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Laddering Considerations: Combustible Egress

Laddering Considerations: Combustible Egress

Years ago when fire protection systems were limited and firefighters without SCBA had challenges accessing the interior, there was greater attention paid to planning and designing ways out for occupants in the event of a fire. Over the last 50 years a certain hazard and complacency may have developed in regards to egress.

There has been enough perceived advancement in our abilities as a fire service and the quality of fire protection systems, that additional means of egress have been almost completely eliminated from modern construction.

Day in and day out apartment buildings are being specifically designed and constructed at a overall building height and layout to avoid certain building codes. The modern two and three story apartments have doors to open halls and are served by exterior stairs. We as firefighters and the residents in these communities have been somewhat lulled into a sense of safety that they can always get outside. Does this always mean they will have a way out?


In the picture above you see what you may see day in and day out during medical responses to these apartment buildings in your area. Unfortunately that open hallway and exterior stairs are only one open apartment door away from being just as much of a trap as a center hall apartment.  What you aren’t seeing when you walk up and down those stairs on your next difficulty breathing call is how they may look at two o’clock in the morning like the picture below.

In the picture above we see just one side of the egress involvement from a second floor fire has cut off 4 apartments. If this stairwell serves a breezeway style hall through to the rear as many do, there is a high probability that the residents of 8 apartments are now trapped.

In order to further demonstrate that this is not a unique fire, here is another, nearly identical presentation in the daylight.

With all the talk about flow paths and door control we should be very aware of how damaging a fire can be when it is fed all the air it needs. The amount of fire and lack of smoke  in the picture above means this fire is burning up that path of egress with incredible intensity and efficiency. The fire has made it out of the original unit and into a combustible hallway and staircase that it is open to the exterior on two ends (well vented) and confined by walls on the sides (compounding heat).

This picture above is from a recent fire in San Francisco where you can see the stairs and decking from the second floor up have been completely destroyed.

Once a fire has impacted an exterior egress the window of opportunity may be limited to windows

Or maybe on balconies

The key point in this post is that we are the fire department and we exists to protect lives, property and the environment from fire. If a fire has taken control of the paths of egress for our citizens we need to provide new ones, and for the most part that will be done by ground ladders. So here are a few things to consider.

Do you have enough ladders? If 8 apartments are cut off by fire you should assume you may need at least 8 ladders to access them. Do you have them?

Is your truck company set up to arrive and support suppression or perform rescues?


Do you know what you can reach with your ladder compliments, and what you are missing?


Have you only trained to throw ladders straight to a single target or have you considered the potential ways to hit targets over targets or deal with the challenges or stability benefits of different off-sets presented with 3 dimensional targets.


Have you ever trained with live victims who actually act as panicked people in need of rescue, grabbing for ladders or climbing for their lives. Meeting them for the first time on the side of a building on a stick of aluminum may not be the best setting.


This post is a brief out take of a bigger presentation titled Raising Ladders. The play on words is intended to raise interest in laddering the fire ground, raise the awareness of the potential challenges and needs for ladders, raise our ladder IQ and skills, but first and foremost light a spark in you to raise the question, how good are we at ladders?


Fires in the Bronx as told on Face Book

Fires in the Bronx as told on Face Book

Many of us on Face Book have been enjoying a string of stories that Bob Farrell has been sharing with us in short posts over the last year and many have asked him to compile them. I figured it would be better if he just kept telling stories and one of us took on the administrative task. So here is a relatively raw collection of Bob’s stories supported by pictures from the 1978 photo essay FIREHOUSE by Dennis Smith and Jill Freedman. I hope to update it monthly and repost it here as long as Bob continues to tell the tales. Thanks for the history Brother!
Updated as of 2/18/2019 – PDF File available here:
22019Fires in the Bronx as told on Face Book


Training Objectives and Omissions

Training Objectives and Omissions

Slide1Almost all formal training is created with an initial set of objectives. Often times these objectives are listed in an early PowerPoint slide, lesson plan or drill briefing to make it clear what will be covered. In reading through the Fire Service Summary Report for the PPV study last night from UL I was reminded that we must make it equally as important to communicate what cannot be covered, presented or recreated.

The background section of the report for me was as thought provoking as the study. It articulates a serious problem facing fire service training not only in regards to PPV, but all our operations; unrealistic training. I believe it should raise the question “are training ground methods countering fire ground best practices, and what is the cost?”


