Think like a firefighter

As a person in midlife, I will admit to the occasional bouts of forgetfulness. It’s what happens to those of us who are no longer young. I could not count how many times I’ve walked into a room and forgotten what I was doing or taken a breath in the middle of a sentence and completely lost track of what I was saying, not to mention the name of the person to whom I was going to say it. On the bright side, I do also have brushes with clarity that, with all honesty, make me a little giddy.  I’ve still got it!…sometimes.

Thankfully the decisions I make as a housewife don’t require too much critical-thinking. I’ve been doing it so long, I can look into a refrigerator and miraculously put together a meal with little effort. This is something my children could never seem to manage. This was typical:

Child: *Feels hunger. Walks to refrigerator and opens door. “Mom, there’s nothing to eat.”

Me: “I just went shopping. There are lots of things to eat.”

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Child: “There are only ingredients.”

Me: *Face-palm.

I guess I’ve been doing it for so many years and have the skills to problem solve to combine ingredients well enough not to starve to death.

As a firefighter, it’s a different situation. I sometimes feel like that child opening the engine compartments and looking at all of the tools and widgets and just seeing ‘ingredients.’ But this time, it’s not a TV time snack that’s on the line, it could really be someone’s life or home. So how do you get from starving teenager to the Gordon Ramsay of the firefighting world?

First we start with education. Our county offers many classes on a wide variety of topics. We have books, supplemental materials, websites, and videos that are filled with great information. All of these things combined help teach us to do the right thing. But we have to continually be learning and adding to that knowledge base as firefighting challenges evolve with new materials and hazards.

Then we have training and drills. We use simulated real world situations and real equipment to practice to learn to do things right. Most departments do this once a week. We have situations ranging from medical drills to structure fires to hose operations to hazardous materials response. But education and drilling isn’t enough. We need to learn to THINK like a firefighter.

This is where critical-thinking comes in and we can put the right things and doing it right together. I can say with some authority at this point that every firefighters needs to know no less than a gazillion things and be able to problem solve in 0-10 seconds. And this, my friends, is why firefighters are truly superheros. Because things can and do change in seconds and so must our strategies.

Critical-thinking brings the education and training together to bring our response efforts into focus. But these things don’t come naturally to everyone. We have to develop these skills and continually sharpen them. We have to keep learning so we understand the science behind fire behavior, symptoms of a stroke, and how to use the Emergency Response Guidebook. We have to know how to safely free someone from a crashed car, stop a fuel leak, and when and how to ventilate at a fire without making things worse, along with so many other things. And we also need to reason and analyze the situations as they develop and make quick decisions as to how to problem solve for the best outcome.

For me, that means continually cramming new information into my firefighter brain, asking lots of questions, robina-weermeijer-so1L3jsdD3Y-unsplash.jpggoing to drills, and answering as many calls as I can. In my quest for more information I stumbled onto a few websites that have scenarios that give you a situation and you have to decide how to respond. I like this because it helps me think about what I might encounter and what factors are important to consider so that when I do respond to a similar call, I can think through how other scenarios have played out and what tools and resources might possibly be involved. Things like weather conditions, geography, and time of day have a huge influence on response efforts.

Recently I was on a call where a vehicle rolled over on my street. Thankfully, there were no injuries, but despite the appearance of simplicity on the call, from a firefighter’s perspective, there were lots of things in motion. The driver of apparatus 1 parked and had the pump engaged, hose ready to flow water in case of vehicle or grass fire, crash kit unloaded, and medical bag at the patient in under 2 minutes. The Incident Commander assigned tasks quickly to secure the road, examine the patient, disconnect the vehicle battery of the badly damaged vehicle. Lots to think about and our team did a great job in my opinion. The men I was working with were decisive and thinking. I was impressed.  This was a relatively simple call.  The working parts of a larger incident are things I can’t quite get my head around yet.

As I come away from each call, I take more knowledge and experience with me. I’m lucky to be with a team of men that are supportive and mentor me along the way.  Hopefully, with a lot more study and drill, I will be able to help put together the ‘ingredients’ for a successful response.

