Sunday, March 15, 2015

As the World Changes…

Consider all the miraculous changes we’ve seen in the world over the past twenty or so years. Communications have gone from rotary dial, hard-wired telephones to smart phones with the computing power that transcends anything imaginable. The electrification and addition of hydraulics have increased dramatically the output of the construction trades. The firepower of an infantry squad today is equal to that of a full WWII company.

In the fire service we’ve seen huge improvements in the PPE, heads-up SCBA, handheld thermal imaging cameras and tactics. But, the ability to bring to bear muscular torque is still required to get the job done. And while the US Navy might have their first prototype robot, it’s going to be a long horizon until machines replace firefighters.

So, while automation continues to amaze, it does not excuse an inability to carry heavy objects up stairs and ladders and effect the rescue and removal of victims. These planned for events are the touchstone of our job description and drills. The time to find out that you’re not able to get the firefighters to the floor below the fire, hookup to the riser and stretch a line to extinguish the blaze is not during the real deal.

We drill for everything; ropes and knots, hose deployment, high angle rescue, collapse, confined space, ventilation, etc. But, how realistic are these drills? Do they have fidelity to the actual emergency? The kind of effort it really takes to haul out an adult victim, or the grossly overweight casualty?

Now in it’s 25th year, the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge is a microcosm of the essential functions of structural fire suppression. While ESPN has labeled it “The Toughest Two Minutes in Sports,” the better question is, can you do this in any amount of time? Can you complete the tasks before you exhaust your Air-Pak?

There’s no better proving ground than the Challenge to test you against what might be reasonably expected at the scene of a working fire. I’m not advocating that everyone has to finish the Challenge is some incredibly short period of time. But everyone should be able to finish on your feet. And, the only way you’re going to know for sure is “Just Do It™.”

Now, a note of caution; if you can’t climb five stories in full kit, then you need to focus on improving your baseline of fitness. The Challenge can be attacked in five segments; master each one before adding the next. It’s not rocket science. But, it’s going to require perspiration and determination. The bottom line, a physically fit firefighter is a safer, more effective firefighter and your level of confidence will rise as your fitness improves.  

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A Salute to Scott Safety

From the Cotton Bowl, at the AT&T (Cowboy) Stadium
I joined the fire service in 1966. Self contained breathing apparatus was replacing filter masks and the chem-ox rebreathers. And while you had cool air as opposed to recycled air, the cylinders were heavy. Really heavy. Steel bottles at roughly 45 pounds with negative pressure, meaning that you had to suck the air past the diaphragm. Years latter (1975) while collecting data on 100 randomly selected structural firefighters from the greater Washington, DC area, 15% of the sample could not restore respiratory homeostasis without ripping off their face piece. While not a big issue in a training tower, clearly a death sentence if that same action was performed at the scene of a working fire.

Our research team from the College of Public Health met with the NASA engineers under the aegis of Project Fires, a technology transfer program whereby inventions of NASA would be the seed corn for innovation for firefighters. I can recall presenting data about the Minute Volumes (the amount of air turned over in a minute) while performing hard physical work. The engineers said that there was no way that SCBAs could support that kind of workload. In other words, the SCBA was a “governor” controlling the work rate and concomitantly, the safety of firefighters who were working at the seat of a blaze. 

I attended my first FDIC in Memphis in 1967. Anxious to see how the other guys did it, we visited one of the MFD stations. I asked one of the firefighters, "Where's your SCBA?" He remarked proudly, "In the rear compartment." I said why there? His response, "We're smoke eaters here." I said, you're stupid. You only come with one set of lungs. A photo facsimile of the suitcase that contained the SCBA is shown below. 
The Original Scott Air Pak suitcase

The engineers at Scott found a better way- positive pressure which is now the norm today. And we now have composite cylinders that are no longer heavy or a threat for ballistic explosion. So, back in the last century, it was incomprehensible that fire-athletes could perform tasks that approach or exceed 1.5 HP, yet today, more than 60,000 firefighters have stepped out on the Challenge course and gone “balls to the wall” while wearing a Scott Air-Pak.

Technically, this is our 25th year as our first event was held at the University of Maryland’s Fire/Rescue Institute in 1991. The following year, with the support of DuPont, we launched our first national tour.
And every day, thousands of firefighters don their Air-Paks without a moment’s hesitation and go in harm’s way. What an incredible testimony to the product and the people of Scott who have generously funded the Scott Challenge.