“Even if realistic home geometries become available, the fire service is not able to use realistic fuels such as sofas, per NFPA 1403”

To summarize the paragraph, fire service training does not and cannot replicate real world situations because to do so would be too unsafe. Let that sink in for a bit…..

Training in non combustible structures with non combustible furnishings and finishes is something that has had an incredible influence on how we operate. I think an argument could be made that it has possibly had the single greatest impact on where the fire service is collectively today. Burn building experience does not always equal fire experience. If you are a fire department with operations based in burn building experience you need to be humble enough to listen to the information UL and so many others are presenting right now to make the potential necessary changes. TO BE CLEAR: IT IS NOT THAT TRAINING SHOULD NOT BE CONDUCTED IN THESE SETTINGS BUT WE AS INSTRUCTORS MUST COMMUNICATE CLEARLY AND OFTEN THE DIFFERENCES.



“…firefighter deaths occurring inside structures has continued to climb over the past 30 years. Ventilation is believed to be a significant contributing factor to this continued climb in firefighter injuries and deaths”

UL is not the only ones who have discovered this connection. In Lt. Parker’s 2010 article he made it clear that of the top 25 factors present at firefighter fatalities ventilation was noted as number 3 overall but it was the top tactical factor.

Tactical risk vent

If the objective is to reduce firefighter deaths inside structure fires we have been failing for the last 30 years. While it would be convenient to place the blame for this divergent trend on “modern fire behavior” I think we need to consider modern firefighter training and what is missing.


When we train our firefighters in non combustible structures with non combustible furnishings and finishes, we are training firefighters in fires which are fuel limited. No matter how we alter ventilation conditions it only changes the intensity at which the fuel package burns and will not lead to extension or true flashover. This has lead to a collective INEXPERIENCE with the effects of ventilation on fire conditions. “Opening up” in these structures and training scenarios is without consequence. Putting a fan on fires in these conditions will be without consequence. If these points are omitted from the training evolution the performance in practice will become practice on scene and the outcome may be drastically different.

It would be easy for us to watch this video and be critical of the way he keeps the door open while calling for the window to be taken however, this action of opening up in the presence of worsening conditions is how they were trained. That mind set is how I was initially trained; an open fire building was a clearer and safer fire building. In a natural product (pallet/excelsior based) fuel limited fire this is absolutely true. Opening up will intensify the burn of the fuel package leading to a cleaner more complete (less smoke) burn and the greater number of openings allows avenues for the smoke to escape all while there is no threat for extension.

This is not a post to push people towards door control firefighters and smoke curtains or anti ventilation protocols. Many of our traditional methods of fire attack are working fine as long as the firefighters know what to expect and how to deal with changes. The biggest problem is not how we are operating it is the context in which our gauges are set. In fuel limited fires and training scenarios we have all the time in the world to act, the fire will not grow beyond the package. This is where we are failing our firefighters, the sense of urgency and necessity of action, working with speed and purpose is essential because in the real world things get real, real quick.

Some of us have learned the hard way that in a real structure fire where synthetic fuel is unlimited and readily available for extension, ventilation will not only intensify the original fuel package but it will begin to involve more fuel packages and in the case of synthetic fuels create more smoke which is just additional fuel being dispatched throughout the structure.

Another example of crews operating how they were trained. The video even makes a clear statement that “the crews did nothing wrong”; operating as they were trained and within department policy, a policy that has since changed. Operating with a tactic that works well in burn buildings, NFPA 1403 compliant live burns, or in fires that are completely extinguished or fully compartmentalized and vented. My question is how much longer or how many more close calls will it take for others to change? How much longer will we claim our objective is to make fire attack safer while omitting the fact that we are force feeding the “modern” (vent limited) fire air.

To those who argue that the information is still new or that there are people out there promoting positive pressure attack success, this is a nice throwback. Almost 10 years ago the two paramount PPV instructors made very clear the risks and precautions.

