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"The Fire vs. A Fire "
The lessons you learn could save someone's life!


working structure fire, fire fighters attacking

Exclusive FullyInvolvedFire.com Content
By: Capt. Ryan G. Christen


Whether you’re in a house staffed by volunteers with a 1972 tanker conversion or full a time paid house running a fleet of brand new apparatus the stories are often the same. We pass the time in the evenings and weekends between calls by rousing the other members with chronicles of our experiences. Sometimes it is the veterans teasing the rookies with morsels of “How it was, before your time”. Or it may be the rookie telling of his first fire just last week. The stories can be of massive multiple alarm conflagrations or humorous anecdotes told simply to embarrass another member. They may even just be a trip down memory lane to remember a different time. Over my years in the fire service I have noticed one common thread in all these stories. They are either about “The Fire”, or “a fire” and they all have inherent value.
It’s difficult to go through a single shift without hearing someone tell a story about a “The Fire”. These stories can differ dramatically but, the one common thread is that for each member that specific incident has had some lasting effect on themselves, career, and / or crew. Regardless of the reason, that fire has embedded itself in their brain as a significant event. It has earned a memory in their minds as “The Fire”. It’s not uncommon for someone to have several “The Fire” stories. But all too often these stories are passed down with a complete lack of conveyance as to why that member labels it as “The” rather than “a” fire. On top of that it seems that these stories rarely make it out of the day room and never bridge the gap from one station to the next, much less one department to the next. Our “war-stories” are the simplest training tool in our arsenal. Yet when we pass on these tidbits something seems to get lost in the translation.
It is time to utilize these stories in a much broader capacity. We need to use the technology at our disposal to maximize the educational potential.
            Before I get too much further into how to “spread the word” about your experience I would like to offer a couple of examples.
Several years ago when I was a rookie firefighter we caught a late night working fire in a duplex. It was about three a.m. and damn cold. I was just finishing the first half of a double when we were woken up by the tones. Since I was new to the service I was practically jumping out of my skin with anticipation over a working fire. As the engine bay doors opened we could smell the smoke and see the orange glow in the sky just a few blocks away. There was no doubt that this was a working job! We piled on the truck and I began donning my SCBA as fast as I could. I knew we would be on scene in just a few seconds. We soon pulled up to a heavily involved structure. My officer turned to me and yelled out which line I was to pull, and then he bailed off the truck. I jumped out of the truck, grabbed the nozzle and stretched the line to front door. By time I got there my officer was just finishing his 360 of the structure. We crouched down at the door and yelled back to the Engineer to charge the line. As I bled the air from the hose I distinctly remember hearing my Lieutenant blurting out, “What the hell is that? I said pull the two hundred!”
He had been expecting me to have a two hundred foot inch and three quarter pre-connect. Not the two and half inch one hundred and fifty foot pre-connect that was in my hand. Although he was wearing an SCBA mask and it was very smoky I still remember the look in his eyes, and wondering if he was going to beat me with the nozzle right then or after we fought the fire.
            Ultimately we got the fire out, and I never did get beaten with that two and half nozzle. Everything worked out okay in the end, but mistakes had been made. This is where the story usually ends. This is where most stories usually end. Not today. Not anymore. These stories all have a lesson hidden in them, and that must be conveyed to your audience.
That night, as we pulled up and he barked out his order I only heard, “pull the…two…” I was a rookie and was looking at the biggest fire I had ever seen. I assumed that he thought the same and wanted the larger two and half. In retrospect the fire wasn’t that big, and the extra maneuverability and length on the inch and three quarter would have been perfect.
 I still refer to that fire as “The Main Street Fire” (street name changed to protect the innocent) because I learned an important lesson that night. It is critical that clear orders are given, and that orders are clearly received. If there is a rookie on your truck take an extra two seconds to make sure they get it right. And if you’re the rookie: PAY ATTENTION! Check your excitement. If you don’t understand part of the command DON’T ASSUME YOU DO!  
