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IFSJ Exclusive: Chronic Command Insomnia with Paul Calderwood

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Paul E Calderwood, President of Calderwood Consulting International, talks about what is keeping commander officers awake at night

A command officer is always wondering if his soldiers are ready for battle. Are they well trained? Is their turnout gear going to protect them? Are their tools and equipment maintained and operational? Are all the vehicles in good condition and not going to fail during battle? I worry if my captains and lieutenants are requiring all members to be wearing their seat belts while riding in any vehicle and if my battalion and deputy chief is making sure that they are all dressed for battle – are SCBA’s properly secured, gloves on their hands, and hoods on their heads?

I worry if he and his department are well informed as to what is being stored in the buildings in their jurisdiction and what is passing through in trucks and trains. I worry whether my department can handle the ‘big one’ when it happens. Do we have the trained members to safely run the operation like technical rescue, hazardous material and mass casualty incidents?

When a firefighter gets serious hurt or killed there will be several agencies coming in to put the department under a microscope to find all the things that you did wrong: what training you did not do or document, what equipment you did not replace or upgrade and so on.

In the United States there is a program under OSHA called NIOSH and they have a specialised team that respond to incidents where a firefighter has been killed. They carry out a full investigation, at the end of which there is a published report of findings and I truly believe that every fire department should require every member to read these reports when they come out. If we do not change our future, we will only repeat our history.

Frequent issues

When you look at the NIOSH reports you will see several findings that keep repeating. Communication is one of the most frequent findings, where the command and control of the incident are not listening to radio for important messages, radio frequency are clogged with too many and sometimes unnecessary radio traffic or the radio system is old and not working the way it should.

Next is the command-and-control system used by the incident commanders, the lack of well trained and disciplined officers at all levels to give and follow commands. Company officers need to follow instructions and when completed they should report to command that they assignment is completed and get a new assignment.

I am still troubled when I read a report where a firefighter is seriously injured or killed in a vehicle accident because they were not wearing a seat belt. A fire truck is no different than any other vehicle on the road, everyone wears a seat belt. It is a life safety device and every chief should be sure every company officer is making their crew wear them. The driver should not move the truck until the word is given that everyone is belted in and ready to go. If this does not happen, the officer, the driver and the member not belting in should be punished.

The training challenge

Training has to be the biggest nightmare that a chief must face. I still find it unclear what all the mandated training requirements are by topic and hours of all fire fighters and officers. We are supposed to do emergency medical training, hazardous materials, Incident Command System, self-contained breath apparatus and others.

There are several basic trainings that are also needed to be done but are not mandated such as stretching hoses, throwing ladders – but what does a fire fighter needed to be trained in each year, how many hours need to be assigned to that training, and who is checking to ensure that it is being done and done correctly? Some of the hours of required training make it difficult for volunteer fire departments to retain members because you cannot get all the training done during a short meeting on Wednesday night at the fire station or at a live burn on a Saturday.

The numbers just do not add up. A fulltime firefighter working 40-48 hours in one week will have only 12 – 16 hours available for training – that’s before we have to figure in time lost due to incidents, holidays, sick days and vacations. Someone needs to be in charge of training for the entire department and ensuring that it is being completed. Departments should also be looking at remote and online training so members can review training programs when they do have down time.

Command and control in the fire service is designed as a para-military style operation. Officers are placed in charge of several stations, apparatus, and firefighters. The officers are usually “friends” of these people and thus we find that all the rules may not be enforced or let slide. The lack of command in the fire station carries over to the fire ground. I have had firefighters tell me that I was holding them back and being too safe – that is my job. When the alarm sounds in a fire station, the crew have to respond, they do not have to return; it is the commander’s job to see that they return.

Financial strains

Money is the next nightmare that keeps chiefs awake at night. Most budgets have two parts, administrative and the other capital. The capital budget is where your large ticket purchases are going to come from like new apparatus, new or renovations for fire stations and tools and equipment. A chief has to have the mindset that everything has an expiration date like SCBA bottles, apparatus, hose, medical supplies and people.

Payroll is going to eat up the lion share of the budget and the remainder of the budget has to keep the operation going for a whole year. A chief has to closely monitor the spending from each of the accounts.

Firefighter health

Healthy firefighters are the key to any operation. The fire service has been dealing with many different forms of health issues over the years like heart disease, cancer, drug and alcohol addiction and suicide. The mental health of a firefighter is so hard to handle because they are the only person that can tell when they are not able to cope with the sights and sounds of the horrific incident they have to deal with.

Oftentimes, we do not recognise the signs that a firefighter is mentally doing well until it is too late. Firefighter also have to take the job serious enough to realise that they are asking their bodies to perform at an athletes level while fighting a fire and if they are overweight, dehydrated and not eating right then their body is going to turn against them.

Are they doing a good job of decontaminating themselves and their gear after each incident where they have come in contact with biohazards from a medical aid call or cancer-causing products from a fire? Are taking the time to properly washing their turnout gear? Has the department purchased turnout gear extractors to wash and dry the gear?

These are the things that keep commanders awake at night. Each of the items I talked about in this article could a stand-alone paper, each of them has so much research, standards, and budgetary concern to look at.

No matter what size department you work for, all of these things affect you and yes size does matter. The large departments with the big budgets have an advantage but that also means they will be facing bigger challenges from their community. No fire department can do it alone. We all have to pull together and work as a unified team to get the job done.

About the author

Chief Paul Calderwood is a 40 year veteran of the fire service and is now the president of an international consulting company that has worked with national governments including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, South Africa and others.

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