From “Pressure Precepts” Fire Chief Magazine December 2006

Battalion Chief Kriss Garcia & Battalion Chief Reinhard Kauffmann Salt Lake City Fire

  • “As incident commanders turn to positive-pressure as part of their firefighting attack strategy, the potential for injuries rises.”
  • “ A recent NIOSH report underscores the importance of completely understanding the precautions required to safely use PPV. ‘Unless PPV has been started in coordination with the initial attack , it shouldn’t be initiated until all interior crews have exited the structure’.”
  • “There are many PPV situations where precautions are necessary. Firefighters should watch out for the following situations:”
    1. When there are or is the potential for victims, or firefighters standing at windows or other exhaust openings.
    2. When firefighters have entered the structure prior to the PPV being used.
    3. When backdraft conditions are observed
    4. When exhaust openings cannot match fire loading
    5. When exposures may be threatened by “blow torching”
    6. Allow for 60 to 90 seconds of PPV prior to attack operations

The UL Study is not new information, it is repeating the same message. ARE WE GOING TO START LISTENING?


If it is clear that the structure fires we are responding to are ventilation limited then our objective should be to get better at fighting ventilation limited fires. If we only have fuel limited fire scenarios to work with than we to be that much more diligent in ensuring that the setting isn’t controlling the experience and operation, we as knowledgeable instructors are.

Why collectively and nationally are we not attempting to take the information clearly presented in these documents and make it our objective to improve the understanding of fire behavior, no longer standing for those who are omitting it, putting citizens, property and firefighters at greater risk.


I wish this was limited to ventilation and we could stop the discussion here but it doesn’t. I get sick to my stomach when I hear recorded radio traffic prior to mayday’s where firefighters are reporting “heavy smoke and high heat” but there is no water flowing.  Our fire attack training has been equally compromised through fuel limited fire training. Look no further than the picture above and see how low volume attack lines, concerns over water damage or statements like “don’t flow water until you see fire” infect our membership.

flashover chamber

The objective of the flashover chamber is to provide firefighters an opportunity to observe more realistic fire behavior however once again if clear description is not provided, misapplication of the message runs rampant. In the flashover chamber short bursts of water are used to maintain the fire in a marginal state. Since the objective is to observe fire behavior applying too much water would extinguish the fire and stop the lesson. The short bursts of water are a fire management tool. All it takes is for one person to tell a group of wide eyed students that these short bursts of water or “penciling” is CONTROLLING flashover without providing the full context and this becomes their idea of what should be done if they ever find themselves in a pre-flashover situation rather than fully opening and continuously operating the nozzle until through cooling has been achieved.

With that said it is possible to make training more real. We KNOW smoke is fuel and that it will travel through out the structure. We KNOW that just because we can’t see fire doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. We KNOW that the only way to prevent flashover is to cool the environment rapidly. Unfortunately since it takes education to understand this and some work to alter buildings these extremely critical points are not being incorporated into training exercise where firefighters are developing experience.

It is as simple as hanging pallets from the ceiling and suspending a fuel package which is what hot and buoyant smoke from synthetic materials burning would be. Is there risk in training for one of those pallets to fall on to an advancing firefighter? Yes, but you must decide if that risk is greater then sending them out into a world where their experience in training might just be a complete mismatch for reality.

SLICERS has taken a beating for the “cooling from a safe location” component, but once again maybe we need to ask why. In the video above the firefighters are cooling from a safe location. They are flowing on their way to the fire room, cooling the environment and interior surfaces to reduce the potential for the radiant heat they are communicating from contributing to a flash over. These are well educated firefighters, training in context. If a firefighter’s only experience is in the gas feed prop above the there is no need to flow in a hallway, in fact there is no need to flow any water until you are on the prop so therefore flowing water into a window on to that prop might be “fast water” to them. This once again is not the fault of the firefighters it is just their experience and understanding based on that experience, they have not had the experience or had the facilitator of that training experience make it clear that fuels other than that single target might be involved.

This rant could continue all day, my point remains that we as instructors and shapers of future generations in this fire service need to speak in complete sentences.


“A wide fog pattern will provide protection on approach of a gas fed fire outside. This principle does not apply to the interior of a structure where your surroundings are also fuel.”


“Today you will not see fire when you enter the front door but you will be flowing water as soon as you get in as if it were there”

Classrooms are filling every day from coast to coast for anything with the words “Modern Fire Behavior” in the title. It seems to be a key objective nationally to get this information out to anyone who wants it. Let us make sure that what is being gathered and communicated on paper is not being omitted from practice otherwise it is all just lip service.

