Lessons Learned From Firefighting in Rural America

Being part of my home town’s fire department is the most rewarding experience I have had to date. Every time I stepped into the fire house, I learned something. I saw sides of humanity you don’t get to see in a normal nine to five life, and I am a better person for it. If you ever have a chance to work or volunteer in a similar way, I urge you to do it. It feels good to be part of something bigger than yourself. You may make a difference in someone’s life. It will certainly make a difference in yours.

Some of these lessons I had to learn the hard way. They can be applied to your everyday life and would serve you well in a bug out or emergency scenario.  

If you ever hear someone say, “It’s just a grass fire,” they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Grass fires kill people, livestock, destroy homes, and are inherently dangerous. Winds change. Vehicles catch fire. There is a humbling and informative YouTube video called “Oh, it’s Just a Grassfire” that is worth a watch. The lesson here is: do not underestimate whatever you’re up against. Situations can change on you in a snap. I’ve been on lift assist calls that turned into cardiac arrests.

Attack from the black.

If you are fighting a fire line with your grass rig in the fuel, you’re putting yourself in a bad spot. Trucks break down, get stuck, and burn. When you “attack from the black” your rig is positioned in fuel that has already burned and can not burn again. We lost a grass rig when it became stuck in unburned fuel, and the winds changed. Luckily, no one was seriously injured. It was a sobering moment that is still remembered and talked about by many people at the department.

Also Read: Inferno: Ten Things To Know About Fire

Make sure you are aware of what is going on around you. Your camping spot may be perfect, but it may be a death trap in a flash flood.

Always have a way out.

This goes for everyone, all the time. Know your exits. Things can go from no problem to absolute shit show in the blink of an eye. Always have an exit (or two!).

Your safety is YOUR responsibility.

One day before auto extrication training, I got the go ahead to try out my pocket knife/glass breaker to shatter a window. I pulled off my glove to get my hand in my pocket and whacked the window with the butt of my knife. I ended up shoving my unprotected hand through the sharp broken glass. Luckily, I only received minor cuts, but it could have been much worse. It was stupid. I had eye protection, a helmet and face shield, Nomex hood, expensive bunker gear, SCBA, nice gloves and boots, all the tools I needed to be safe were provided to me. In the end, it was my own oversight that hurt me. Don’t rely on law enforcement to save you. Their response is reactive, after an event has started. Don’t get tunnel vision! It’s easy to focus on what’s happening in front of you and lose sight of everything going on around you. Slow down. Don’t forget your personal protective equipment (PPE)! Equip yourself with the knowledge and skills you need to self-rescue.

Try before you pry.

Before you blow your back out working the spreaders (or “Jaws of Life”), try the door handle. You may find it unlocked. This is a prime life lesson I often forget. Try the simplest solution first. It will make your life easier.

Risk nothing to save nothing, risk a lot to save a lot.

Some people don’t like this saying. I say to them: pull your head out of your ass. There’s no point in sending someone into harm’s way if nothing is at risk. If you drive 90 mph to a lift assist, you’re a fool. If someone’s life is at risk and can be saved, then action should be taken to do that. That’s it. That’s all it means.

Know your knots.

You can get a hell of a lot done with 12’ of rope or webbing in your pocket. You can secure a ladder, safely hoist an axe onto a roof, tie a harness, hog tie an unruly land owner (I’m kidding, but I’ve wanted to), keep a gate open (or closed), drag a patient, mark an LZ at night by swinging a glow stick, the uses are limited by your situation and imagination. If you can’t tie knots, you better tie lots. You should know how to tie a bowline, trucker’s hitch, figure eight, and a fisherman’s knot at least.

Back each other up.

Always go in pairs and watch each other’s back! Be supportive of your fellow firefighters and officers. At the first grass fire of a particularly busy season, I let an inexperienced incident commander (IC) put me in a hairy situation with no back up. I was new, eager, and pumped up on adrenaline. It was a no-win situation, and I failed the task assigned to me. Luckily, I wasn’t hurt. When the IC shit on me for it at the hot wash, my chief was furious. He stuck up for me, called the IC on his mistake, and proved he had my back. There was never any question in my mind, but after that I knew I could count on chief and I’d bust my ass to make sure he could count on me. Your crew is your family, and you must be able to rely on each other.