            Several years later I responded to another structure call that became a “The Fire” story for me. We were just sitting down to lunch when the tones came in. The first caller reported heavy smoke coming from the home. While responding dispatch came over the air and advised that they were receiving multiple calls. I had been on the job for a couple of years and was working with a good crew. The structure was a single family dwelling. Our bread and butter type of fire. We arrived on scene and found medium grey laminar smoke coming from the eves of the house. Nothing I hadn’t seen before. I grabbed the pre-connect (the correct one) and met my officer at the front door.
            This is when things began to get complicated. The homeowner ran up to us and began screaming about her baby in the back bedroom. Meanwhile mechanical difficulties with our truck were preventing our driver from engaging the pump. So here we sit with a burning house, a baby inside, and no water in our line. The smoke inside was still a few feet off the floor, and visibility was workable. My Officer and I had fought several fires together and knew each other well. We exchanged only a simple nod and began advancing into the house with our empty hose to find the baby.
            We made it through the living room and just began to turn down the hallway when everything changed. The smoke turned black and drove straight to the floor. Visibility dropped to zero. The heat became significantly more intense. Obviously part of the back bedrooms of the house had flashed. Undoubtedly the rest would very soon. As foolish as it sounds we continued, expecting to get water to our line any second. We had become fixated on finding the trapped baby and allowed ourselves to take life threatening chances. 
            Suddenly I could feel our hose line being pulled back from us towards the front door. I could also barely hear someone yelling at us to back out. The individual was making it clear with several four letter words that it was time for us to get out. I guess that was just enough to remind us what the hell we were doing. We started back to the front door, aware of the direness of the situation we were practically running. It was getting hotter faster than I thought possible. Only a step or two from the door, the hallway and living room flashed, and my Officer and I crashed out the doorway from a wall of fire with our gear smoking.
            Seconds later the truck found its way into pump and our line became charged. We regrouped and got after the fire. It turned out it was our Chief that had been at the door frantically trying to get us the hell out of this flashover in the making. Had we not turned back when we did you would probably have read about us several years ago.
            The house was essentially a total loss. And the baby that the homeowner had been screaming about was nothing more than a puppy that had ran out the backdoor of the house. All of those risks for what gain? This is where this story usually ends. Not today. Not anymore.
            We made some poor choices at that fire. First we should never have gone in without a hose line. I know, we thought there was a baby inside and used that as our justification. Many of you reading this would probably have done the same thing.
We should have simply asked the woman a question. “What room is your child’s room?” This alone may have yielded enough information to keep us out until we had water. Since we took a major chance we should also have remained acutely aware of conditions without having become fixated on the baby. Take your pick from the mistakes I have listed, or pick from a few others in that story. Either way, learn something from this.
            These stories bring me back to the point of this article. How can the same fire be an, “a fire”, for one member and a “The Fire” for another? Why would you tell a story like this without explaining it? From now on, when find yourself listening to stories like these ask “What lesson was learned from this experience?” From now on, when you pass on stories like these give your audience the benefit of the lessons you learned. And, from now on make sure you pass these stories farther than across the table. If your experience reduces the number of line of duty deaths by one, then the effort is worth it.
            There are some new trends in the fire service that we should be embracing. There are new reporting systems that allow for the proliferation of these stories on a much wider scale. There are dozens of great websites and internet forums with countless pictures, video clips, stories, and safety presentations you and your crew can review. I have several favorites that my crew and I review together each month. The “Near Miss” reporting system is online as well. These stories no longer have to be just another old war tale that you bore your buddies with. Take the time to share your stories with others. Most importantly though, when you find yourself passing on a piece of your past, or listening to that of another, pay close attention for that key description and take the time to explain or ask what lesson was learned.
            There is an expression that I heard recently: “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.” Start sharing information. Expand the knowledge base for us all. Spare someone else the bad judgment and give them your experience.

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