The Risk for Ground Ladder Rescues at Multi-Family Dwellings

The Risk for Ground Ladder Rescues at Multi-Family Dwellings

CastlewestOn January 16th 2007, at 0047 hours Colorado Springs Fire Department (CSFD) was dispatched to a reported fire in an apartment building. Three minutes later, the first district chief arrived and immediately requested a second and third alarm when dozens of occupants were observed at windows and balconies (Royal, 2009). “We addressed the obvious challenge and priority of the life safety need by calling for an ‘all hands’ rescue” (Royal, 2009). In reviewing the article of lessons learned from the Castle West Apartment Fire in Colorado Springs, 85 occupants were rescued by ground ladders and none were removed by aerial ladders.

While laddering is traditionally considered a truck company function, the experience of the Colorado Springs Fire Department (CSFD) at the Castle West Fire shows that most if not all ladder rescue work will be performed with standard ground ladders and the immediacy of an “all hands rescue” situation will be placing all companies arriving with ladders to work.

  • The first three companies to arrive on scene at the Castle West Fire made 40 ladder rescues.
  • Nine apparatus from the first three alarms were dedicated to ladder rescues and responsible for removing a total of 85 occupants via ground ladders (Royal, 2009). The 85 occupants rescued from upper floors represent 25% of the buildings total residents (Royal, 2009).

The incredible challenge of rescuing 85 occupants from a building by ground ladders at a single incident is unique, however, the act of rescuing occupants by ground ladders at multi-family dwellings is much more common. In the first four months of 2014, 117 rescues by ground ladders from multi-family dwellings were reported to (

  • Nine fire incidents at multi-family dwelling fires resulted in more than 5 rescues on each scene
  • 65% of fires at multi-family dwelling fire where ground ladder rescues were reported had multiple rescues (

(Data was collected from 01/2014 to 04/2014)

There were several multi-family dwelling fires which would meet the “all hands rescue” situation described by Royal(2009) where as many as 10 civilians were removed via ground ladders. To see 117 documented ladder rescues from multi-family dwelling fires in the first 121 days of the year through a voluntary reporting system would present the case that on average at least 1 civilian is rescued everyday by firefighters with ground ladders in the United States. Ground ladder rescues should be a scenario every operational member of every fire department in the United States should be drilling on and preparing for especially if your district is one with multi-family dwellings.

lamar KendalInformation like this, and the high percentage of multi-family dwellings in my first due area sparked an interest in researching the topic of ground ladder rescues at multi-family dwellings further. The plan to take both an operational and more academic approach through the use of a National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Applied Research Project. Through the process I discovered a great deal of information specific to my department and in-particular the very common suburban 3 story multi-family dwelling which leads me to believe that it is not a matter of if but when your next fire will present with an all hands rescue situation.

It is my hope that through sharing this information you may be able to draw from it information that will directly apply to your department and operations or at least provide you with an example of a process to evaluate the risk for ground ladder rescues at your district’s multi-family dwellings.

Our Fire ProblemE-1 streching the line

Multi-family dwellings in our area house an average of 3.5 persons per unit. Compare this to a standard single family dwelling with an average of 2.23 occupants per structure for the district. With many buildings averaging well over 30 units this would places the equivalent of an entire single family residential neighborhood at risk in one building fire. 26% of our district’s population resides in multi-family dwellings and responses to these occupancies account for 32% of the districts 30,000 alarms.

  • In the calendar year of 2012 my department had 53 working fires in multi-family dwellings. This accounts for just under 30% of the district’s total working fires
  • Of these 53 fires 75% had a point of origin above the first floor

DSC_0002On average our firefighters are responding to a working structure fire in a multi-family dwelling once a week. The fact that the floor of origin is also most commonly above the first floor presents a greater risk of entrapment to citizens in our district who live in these occupancies.

A working fire in one high density residential structure can present with an equivalent life hazard to an entire neighborhood of single family dwellings. As an organization my department identified the increased risk for and severity of fires in multi-family dwellings and attempted to address them. In 2010 the department increased the response to working fires in these occupancies by adding an additional truck company to the initial dispatch.

