Editor’s note: In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle — injury, illness or other hardship — they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn’t know they possessed. This week we introduce you to Brendan Milewski, who bravely served in the Detroit Fire Department for over a decade before one act of arson ended his career and changed his life forever.
When people find out you’re a firefighter, the first question they ask is: “What made you join the fire service?”
This is typically followed by: “My dad, grandpa, or uncle was on the job.”
That wasn’t the case for me. Instead, interest in a career in public safety came in waves throughout my adolescence. I assure you, I am a first and last generation firefighter.
It first started at age 13, when I was spending the night at a friend’s house in the neighborhood where I grew up. After seeing an ambulance race down the street, we went outside to find the house two doors down on fire. The closest fire company hadn’t arrived yet.
I had a front-row seat to the entire scene. I heard the sirens, smelled the smoke, saw the rigs arrive, and watched as these courageous men entered the house and pulled three people out of the fire.
As a firefighter or officer in charge of an engine company or other fire apparatus, we often face situations in which we arrive at a fire and have to make instantaneous decisions that will shape the outcome of the incident. And these split-second decisions need to be made while simultaneously conducting a size-up, determining attack method and giving orders.
With so much happening at once, one of the questions that will likely arise is when to call for help. On the one hand, we worry about being ridiculed or reprimanded for calling for help too early or when it turns out it wasn’t necessary. But on the other hand, we’ve all heard the saying, “It’s better to call for help and not need it than to be wishing you had”—a very good statement. Bottom line: We want to make the right decision, so this article will address how to determine when it is appropriate to call for help.
Conduct a Needs Assessment
The answer to this question depends on the apparatus and staffing of the responding companies. You should have a good idea of who is coming and what to expect from your various response situations (volunteer, career or combination systems). When we teach, we like to show students a system that involves conducting a “needs assessment.” We first review a series of tasks that often need to be completed for a specific type of fire (e.g., one-bedroom, kitchen fire) and how many firefighters you think you would need to complete the tasks.
For many years, most anyone who set fires for non-murderous or -financial reasons was, by definition, a pyromaniac. In 1951, Lewis and Yarnell published the first major, large-scale study on firesetters. Their overall conclusion, written in a tone of dripping, not-particularly-academic disdain, was that arsonists were fundamentally weak people who set fires to make themselves feel powerful: “A craving to be the center of the stage and the recipient of public acclaim, even for once, is within the soul of every person — the smaller the man, the more he secretly wishes such type of recognition.” Firefighter-arsonists got an extra dose of contempt; they were “little men with grandiose social ambitions whose natural equipment dooms them to insignificance.” This characterization jibed nicely with Freud’s idea that the arsonist has childish fantasies of peeing on a fire to extinguish it—the drama of the fireman writ small and pathetic.
But even if pyromania is a real psychological problem—and in recent years, that’s been up for debate—it doesn’t help to explain why a significant number of firefighter arsonists are not “little men” or pathetic losers who want to wreak havoc on a society that’s rejected them, but rather overachievers, team players, firefighter-of-the-year types. The kind of guys who post firefighter memes to Facebook all day. “When a man becomes a fireman his greatest act of bravery has been accomplished. What he does after that is all in the line of work. Firemen never die, they just burn forever in the hearts of the people whose lives they saved,” Trent Bonner, his department’s top responder, posted on Facebook in 2011. A few days earlier, he’d helped put out a fire that he’d set himself.
Daron Ehling fought 19 wildfires this year — long hours of cutting firebreaks and felling trees in the sweltering heat of eastern Washington. In 2012 he went out on 16 fires. And the year before that?
“The only thing I knew about a chain saw was how much they’d give me at a pawn shop,” he says.
Ehling is serving time at the Airway Heights Corrections Center, a prison near Spokane; he ended up there after getting caught breaking into houses in order to support a heroin addiction. He says the adrenaline rush of heading out to a fire reminds him a little of breaking into houses, but it’s far more fulfilling: “I can still get that same kind of excitement doing something good, knowing there’s a purpose behind it.”
One of the functions of a truck company is to ventilate and force openings within a structure. Some fire departments have rotary saws on their apparatuses to complement the equipment needed to ventilate buildings and to force different types of openings. This valuable tool, which has many benefits, such as portability and power, should be used more often.
The rotary saw can be carried anywhere on the fire ground, including to the roof of a building and up and down ladders. The rotary saw weighs between nine and 16 kilograms (20 and 35 pounds) without fuel. One firefighter can carry the saw either with the handles or using a strap attached to the saw. The strap can be made from webbing or even a used seatbelt. Having a strap frees the firefighter’s hands so that he or she can carry other tools or have both hands available for climbing a ladder. The rotary saw is portable enough that it can be used in small spaces, such as a trench for auto extrication purposes, provided there are no explosive gases present.
