lifting equipment on the engine, the captain called for a rescue company but knew that time was running out, as the communication from under the vehicle was poor. This kid was checking out and with the rescue coming from another district, the officer in charge went to plan B. First thoughts were to use the crew of four to lift the car from the side. This was not going to work, as the only angle available to lift the car would put the load back on the kid until the vehicle crossed the threshold and started to clear off of the patient.

The officer noticed that the edging for the neighbor’s drive had railway ties that looked relatively loose, and since they were mere feet away the decided to act. The crew quickly moved the ties to low part of the driveway and lifted the car a mere inch or two to get the one tie underneath; using the other as a fulcrum, the crew needed just two firefighters to push down lifting the whole car up enough to the pull the boy out. The operation took less than 90 seconds I was told, and the patient survived.

So how and why did the officer come up with the idea to lift the car from the bumper side? How did he know that those ties would hold up to the test of moving a few thousand pounds? The firefighter who was there said the officer just reacted using what experience he had, and ruled out lifting the car with four from the side because he would have no one to stabilize the vehicle, and no one to pull the kid out; the way the car was sitting, he felt that it would crush the kid first, rolling weight on to him before the car cleared to a safe height. The officer called for the appropriate resources and followed his department guidelines; however, no guidelines cover every situation and further action was taken, resulting in a successful rescue.

Sometimes the best course of action is the one you actually do. No decision at all can be more detrimental than a poor one executed well. And while I will preach higher education for the fire service until the cows come home, no book teaches you what this officer learned in his 30-plus years of fire fighting experience. But if I had to rationalize the experiential nature of critical decision making, and explain it, this is what it would look like.

My critical decision-making theory (CDM – 4/10):

I call it the 4/10 rule. It’s not perfect but I think it is a good discussion tool.

• All critical decisions on the scene are time sensitive.
• All equations (critical decisions) have 10 (approximate) possible solutions.
• Of the 10 possible solutions to your equation you want the best possible outcome that takes into account safety for you and your crew, and provides stabilization of the incident as quick as possible.
• Of the 10 possible actions, three are going to be highly risky with little chance of meeting the above criteria. (Chaining the car to the bumper of the engine and dragging the car off the victim might be one of these)
• Of the 10 possible actions, three are going to be marginally successful, and if executed well should provide the desired outcome.
• Of the 10 possible actions, four will have a high probability of success. Variables such as resources, weather, hazards, time and location are factors that determine how to best narrow your choices.

Our job is to pick one of the four best solutions. We do this is by relying on our training and experience. The more experience you have to lay a foundation for your training tool box, the better chance you have of choosing the four options and picking the best one. Many times, looking back, we say we could have done better, but really, in my opinion, we are comparing from the best of the four solutions and rationalizing our decision-making process. If the result was accomplished with minimal risk, then your qualifiers go to variable such as efficiency, ease of use, and work load. Experienced firefighters have a much higher probability of choosing the best possible decision, whereas a rookie might have trouble eliminating one of the other six choices. The simple truth is that been there, done that has some validity!

What if the railway ties were not there? Is sitting and waiting for the rescue the next best option? We will never know what choice the officer would have made, but I believe it would have been defendable based on the 4/10 rule of critical decision making. Now, if only this formula could apply to parenting!

Jay Shaw is a 10-year member of the Winnipeg Fire Department and is completing graduate studies in disaster and emergency management at Royal Roads University. Jay also works at the University of Manitoba as a research assistant in the Disaster Research Institute. E-mail Jay at jjrg@mymts.net.


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