  • In the last 5 years 80% of the our fires which exceeded the initial alarm assignment were in multi-family dwellings

This internal data shows that even with attempted solutions, the demands of these incidents continue to outpace initial responding resources and do so statistically more than any other occupancy type. The tactical demands of incidents at these occupancies are one piece of a hazard assessment, the true life hazard present at these occupancies should also be evaluated

Socioeconomic FactorsHolman followup 0432

Beyond the statistical data for our organization there is a great deal of research into the topic of fires at multi-family dwellings. In a 1997 report from the Federal Emergency Management Agency titled the Socioeconomic Factors and the Incidence of Fire, several points are addressed which clearly demonstrate why multi-family dwellings are a higher risk occupancy for fire than other dwellings. The report begins by presenting the fact that nationally, over 66% of all residential fire causes are human related and that evaluation of the socioeconomic factors are the best known predictors of fire rates at the neighborhood level (Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA], 1997).

  • Ownership of property plays a significant role in the increased risk of fire at multi-family dwellings. These units are primarily rented and not privately owned occupancies. Fire rates in areas with low individual home or property ownership have been determined to be more than two times that of areas with high home ownership (United States Fire Administration, 1997, p. 5)
  • Low vacancy rates translate to a low supply of housing and in the multi-family category this is a low supply of affordable housing for low income families which can result in overcrowding of the available units. In the most densely populated areas of our district the multi-family dwelling vacancy rate of 3.2% is the lowest for suburban communities surrounding the City and County of Denver (Throupe & Von Stroh, 2013). The incidence of fire is two to three times higher in housing tract areas ranked high on crowding (United States Fire Administration, 1997)
  • “Virtually every study of socioeconomic characteristics has shown that lower levels of income are either directly or indirectly tied to and increased risk of fire.”(United States Fire Administration, 1997, p. 2)
    According to the Denver Metro Area Apartment Vacancy and Rent Survey which reviews multi-family dwelling occupancy rates the average rent for the same area is $841.84 a month (Throupe & Von Stroh, 2013). This is the second lowest of all reported neighborhoods and over $150.00 a month lower than the Denver Metro Average of $992.89 (Throupe & Von Stroh, 2013).
  • “In most urban areas the lowest income units are in the oldest most run-down portion of the city’s housing stock. Living in an older poorly maintained housing unit raises a households risk for fire for several reasons.”
    • Poor maintenance of systems, heating and such which increases mechanical malfunction and the risk of fire.
    • Dated electrical wiring systems are typically overloaded by modern technology and alternative strategies increase electrical fire risk.
    • Households may be forced to compensate for poor systems of construction with stop gap measures such as space heaters.
    • Construction in these areas is typically before modern building codes and enforcement with very little retrofitting. (United States Fire Administration, 1997, p. 12)
  • Housing quality and age of dwellings is expanded on as a significant factor in the risk of and severity of fires. The USFA estimates that 92% of dwellings built since 1981 have working smoke detectors. The estimate for dwellings constructed prior to 1980 is only 74% (United States Fire Administration, 1997). For the City of Lakewood there is a marked difference in the vacancy rates in housing built prior to 1980 versus that which was built after 1981. Within Lakewood multi-family dwellings built before 1980 have the lowest vacancy rate at 2.7% compared to 1981 to present with a 4.4% vacancy rate (Throupe & Von Stroh, 2013). As data collection and initial investigation begins to demonstrate the fire risk in multi-family and contributing factors begin to compound in areas with increased density and socioeconomic challenges.

Building Construction

FBT 021Thirty-one percent of multi-family dwelling fires extend beyond the unit of origin (USFA, 2012). Common stairwells to multiple units in multi-story occupancies are vulnerable to exposure especially when the fire apartment door is left open and products of combustion rise through these channels. In regards to the interior of the multi-family units, 90% of  firefighters who I questioned in an online poll, reported that from the front door of the unit the kitchen area was open to, or between the front door and the sleeping areas. These two findings are significant factors in occupant egress during fire events. Cooking fires are the leading cause of multi-family dwelling fires at 69%. Cooking areas and kitchens are the primary areas of origin for non-confined multifamily dwelling fires at 33% (United States Fire Administration [USFA], 2012).