Stay hydrated and be safe. It’s hot out there!

Getting a Save

Being a volunteer firefighter is pretty exciting. Getting the page, racing (safely) to the station, donning your turnouts and jumping in the engine will get anyone’s heart pumping. And the best part is knowing that you are on the way to help someone in your community. It’s pretty awesome!

Back at the station, you go over the call and talk about how things went and what you could do better. In fact, anytime you are in a group of firefighters, invariably there will be the retelling of stories of fires and accidents gone by. I love hearing these stories from seasoned firefighters, wondering what kinds of experiences I might have one day. But there is one thing that seems elusive and awe inspiring: getting a “save.”

Now I don’t think any firefighter would want someone trapped in a burning building or a wrecked car, but if you’re the guy to pull that person out, it’s the holy grail of what we are out to do: Save Lives! I’ve had many instructors that have told of saves in horrific conditions, and also heard stories of those that could not be saved. For the saves, it’s elating; for the losses, heartbreaking.

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In our little community, that I am aware of, only one guy has gotten a save. In fact, he got two! The first one was during a structure fire. He was sent to the second floor to do a search and found a tank of fish, nearly boiling, and surely no longer viable. Yet, with his quick action, he swept them to safety! He was able to save them! His second save was at a recent structure fire where the occupant had a sugar glider (kind of like a miniature flying squirrel) that escaped from a satin pouch. It was frightened by all of the commotion and climbed to the top of a telephone pole. This brave firefighter scaled a 35 foot ladder as the apartment building burned nearby and was able to bring the little guy to safety. Pretty awesome! He is a true hero!

Recently, I learned of a campaign that could give anyone a save. Everyone, by now, knows that learning CPR and the Heimlich Maneuver can save lives. But did you know that in a traumatic injury, the number one preventable cause of death is bleeding out? Approximately 40% of deaths from traumatic injury are preventable with proper training. Think of “Stop the Bleed” as CPR for the 21st Century. Just like CPR, anyone can make a huge difference with a little bit of training and just like CPR, training can turn bystanders into first responders. In a situation involving traumatic injury, an injured person can die in just five minutes or less depending on the injury and conditions. In many situations, emergency services may not be able to respond in that short time. That’s where you come in.

Following the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a national task force (with a really long name) was created to examine the problem and what could be done to prevent these deaths. “Stop the Bleed” was the result of that effort. May 23rd was designated as National “Stop the Bleed” Dbck-hero.pngay and May 2019 was the first ever “Stop the Bleed” Month. This campaign highlights the importance of “Stop the Bleed” training and will provide the public with information and education through local fire, EMS and health care professionals. Bleeding control training and seminars are currently being scheduled all over the world.

With yet another tragic shooting in Virginia Beach in the last couple of days, facing a traumatic injury where you can make a difference is a sad reality. And it’s not just shootings. Recently I was listening to a call on the radio involving a dog bite that resulted in severe bleeding. While I don’t know how that call turned out, I do know that a bystander trained in Stop the Bleed techniques could have made a huge difference to that patient. Training can change the outcome in many situations like shootings, car accidents, dog bites and even home accidents.

So what can you do? Go to www.bleedingcontrol.org. Get involved, find a course, and get your friends, family, and co-workers to get trained. Heck, ask your boss to set up a training for your company. Get supplies to have in your car, your office, your backpack, or your purse. You can find portable bleeding control kits on the web that include necessary supplies. Check out this one from SAM Medical: https://www.sammedical.com/products/bleeding-control-kit.

Yes blood is messy and scary. But you can do this! You can get a save. Just like when I donate blood, which can also be scary, I imagine the faces of the patient’s loved ones who are so grateful to have their family member receive that life-saving gift, that the fear melts away. We can all be a force to change the outcome of traumatic bleeding. Let’s do this! Let’s “Stop the Bleed!”