All rotary saws are powered by internal combustion engines – two-stroke, small gas engines. The small engines can range from 74 cubic centimetres (cc) to 119 cc in displacement with horsepower ranging from five horsepower (hp) to 8 hp. Due to this high output of power, the saw produces blade speeds from 4,700 revolutions per minute (r.p.m.) to 5,400 r.p.m. This allows the saw to cut through almost any type of material for which the blade is designed and rated. The blade size also varies from 30.5 to 40.5 centimetres (12 to 16 inches).
Clear and concise radio communication can help an emergency incident go smoother and contribute to a successful outcome. Conversely, poor radio communication can lead to confusion, fireground errors and injuries, and can even paint a picture of a dysfunctional confused fire department. The professional volunteer fire department not only takes the steps necessary to ensure adequate radio procedures are in place but drills with radios and practices basic radio procedures, size-up scenarios, and Mayday situations on a regular basis.
My regular paid job is that of a fire dispatcher, so I am exposed to communication issues not just as a firefighter but in the dispatch center as well. Good radio procedures and practices apply to dispatchers and firefighters alike.
PRESCOTT, Ariz. — The men cluster in a tight pack, identities obscured by fire-resistant Nomex clothes, each one anonymous except for the color of his helmet: red for corrections officers, blue and yellow for inmates.
When the air was hot and the woods were parched last summer, the peak of the wildfire season in the West, these trained wilderness firefighters fought 13 forest fires in Arizona, including the one in June that half-destroyed the nearby village of Yarnell and killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite team. On a crisp morning this fall, they were using chain saws and pulaskis — a firefighting tool that combines an ax and an adz — to chop overgrown bushes in a private development here, offering a measure of fire prevention for houses built in the wild.
Their home base is the Arizona State Prison Complex-Lewis, but when asked where they are from, the reply is simply “Buckeye,” the name of the town where the prison is located. If there are other questions, they call it a “gated community” and leave it at that.
“That we’re inmates is the last thing on anybody’s mind,” said John Chleboun, 33, who has been serving time for burglary at the Lewis complex and is entering his second year with the crew.
The Philadelphia Fire Department is beta-testing a new mobile application that gives crews vital information at a fire scene – information officials say can help save the lives of citizens and firefighters.
The Geographic Information System, or GIS for short, gives fire commanders access to thousands of data points on an interactive, satellite map — using a iPad like tablet.
“We know the size of the building, the dimensions, how many occupants (the building has the capacity to hold.) It lets us know how many resources we’re going to need to get those people to another location. Or do we make the decision to shelter employees? So, it helps us make real-time decisions,” says Deputy Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer.
Through the GIS, commanders can review many types of information — including calls coming into the 911 system, the current location of fire trucks and ambulances, licenses and inspections (L&I) data, where hazardous materials are stored, floor plans for large buildings and the location, size and working condition of fire hydrants.
“By knowing those hydrants that are out of service, we can actually deploy our resources to hydrants that we know are working, rather than having them go try to hook-up and realize, ‘Oh, they’re not working,’ and have to go to another location. That helps us get the service quicker,” Sawyer said.
Tis the season for chimney fires! How does your department handle this type of emergency? Does your department respond to many chimney fires annually? My department covers a vastly rural area with a large number of old farm houses in our township and many older homes in the city; we see quite a few chimney fires each winter.
We initially check the chimney and fire box to determine if the fire is contained within, and the walls and areas near the chimney to see if the fire has spread outside. If the fire is contained within the chimney and fire box; we empty the fire box using a metal bucket and shovel. Standard firefighting operations are put in place if the fire has spread to any area outside of the chimney and fire box.
After the fire box has been emptied, we use the positive pressure fan to pressurize the house, and we discharge a dry chemical extinguisher into the chimney from the fire box. The positive pressure fan creates a draft up the chimney and carries the dry chemical to the top. A chain with a weight at the end is used from the roof to loosen any residual creosote left behind in the chimney. A thermal imaging camera works well during overhaul and helps to confirm the extinguishment.
This works well for our department, what methods do you use at yours?
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is alerting consumers that the threat of fires in the kitchen triples on Thanksgiving Day. From 2009 through 2011, there was an average of about 1,300 cooking fires on Thanksgiving Day, which is more than three times the average daily rate from 2009 through 2011 of about 400 cooking fires a day.
When it comes to fires in the home, cooking fires are number one. They accounted for nearly 150,000 fires (more than 40 percent of all annual unintentional residential fires) each year from 2009 through 2011. Unattended cooking is the top cause of cooking fires.