Holman followup 012Center hall apartment design is another example of a factor which would increase the risk for ground ladder rescues during a working fire. Center hall construction in these apartments is accessed by open stairwells on opposite sides of the building and a common center hallway for access to each unit. This construction feature presents great risk to all occupants of the building in the event that the door to a fire unit is left open the products of combustion will quickly fill the common hallways and stairwells. Without balconies, these occupants have no other means to escape other than a ladder to a window in the event hallways and stairwells are blocked by fire or smoke. Center hall construction was reported as a key contributing factor to the severity of the Castle West Apartment Fire in Colorado Springs in 2007, where 85 occupants were rescued by ground ladders (Royal, 2009). The open stairwells to the common hallways allowed for free and possibly accelerated fire spread which almost immediately trapped nearly all the residents (R. Royal, personal communication, March 8, 2014). This construction feature continues to be a rescue problem for Colorado Springs Fire Department. In the first quarter of 2014 they have rescued 17 civilians by ground ladders from center hall design apartment fires (R. Royal, personal communication, March 8, 2014)


In a survey of our members 65% percent described apparatus access to these occupancies as “poor,” and 30% as “good”. When asked “If a significant fire occurred in a multi-family dwelling in your district what would be the best means for evacuating residents?” 60% responded standard egress and 30% responded ground ladders (Brush, 2014). While aerial ladder was an option it was not selected by any of the members questioned. At the Castle West Apartment fire in Colorado Springs, 85 residents were rescue by ground ladders representing 25% of the dwellings population. Not a single person was removed by aerial ladder.

For my fire district the most common multi-family dwelling is a 3 story building. If we take this information, the fact that most rescues will be made with ground ladders and the experience of CSFD and other departments the had “all hands” rescues at these occupancies we can truly focus on a specific ground ladder package, the 14′ and 16′ straight ladders and the 24′ and 28′ extension. My department primarily uses the 24′ and 14′ package on our engine companies, increasing to the 16′ roof on trucks and a 35′ or 45′ extension. While theoretically these ladders meet the floor and sill heights of these structures, experience will tell you otherwise.

Apartments 010Apartments 009  Apartments 007 Apartments 004





Captain Vern Scott of Denver Fire Department Truck Company 15 explained in a phone interview that due to the high density three and four story multi-family dwellings in his response district, he worked through the equipment request process to change out the two 24 foot ladders that are standard for DFD truck companies for a 28 foot extension ladders (V. Scott, personal communication, January 6, 2014). Through his experience he found that while four feet is perceived to be a small difference it is consistently the difference in making the tip to a balcony railing or to a fourth floor window sill in the presence of a garden or walk out level (V. Scott, personal communication, January 6, 2014).

Ladderimage(Avillo, 1999)

Due to the climbing angle of ladders a rule of thumb for the working length for ground ladders less than 35 feet is 1 foot less than the total length and two feet less for ground ladders over 35 feet (Avillo, 1999). The graphic above uses common residential floor and window sill heights found in multi-family dwellings to demonstrate the target height of a third floor window at 26 feet. This would be out of the working length reach of a 24 foot ladder which is 23 feet but within normal operation of a 28 foot extension ladder with a working length of 27 feet.

Castle Rock Fire Department (CRFD) also adjusted the ladder compliments of the engine companies. The industry standard ground ladder compliment for engine companies is a 14 foot roof ladder, 24 foot extension and 10 foot folding ladder (Shand & Wilbur, 2013). The CRFD apparatus committee for the new purchases elected to outfit all engine companies as well as the quint with 28 foot extension ladders and 16 foot roof ladders. The change to 28 and 16 foot ladders not only increases the reach of the ladders in these categories but also in width, making them a better tool for effecting rescues (O. Bersagel-Briese, personal communication, May 16, 2014). The CRFD was also specific about the manufacturer of their selected ladders. As displayed in the chart below the service test rating is set by NFPA and is the same for all ladders yet there is a marked difference in weight and a slight difference in the width.

LadderComp1(Alco Lite Ladders, 2014) (Duo Safety Ladders, 2014)


A great deal of attention is being placed on the research of extinguishment and ventilation, both of which I support. I believe that these types of processes in critical thinking and review of our problems and operations should be the way we approach everything we do. An improved understanding of potential and purpose will make us all better performers and give those we serve a better chance. What is presented here is just a short summary of the full research paper recently published to the National Fire Academy Learning Resource Center. This paper is just one piece of my work on ground ladders and has only served to increase my interest and purpose in pursuing more. If you are interested in taking a more in depth look at the paper you can find it here: Out of Reach? Evaluating the risk for ground ladder rescues at multi-family dwelling fires

“A Great Fireman”

“A Great Fireman”

FrontSeatIn these days of text, email and Face Book the phone call has surprisingly become less common and therefore has seemingly been elevated to a more personal level of communication.