Watch what you say. Especially on the radio.

Don’t get excited or curse on the radio, the entire county may be listening to your traffic. Use plain English. Our dispatch used an absurd code for patients. For example, instead of a saying “young male with a head injury” they would say something like “17 A-alpha 4.” No-one ever knew what these meant. I still have no idea why they did that. Lastly, don’t jam up the air waves with “Ummms” and “Uhhhhs.” Does what you’re about to say really need to be said? Think about it first. Be direct and concise.

Bring a good attitude.

Be able to admit mistakes and take criticism. There is a lot to learn. Be humble. Be positive. Be professional. You are always representing your department, even if you are not on duty or in uniform. If you have a license plate or sticker linking you to an organization, don’t cut people off in traffic.

Let the little ones play with the siren.

Kids are drawn to fire trucks like moths to a flame. Let them satisfy their curiosities (safely). You have an opportunity to be a positive role model for the children. Don’t screw it up. Triple check they are nowhere near the trucks when you move them.

Also Read: Get Your Kids Outside!

Think outside the bun.

I think Taco Bell’s take on “think outside the box” is a hoot. You will be faced with challenging situations regularly. If you can’t problem solve and think for yourself, you will flounder. On an MCI training exercise, some of our guys were faced with half a dozen “victims” near a railroad. There were only two firefighters able to respond (it was a massive event). Thinking quickly, they removed the UTV from the trailer, loaded the patients, and were able to get all six quickly to the casualty collection point. Take the time to plan. Don’t be afraid to try new things. “We have always done it this way” is a dangerous mindset. You may be faced with unique situations and limited resources. If you can’t improvise and adapt, you will fail!

Train, train, train.

Skills are perishable. You will forget or fumble if you have not practiced. When the pressure is on and all eyes are on you, you will be glad you put in the time. You do not rise to the occasion, you fall to your level of training. It’s much easier to learn in a controlled setting. When I did my first solo cross-country flight I had about 26 hours in the plane. Only 2.1 of those hours were “pilot in command” time. Everything was going smoothly, until I started my descent in preparation to land. Once I got below about 4,000 feet, I suddenly experienced what I maintain to be worst turbulence in recorded history, possibly the universe. Maybe it was my inexperience, but I thought the single engine Piper Cherokee was going to fall right out of the sky. It was the most scared I’ve ever been. Why did I think this was a good idea?? I knew no one was able to help me. If I was getting down, I had to do it. I said a quick prayer and pushed everything else out of my mind. I focused on my landing checklist and procedures exactly like I had done every time before that. It wasn’t even my worst landing! When I cleared the runway, I was shaking. If I hadn’t practiced with my instructor and rehearsed in my mind ad nauseum, I may have had a very different outcome.  Never stop training!

Learn to make tough decisions.

I cannot stress this enough. You MUST be able to make difficult decisions under pressure. This ability comes from experience and training. Your patient stops breathing, what do you do? Your plane engine stalls immediately after takeoff, should you go attempt to go around or just land? What if someone appears out of nowhere on the street and demands your wallet?

At another training exercise, we were toned for a search and rescue, with no other information from dispatch. (This wasn’t out of the ordinary, we commonly respond to missing hunter calls). I arrived first on scene at a local address. I assumed command, which is standard operating procedure. We immediately found two victims (dummies) suffering from gunshot wounds, and another group of people about a hundred yards away, screaming, waving their hands, and jumping up and down. As I was assessing one of the “patients” in front of me, I found one side of the chest wasn’t moving. At the same time, two more units arrived on scene. I was suddenly faced with a gaggle of responders “open for assignment”, a whole lot of radio traffic, a screaming group of people I knew nothing about, and a patient suffering a respiratory emergency. If I froze up, my guys would lose confidence in me, and my patient might die. Since I was the highest trained medical technician on scene, I delegated my command to the next senior person (who happened to be our assistant chief) and performed a needle decompression on the patient’s chest. The new IC left someone with me and sent a party in a UTV to tend to the group. It was in the best interest of my patient to give him my full attention. The instructors praised my decision, and I felt great.

Practice self-care. A drowning man saves no one.

Pursue your interests outside of work. Take time off. See a therapist if needed. Find a hobby that allows you to decompress. There is more to life than work.

 

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