Friday, October 21, 2011

Volunteer Pandas

The volunteer fire service is like a panda bear. It is black and white . . . and it’s an endangered species.

The world is full of people who live a pastel existence of non-extreme colours. Such people rarely do anything black (really bad) or white (really good). They get up, go to work, come home, have supper, watch a show, and go to bed . . . then do it all over again the next day. They don't make waves, they don't stick out like a sore thumb, they are just there. This isn't a criticism. On the contrary, we need these folks. They're the ones that make the world turn.

The volunteer service, on the other hand, is far from pastel. I wish I could say we were an all-white, do-no-wrong breed of people, but I know it isn't true. When volunteer firefighters are white, they are whiter than freshly fallen wilderness snow. When they’re black, they are blacker than a moonless night in the boreal forest.

The white portion of this panda-like service is by far the largest portion, but it goes mostly unnoticed. The black portion is far more attention grabbing. When we screw up, people get injured or killed . . . and whether it's civilians or our very own, the world knows that we failed.

NIOSH released a report last month about a firefighter fatality that occurred a little over a year ago in Ohio. It’s a black story if ever there was one. A self-made, pressurized water tank exploded, killing a young volunteer instantly. You can read a summary of the NIOSH investigation here. Topping the list of recommendations was this:

Fire departments should ensure that fire suppression equipment is properly designed and safe for its intended use and refrain from using self-made equipment that does not meet applicable safe design standards and practice.

Yes, we certainly should. The problem, as Adam Thiel writes, is that we are "can do," solution-driven people. We see something we need and we go for it. If we can’t afford it, we find something similar and retrofit it. If we can’t find something similar, we fabricate it. In a perfect world, public emergency services wouldn't have to beg, borrow, or steal to get equipment that meets applicable standards. But the world is far from perfect.

The scary thing about this black and white story is that it’s everywhere. It isn’t just a small department in Ohio. They just happen to be the ones in the hot seat right now. The panda is alive and well in many (if not most) small volunteer departments, in all its contrasts and contradictions.

The other scary thing is that innovation is often the lesser of two evils. We  convert a FedEx step van into a rescue . . . or we haul our equipment to the scene in the trunks of our cars and the backs of our pick ups. We use a street washer as a tanker . . . or we fight the fire with only a pumper, and spit on it when we run out of water. We wear fifteen year old breathing apparatus . . . or we go without.

I'm not advocating that we pursue a volunteer crusade to save the world at the cost of endangering our firefighters with unsafe work practices, but it reminds me of an old adage about freelancing on the fire ground. Establishing a strong incident command system is the best way to counter it. In a similar manner, the best way to prevent mickey rigging innovations is to provide fire departments with the equipment they need. Small communities are often unable to produce the dollars to do it, and outside help is needed.

I haven't even addressed the endangered species analogy yet, but it will have to wait. For now, I'll leave you with a story about Wisconsin firefighters successfully performing mouth to snout rescusitation on a dog.

Call it black or white, it's at least an example of firefighters stepping up to the plate to provide a service no one else is willing to give.

We are, after all, can-do, solution driven people.

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