I just spent about an hour on the phone with a good friend.  The conversation began with talk of a recent trip he took with his wife, my trip to Texas, and various “catching up” chatter. While important, as it had been some time since we last talked, it really just served as the warm up and foundation for the real reason for the call.

I can’t say my friend and I go way back, but over the relatively short time we have known each other  a deep respect and good conversation has led to a dependable and honest  point of reference for both of us. We are at very different places; geographically, professionally and personally however these differences are much the reason why our perspectives are so appreciated by one another. 

As the conversation continued we began to get into the heart of the matter, the how we are really doing beyond our superficial day to day routines. I shared my struggles, and he his frustrations. Those in our community understand how this goes. Our intense and passionate personalities can beat ourselves unrelentingly for our short comings or twist the complete lack of effort and interest of our coworkers into despise, introspection and projection at a high degree.

As expected, and now depended, our two different places brought each other back to balance. The lamenting and venting subsided and we approached a close with the seemingly natural path of progression; a sort of “where I want to be” this only reopened the discussion.

My friend told me that at one point he really wanted to “be somebody”. He said that he was glad had out grown that, because now he has realized he would just be happy to be considered a “great fireman” someday.

I know what he means; as appropriately humble individuals all we really want is the respect of our peers, but because I trust him, believe in him and I am comfortable being honest with him I challenged this definition a bit, and he did too.

IPhone 564We began to consider what some of our coworkers consider to be a great fireman, knowing full well what they see is not what we see. Also knowing how much of what is “seen” is how they see it.

  • He was a “great fireman”, he put in 30 years, always did what was asked, kept his mouth shut and never needed to promote.
  • He was a “great fireman”, not a fire cracker in the station but he worked like a mule on the fire scene. “One time he took out every window on the second floor of this fire with a ladder right before it lit off, it was awesome”
  • He was a “great fireman”, kept the rig and the station in pristine condition and was an excellent cook.
  • He was a “great fireman” he could fix anything, dishwasher, lawn mower, snow plow, in fact he even came over to my house one day and got my truck running in 5 minutes after I had been working on it for hours.

The funny thing about these makings of a great fireman; from complete conformist, to completely dangerous and possibly even completely unrelated is what the other side of the spectrum is for our coworkers?

  • prideThat guy is such a tool, he even has his own halligan
  • That guy is such a nerd he sits at the computer and watches YouTube videos of some laboratory fire experiments. “Have you never been called to a fire in a laboratory?”
  • That guy is a pain in the ass! He needs to give it a rest already, it isn’t that complicated. “I have never been to a fire that didn’t go out.”
  • That guy keeps wanting to change everything. “He has no respect for the way we have always done it”

While all this is all cliche, the point is that what makes a “great fireman” is subjective. What I consider being a “great fireman”, may just ensure that I am remembered as the “pain in the ass nerd with his own tool that wants to change everything.”

We cannot know what others consider to be a great fireman and we should not work to be a great fireman for others. If we want to be remembered as a “great fireman” we need to know what that means to us and those we respect, then we must live. Only then can we look back at the end of a career or that point where the life flashes before our eyes and take in that one second of pride we will allow ourselves to believe that we were a great fireman.

By the time we had hashed out the various perceptions of greatness, the mood was once again light and we realized it was late. The conversation came to a somewhat quick close with a “be good brother, I will talk to you soon”

What was missing from that closing is the respect for our duty and the understanding of the modern world. I might shoot him a text, email or like a Face Book post but I may not actually speak with him a soon as I should. As I sit here on duty tonight and him heading into shift tomorrow there is always the chance that our service calls upon us to give all and we never have the opportunity to talk again as was the case in Boston last week.

While it may be strange, as we have never actually worked a rig together and only known each other for a couple years I will call him tomorrow morning and tell him I think he is a great fireman. He will more than likely be very confused by this and harass me appropriately as any great fireman should, but that is not the point. What I believe is a great fireman may not match his view, but I know what he meant with his first statement and I want him to know before his last day on the job or on this earth that he has my respect today and he can rest assured that he will not have to wait “to be considered a great fireman someday”. 

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