Good Guys and Gals Wear a Mask–And the Rest of Their Gear

In recent posts Robin Lawson and Frank Vento have shared their personal experiences with cancer; Robin as a two-time breast cancer survivor and Frank as one who’s just learned that he’s going into battle with the “Big C”.  I once again thank both of them for their courage in sharing their stories.

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One of my readers, Greg Petersen, responded to Frank’s post with the following comment:

Robert, what an interesting post – after 48 years in the fire service, many of them prior to every one having an SCBA, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor and sent to a hospital to have it removed.

This is one of those things that is supposed to happen to others, and not me, after all, I am now the Fire Chief of a small City and don’t go interior [fighting fires] that much anymore. The take away from all of this is that the “youngsters” need to mask up EVERY FIRE EVERY TIME” if they want to avoid having their brain worked on.

Keep up the good work in keeping all members informed, especially about safety (job #1)

This was my response to such a moving comment:

Great comments, Greg. Thank you for contributing to the conversation. I’m stunned everyday as continue to see firefighters and officers needlessly breathing smoke–with their SCBA on their back and face piece hanging from their neck. And even more stunned when I read a comment from another reader about such a photo that “takes the firefighters to task” over their unsafe behavior.

Firefighters at work No MaskNow, I’m not taken back by the original comment [taking the firefighters to task], but rather the dozen or so other “commentators” who “pile on” to the first comment with phrases like:

  • “You weren’t there!”
  • “It’s easy to Monday Morning Quarterback!”
  • “Firefighting is a dangerous job.  Get out if you can’t take the heat.”
  • “What do you know desk-jockey? When’s the last time you were on a job?” (Especially if the original comment was made by a chief officer)

When I read those kinds of on-line “attacks” from brother (?) or sister (?) firefighters I’m reminded of the story I heard many years ago about boiling lobsters.  The story goes that when you put several lobsters into a pot of boiling water, whenever one of the lobsters tries to climb out of the pot the other lobsters pull them back into the boiling water.  Sound familiar?Firefighters Overhaul 2

IAFC (International Association of Fire Chiefs) President Bill Metcalf, is the fire chief for the North County Fire Protection District in Fallbrook, California  In the August 2013 edition of the IAFC’s newsletter, On Scene, Chief Metcalf wrote a piece entitled, An Inconvenient Truth

You might recall that former Vice President Al Gore, after leaving office, added that phrase to popular cultural through his presentations, and subsequent book and documentary, about global warming. Gore used that phrase to emphasize his point that the evidence is clear that global warming is occurring and it’s doing significant damage to the earth.

Firefighters OverhaulBut we don’t like hearing the message—it’s an inconvenient truth—because the issue is complicated, the solutions are complex and messy and they cause us to realize that we’re to blame.  Chief Metcalf wrote:

I’ve come to realize that firefighters dying in fires is our very own inconvenient truth in the fire service…In spite of all we know about fire, in spite of all of the advances that have been made in technology, in spite of all of the advances in the science of fire prevention and suppression, in spite of the billions of dollars spent—firefighters still die.

We still dress wildland firefighters in Nomex shirts, pants, a hardhat and a pair of leather gloves and send them out with hand-tools to fight fires that are releasing energy equivalent to that of a nuclear warhead.

We dress firefighters in sophisticated turnout gear, slap a helmet on their head and SCBA on their back and send them into burning buildings we know are going to fall down.

Then we wonder why some don’t come home.

A year ago, Lieutenant S. Brieanne Nix, a career lieutenant Hanover Fire EMSand paramedic with Hanover (VA) Fire EMS, published a piece in the On-Scene newsletter in which she discussed Company Officer Leadership: Inspiring a Culture of SafetyIn that piece, Lieutenant Nix wrote:

“Departmental culture is generally defined as a way of thinking, behaving and believing that members of an organization have in common. To achieve a true culture of safety, officers must addresses the real and underlying causes of the gap in safety measures. Do you suffer from any pitfalls of poor safety responsibility? Do you or the officers around you ever:

  • Show more concern for not upsetting others than for fixing problems?
  • Feel powerless and see safety as a have-to, not a want-to?
  • Lack interest; avoid making commitments; or shift responsibility to others?”

(Lieutenant Nix is also a member of the IAFC’s Company Officer Leadership Committee).

Firefighter Near Miss Logo

Indeed, then we wonder why some don’t come home.


Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served for 26 years with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire & EMS Department.  Contact him at [email protected]

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec makes his home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, [email protected].