The Charleston 9

Every time we go out on a call, we encounter something different. While some calls are similar, the exact situation varies and we have to be flexible to respond in the most efficient way. What this means is that every time we come back it’s important to take a few minutes to talk about what went well and what we need to improve on. This ensures that we are constantly reevaluating and critiquing our performance to give the best emergency response. Similarly, when other departments encounter issues or problems, we all have an opportunity to learn from these situations and prepare ourselves so we can avoid a tragedy.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a class by Dr. David Griffin. Dr. Griffin was the engineer on the first due apparatus at the Super Sofa Fire on June 18, 2007 in Charleston, NC. It was a devastating fire that claimed the lives of nine firefighters. His presentation was gut wrenching as we watched videos of the fire unfolding and heard audio of the final words of the firefighters trapped inside. But what I walked away with was invaluable. Not only did the events of that fire stand out to me, but also the culture of the fire service in general. Those men that were lost in the fire will not have died in vain if we can learn and change so that a tragedy like this never happens again.

While some of the events of that day were a perfect storm, there were some mistakes and there are some things, that going forward, we can control. Here are some of the important things I took away from this:

Personal Protective Equipment: We have the PPE, we should always use it and follow our SOPs. At one point in the lecture, Dr. Griffin told us that the old timers would put a wet sponge in their mouths to breathe through because they didn’t want to use the SCBAs. Crazy.  We need to keep up to date on industry standards and how to properly use our equipment.

Training: We should be constantly changing and learning different ways to address a diverse set of circumstances. For example, if we only practice doing a forward lay, things might not go smoothly if we have to do a reverse lay, portable pond or water shuttle operation. We need to have experience to address the situations that we might encounter in our district and our mutual aid partner’s districts.

Pump Ops: While being a pump operator might not seem sexy, if you can’t get the wet stuff on the red stuff, things are going to go downhill fast. A pump operator has to have the technical expertise to calculate PSI, water-flow, and friction loss in a matter of seconds to get the GPM to fire suppression levels. This brainiac firefighter is critical to stabilizing the situation.  But every firefighter should have a basic understanding of what is involved.

Traffic Control: Please, for the love of everything beautiful, if you are a civilian driving by a fire scene, turn around if you can, go another way, or pull over and wait until you can safely leave the area. The Fire Police will direct you. Don’t pull around the trucks or in between them. That happened to us at our last fire. Firefighters are trying to save lives and property. Do you really think your time is more valuable than the lives that might be inside that building? Not only that, if you drive over a fire hose, you are cutting off the water supply and damaging the hose that might stop water flow altogether. If you had a loved on inside a burning building depending on that water supply, you wouldn’t want someone driving over the hose. Just don’t.

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Pre-plans: One of the greatest tools we have as firefighters is our pre-plans. That means knowing your district and special properties of each building type in your area. Are there fire department connections, hydrants, dry hydrants, ponds, elevators, chemicals, people, animals, construction type, age of building, long driveways, elderly residents, and any other special considerations. Are there hydrants out of service? Is the road under construction? If it’s a commercial building, are inspections current? Most departments keep a binder of pre-plans in the apparatus to refer to. Our job is to keep them updated. If you have a special situation at your home or questions about your business, you can always notify the fire department in your area so they are prepared in case of an emergency.

Accountability: When firefighters enter a building, they give their tags to an accountability officer, so if someone goes missing, they know who they are looking for and their last known assignment. One of the tragedies of the Super Sofa Fire is that they weren’t sure who was left in the building for some time. I don’t remember what accountability system they had, but as firefighters, in all of the excitement on scene, we have to remember that the extra few seconds it takes to check in with the accountability officer could safe your life.

I pray that I never experience a situation like the Super Sofa Fire. It’s terrible to think that this tragedy was for a bunch of furniture. The one victim that was trapped in the building was rescued with the help of a mutual aid fire department. This truly was a perfect storm. So many things contributed, including the fact that the building has been modified and no sprinklers had been installed. (I still can’t figure out why someone would campaign against this life saving feature!) If we can learn from this, adapt to the changing environment, continue to train and build our knowledge so we are best prepared to face the situations we may encounter, they will not have died in vain.

If you have an opportunity to attend a class with Dr. Griffin, I highly recommend it. He is a dynamic speaker and will inspire you to be a better firefighter and by doing so, honor the Charleston 9.

