Emergency personnel need a system to follow | SierraSun.com

Emergency personnel need a system to follow

Mike Terwilliger, Truckee Fire Chief

I picked up the Sierra Sun last week and noticed an article about a structure fire in Glenshire.

It was a basic informational article, but it mentioned a citizen who had concerns about our response time to the fire.

As I thought about this, I realized that although we, as emergency service providers, enjoy tremendous support day-to-day from our communities, occasionally we get involved in something that seems out of the ordinary to the involved citizens and somebody is unhappy. My next question was, why does this happen?

Basically, I think people generally agree with the desired outcome of our emergency services. By this I mean we all agree that the fire department needs to put out the fire right now and we are all relieved when that occurs.

What seems to rankle people is the methodology we use to get to the desired outcome.

For example, back to a typical structure fire. It seems to take forever for the fire engine to get there. Then, they fiddle around with the fire hydrant. Don’t they carry water? After that they talk to each other and nobody is running around with this sense of urgency. They seem like they don’t care.

In all fairness, that is stuff from more than one fire. I also realize most people have never experienced a fire, so what the heck am I talking about?

Well, here is one we are probably all familiar with: a police officer pulls you over for 55 in a 25 at night on Donner Pass Road. You really don’t have a problem with this, in that you do deserve a ticket. What fries you is this: they light up your car like it’s daytime, maybe ask you to keep your hands visible, approach your car from the passenger side where you can’t see them and above all else waste money by sending for another officer to help them. Isn’t there a real crime taking place, for goodness sake? Sound familiar?

All right, where am I going with this? It is simple and I will tell you. It is a little thing we do called risk management. We have learned in these relatively dangerous occupations that if an outcome is predictable, it is probably preventable. To minimize the inherent risk in this business we employ systems.

Systems? Well, you use them every day. Vehicle restraint systems, telephone systems, air traffic control systems to name a few. When one or more of the steps in a system is not followed, the system fails.

If I am losing you, let’s look at a system you might have used in some fashion.

It is breakfast time on Saturday and you pull out that big iron skillet to cook up some nice sausage. You might call it a routine, but I am calling it a system. You put the skillet on the grill and bring up the heat just right. In goes the sausage and it is heated so it will not burn. The skillet is heavy and hot so you go to the drawer and get two hot pads, not one, so you won’t burn your hands. Great routine and a great breakfast.

Now, let’s kick it up a notch and add a sense of urgency to the routine. Steps one through four go just fine, but the pan catches on fire. The fire is quickly spreading to the cabinets and starting to burn them. You suddenly switch from embarrassment to fear that your house and family are threatened. Step five, the pads, is gone and you grab the pan handle because the desired outcome switched from good sausage to saving the cabinets.

Whoops, bad move. You burn your hand real bad, cuss, then take the time to get the pads and remove the pan. The crisis is over and I will guarantee you right about now you wish you followed your system and used the pads because the outcome would have been the same, minus the pain. The emergency caused you to divert from your proven system and you were injured. The same thing can happen to us.

So back to the fire department. After you burn your hand on the skillet, your wife, being a clear thinker, has forced you to call 911 and we show up. We bring three, count ’em, three big fire engines, sirens and all. Don’t they listen at 911?

We see smoke coming out of a house, a guy with a burned hand, a bunch of kids out on the lawn. We go through the steps I mentioned in the beginning. You don’t understand why we don’t just go in the house and why we brought the whole fire department.

Well, I hope you have the answer now. We will always follow our system because we don’t know the fire is out. It might be waiting to stomp us as we come through the door. Your failure to follow a system caused a burned hand.

We can’t allow a sense of urgency on your part to distract us from our system. Our failure to do so might cost a life.

About now you may be asking yourself, just what do I want you to take from this tirade? Is he whining again?

Nope, but next time we show up at your cabinet fire and the neighbor shakes his head, just smile and say, it’s their system, go with it.

Oh, one more favor. Thank that police officer as well. It will validate the system, but more importantly the next time the system may really count.

You can reach Truckee Fire Protection District Chief Mike Terwilliger via E-mail at mterwilliger@thegrid.net.