Be safe.REMEMBERING THE CHARLESTON NINE_1529313949228.JPG_45833366_ver1.0_1280_720.jpg

First Structure Fire!

59758919_2801425899871505_8278936993644150784_o.jpgJust one week after graduation, I was able to respond to my first structure fire! The fire was in a four story nursing home near my house in the afternoon last week. We were called to stand by in our station in case the neighboring district needed us. Eventually, they called and we were off! We arrived on scene and the Chief told me we would be doing ventilation. I was pretty excited because we had covered that well in class and I felt like I knew just what to do.

The Chief and I unloaded the tools, fan, and extension cord and I got my air pack on. We waited just a few minutes before the second engine from our station arrived and a team of four of us headed up to the fourth floor of the building. Normally, you might think that going to the fourth floor of a burning building wouldn’t be high on anyone’s list, but that day, I was ready and pumped! The three other guys that I was teamed up with were experienced and calm, so I felt confident we could handle our assignment.

We arrived on the fourth floor via the elevator as the fire was on the opposite end of the building and power was still on. The air on the floor was smoky, but visibility was still good and we went to work. We set the positive pressure fan to push the smoke from the building and proceeded to open windows on the opposite side of the building to direct the smoke out. We grabbed what we could to control the water from the fire suppression operations on the roof. It was a mess! As they cut the roof above, showers of sparks rained in through the hole along with the water. A couple of the guys pulled a bit of the ceiling down to check for fire extension and thankfully, there was none. We worked for about 20 minutes and the Chief on the floor told us to take a break.

59786695_2801425766538185_3104166915736600576_o.jpgThat might not sound like a long time, but when you have 30+ pounds of gear on, carrying tools, and prying stoppers out of window frames, you can definitely work up a sweat. Water never tasted better!

After our break, we went back in and continued to contain the water as much as we could and check the status of the smoke on the floor. Things were settling down on the roof and the fire was pretty much out so after another short time working we were sent to rehab.

One thing that I would like to emphasize is that it takes a huge team of firefighters to make all of this come together safely. While we tend to think of firefighters running into the burning building, while we were in rehab, firefighters took our nearly depleted air tanks and filled them for us so we could go back to work. Paramedics monitored our vitals, others brought food and water, there were men on hoses, fire police, pump operators, drivers shuttling water to the portable pond, others carting tools and fuel to the team on the roof and still others operating the extension ladder, not to mention the guys cutting the ventilation holes in the roof. It’s really cool to see the teamwork in action and to know that every person there was critical to the success of the operation.

59793877_2801427223204706_2284652143086403584_o.jpgAfter rehab, we didn’t need to go back in. Instead, we helped roll out the large diameter supply hose to load back on the neighboring district’s apparatus. Then we put our gear back on the engine, and we were headed back to our station.

For me, this was a great first experience. I won’t say there wasn’t any danger, but it seemed minimal and we were prepared with proper PPE and plenty of air. We were able to see and communicate with each other and work together to accomplish our assignment without the whole place being involved. We didn’t have to work a super long time, and after helping to roll the hose out, we were sent home. I can’t imagine being at a fire that lasts for hours and hours. I’m not quite sure I’m up to that yet. Still, we were there for several hours and I was pooped at the end of the evening.  All in all, a good way to get my feet wet, literally.  

When we arrived back at the station, company members were there to help clean the gear and put the apparatus back into service while the auxiliary prepared a wonderful dinner for us! As a mom, I can say that having a hot meal waiting for you is awesome. It reaffirmed my decision to be a stay-at-home mom. I only hope my family appreciated my cooking as much as I enjoyed that meal. (Ok, I know that didn’t happen, but I can dream…) My sincere thanks to the auxiliary! They are just one more indispensable piece that contributes to a successful fire company.

One down, more adventures to come. Up next….Firefighter Survival Class.

Be safe!

Dive Right In

The last couple of weeks have been a crazy flurry of activity. Class skills testing and written test, granddaughter visit and traveling around the northeast, and Commissioner training done. I’m very proud to announce that I completed my Firefighter 1 class and am now classified as an Interior Firefighter. I don’t take this lightly. It is a great responsibility. But I also recognize that many people contributed to my success.

IMG_0131.JPGFirst, my own fire company is full of amazing men and women that have been patient instructors, mentors, and general cheerleaders. They make volunteering to serve fun, exciting, and often hilarious. Shout out to my mentor, Marc, for his patient instruction and encouragement the last year and a half. He’s the best!

Second, the state of NY has experienced, professional, and knowledgeable instructors that teach the courses designed to prepare newbie firefighters for the situations they will encounter. They also sacrificed many evenings away from their families to make our class happen.  And last but not least, my family has been wonderfully supportive and have pitched in to cook and take care of my very-demanding-drama-queen Siberian Husky while I have been away so many evenings.  Poor Nikita…

Having this behind me is not the end though. Being a firefighter, there are just about a gillion things to learn. At graduation, my instructor advised us to continue to train and learn new things because you can’t know them all. And he’s right. Even if you don’t have certain types of hazards in your own district, you need to be ready to help in neighboring districts at a moment’s notice. And so, I quite literally dove right in to the next challenge.

IMG_1339_DxO.jpgWe meet weekly to train and refresh skills on Monday nights. The topics vary from week to week, but we try to cover the major skill categories over the course of the year. This week: Ladder bail out. This involves diving head first off of a perfectly good roof onto a ladder and flipping yourself around as you descend. (Don’t try this at home!!)  For sure, this is a great skill to have however crazy it sounds.  If a room is getting ready to flash over, getting out quickly can be the difference between life and death. So with our team, we took turns bailing out over and over to practice the method. There were no 10’s scored last night, as there was no artistry in our technique, but we learned and practiced and added a valuable skill to our repertoire that might one day save our bacon.

IMG_1340_DxO.jpgI can’t wait to see what we will do next week!

Be safe!

 

 

Recruit NY!

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This coming weekend is Recruit NY! and nearly all fire stations in the state are hosting an open house.  About 70% of all firefighters are volunteers.  With volunteerism decreasing all over the country, volunteer fire departments are in need of new volunteers.  There are lots of ways that you can help.  Stop by and learn about ways you can put your talents to use protecting your community.

From fire safety education to maintaining accountability to conducting rehab operations to fire suppression, there are a wide variety of tasks.  Firefighting is challenging and rewarding.  And you can support your fire company/department without even running into a burning building.  You can donate services like grant writing, yard maintenance, or tech support.  Or you could join the Auxiliary and help provide hot meals to exhausted firefighters after a long call.  

But besides the obvious benefits of helping to make your community a safer place, there are some other hidden gems that make being a firefighter a great volunteer opportunity.

  1. You don’t have to hold your stomach in when wearing turnout gear.  Yes, it will make your butt look big, but every hero has to make some concessions.
  2. There is no fuss, no muss, no need to wear make up.  Getting ready for a call only involves jumping in your car and getting to the station.
  3. You don’t have to do your hair, because once the hood and helmet go on, no one will see it anyway.  Easy peasy.
  4. You don’t have to spend time worrying about what to wear.  Turnout gear covers all of the operational activities that you will perform as a new recruit.  And with practice, it only takes a few seconds to get completely dressed.
  5. You have tons of accessories.  In fact, Malibu Barbie would be hard pressed to have more accessories than a firefighter.  From haligans to axes, handlights to chainsaws, backboards to SCBA, we’ve got you covered.
  6. Our rides are awesomely cool. Who doesn’t want to ride in a firetruck?  I would hazard a guess that even Batman would dig that.
  7. No one ever went hungry at a fire house. Ever.

When you are out this weekend, stop by, grab a snack and check out your local fire station.  You might even learn a thing or two.  Consider joining us!  Are you in?

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Rehab

My second live burn didn’t quite go as I had hoped, but what I learned that night was an important lesson.

Our fire company is the designated Rehab Unit for our area. We provide a critical service on the fireground to help keep firefighters safe. We take care of the firefighters actively engaged in firefighting operations by providing medical monitoring, hydration, snacks, and helping to prevent life-threatening conditions such as heat injury, heart attack and stroke by carefully documenting and observing those in rehab. Protecting firefighters is the name of the game. Unfortunately, a lot of times the real danger isn’t the fire. Sometimes are protecting firefighters from themselves.

A few months ago, I was on a rehab call. We had over ten interior firefighters come through rehab and most were fine after the ten minutes we usually require them to stay. We take two sets of vitals, give them water and food and send them on their way if their vitals are within the parameters we have set for safety. That night, one firefighter was a little high on his blood pressure and heart rate and it wasn’t coming down. After about 20 minutes and four sets of vitals, he was noticeably irritated with me because I wouldn’t let him go. But safety is our biggest priority. We don’t want firefighters to become the next patients.

I called in the EMTs to check him out and they got the same readings as I had. It was just too high to go back in. He argued he was fine, but I didn’t have a choice. He was done. Those parameters for vitals is what the town chiefs had agreed to and I didn’t get to change the parameters just because he said he was fine.

Fast forward to Thursday night: My second burn night, we had two fires we were going to work. One on the main floor of the burn building, one on the second floor that was going to simulate a basement fire by attacking the fire from the second floor. I was first on the nozzle for the back up line and was pretty excited. We did three evolutions of the drill and then we got sent to rehab for a break before we took over the attack line.

My first set of vitals were not good. Confession: I have been struggling with high blood pressure and had been given a new medicine recently, but had not adjusted to it. I knew I had been high going in and I was a little worried, but I had been fine at the burn the last week so I was hoping for the best. When the automated cuff pumped up over 200, my worry was confirmed. And the numbers didn’t go down. I felt fine, but the numbers don’t lie. Our rehab team took it seriously and diligently monitored me. They called in an EMT to check me out and that was it. The short story is that my night was over. I couldn’t go back in and finish the drill.

The longer story is that I was disappointed and a little embarrassed. I work out at least three times a week, walk every day with my dog, eat pretty well, and I’m not super overweight. (Technically, I’m about 6 or 7 pounds overweight, but it’s all muscle, really…) But the rehab guys were right. I had no business going back in and putting myself and others in danger. Honestly, I wasn’t totally up front with my medical condition right away. I sat there hoping things would get better, but they didn’t. The longer I sat there, the more information I coughed up. And then I thought about that firefighter arguing with me months ago, and I was a little humbled. I was doing the same thing he did, only a slightly more compliant. I didn’t argue, I just tried to accept my fate.

The bottom line is that no firefighter ever wants to be sidelined. We train and get pumped up to do these things, and getting pulled from the game is disappointing and frustrating. But rehab is a serious part of firefighting operations.

So how do we prepare for firefighting operations so we don’t get pulled?

-Make physical fitness a priority. You wouldn’t expect to be able to run a marathon without training. Don’t expect to be able to run into a burning building and extinguish a fire without preparing your body. Firefighting is extremely strenuous. You need to have a high level of fitness to do the job safely.

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Stay hydrated all the time. You can’t just chug a bottle of water and be hydrated. It’s something that you need to keep up with, especially in the warmer months. It’s easy to check by the color of your urine. Clear or light yellow is best. I always carry water with me. I buy it by the case and throw it in my car. It’s easy to sip while I’m driving and I always have it with me.

Listen to your body. Take breaks and don’t overdo it. If you rest before you’ve overexerted yourself, you will be better prepared and able to get back to work.

Give your body a chance to cool off. Take off your turnout coat at the very least. It’s important even if it’s cool outside. With temperatures extremely high inside the fire and body heat trapped in our turnout gear, your body needs this time to recover. Lots of water or even ice will help you cool off and be able to continue working after your break.

-Listen to your rehab team. They don’t have a glamorous job, but it is critical to keeping firefighters safe. Remember that they are firefighters and EMTs themselves and they understand exactly what you are up against on the fireground. They know what they are talking about and your best interest is their top priority.  Give them ALL of the information that will help them help you.

Two more classes to go.  Stay safe.