Lessons Learned from Our Brothers in Blue

Photo Courtesy of the Daily Press

Photo Courtesy of the Daily Press

Earlier this month, Virginia State Trooper Chad Dermyer was shot and killed in the line of duty. Trooper Dermyer had served as a police officer in the city where I work before moving on in his career and I started wondering if there were lessons to be learned beyond firefighter line of duty death reports. NIOSH reports can become very repetitive (and recently agenda driven) and that can limit our ability to learn from them. Incidents, causes, recommendations can all run together and we can get complacent when reading them. So I went in search of lessons learned from the law enforcement community and found some interesting things.

Historically, April is a month plagued with tragedy for our law enforcement brothers

Jerry Dove (left) and Ben Grogan

Jerry Dove (left) and Ben Grogan

and sisters. Thirty years ago, on April 11th, 1986 two FBI agents made the ultimate sacrifice while attempting to apprehend two suspects in an armed robbery case. A shootout took place in a suburban area of Miami, Florida. After four minutes, Special Agents Ben Grogan and Jerry Dove lay dead. Four other agents were wounded. This event continues be recognized as one of the bloodiest days in FBI history.

Sixteen years earlier, California Highway Patrol Officers George Alleyn, Walt Frago, Roger Gore, and James Pence were gunned down in a parking lot in Newhall, California. These events remain two of the most talked about shootouts in law enforcement history. Both have provided officers with valuable lessons that have undoubtedly saved and will continue to save lives. But these lessons are not exclusive to the police force; they are also applicable to the fire service. If embraced, they may aid in saving firefighter lives from tragedies similar to those that befell our brothers in blue.1237787399

By now most firefighters have heard stories of police officers found dead with spent revolver brass in their pockets. The stories often involved officers who trained with revolvers who routinely policed their brass while shooting at the range, placing it in their pockets to prevent a mess that they had to clean up at the end of the day. The stories say that these officers were so ingrained with this habit that they performed this task even in the middle of a fight for their lives. Many people associate the Florida and California shootouts with this muscle memory, so it is no surprise that instructors often use these stories in an attempt to prove the effects of muscle memory on performance. However, investigations performed after the aforementioned incidents have concluded that any story involving officer dying with brass in his pocket is rhetoric. There are few, if any, documented instances of an officer found dead with empty shell casings in his pocket. These anecdotes, though well-intentioned, do nothing to advance the true lessons learned from these horrible tragedies and paint these heroes in a negative light. Let’s put the dramatic fiction away and look at some facts.

The truth is that the aforementioned police deaths came as a result of a complex situation. Any lessons gleaned from these tragedies should not be considered a condemnation of the brave officers who gave their lives; most of what we’ve learned suggests that there were factors in play far beyond their control, including lapses in training and significant equipment issues. Both incidents cite similar training issues, including the use of static firearms training – training where the officer stands still shooting at a silhouette target that doesn’t move. Most of the officers were not trained with moving targets or taught how to fire a service weapon while in a position of cover. Instead, they received standard basic training that did not simulate real world situations, training created to check a box on a piece of paper. Does this sound familiar? Firefighting basic recruit training is very similar. It exists in a vacuum. It’s static, with very few real world variables involved. New firefighters pull hose through buildings without furniture and search blind folded without ever touching a thermal imager. Once they leave the academy they have obstacles and elements to deal with that they never encountered in training. Imagine what this does to their state of mind. Their stress is already high then add several unknown factors and then see what their reaction is. Even when we do try to simulate real world scenarios in the burn building we put our recruits in situations that reinforce poor habits. Forcing recruits to push into high heat with thick smoke banked down to the floor while flowing limited to no water is a recipe for disaster (but those burns and NFPA 1403 are a different topic for a different time).
We need to build recruits up through training with a firm foundation in the basics. The first few times they try a skill it should be in a well lit area in a slow and controlled fashion. Then start building speed with a desired end goal. Once they begin to show proficiency, begin timing them. There does not need to be specific time frame but timing alone begins to add a stress factor. From there you should start to effect their senses. I start by limiting vision, through black out masks or smoke, this ramps up the stress a bit more. The next thing I do is add heat, either through a live fire evolution or a jet heater. The final sense I effect is hearing. We use pre recorded fire ground radio channel played over an open radio channel. This is done until recruits are proficient in the basics needed to do the job and then we introduce things like thermal imaging cameras, larger hoselines, difficult situations, changing tactics, and evolving scenarios involving multiple skill sets.

Some of the fallen heroes had service weapons that they never trained on or qualified with. They may have never even fired those weapons before. How many of you are not using the same equipment you used in the academy? Have you used that tool in the field? Do you know how to troubleshoot it? Many firefighters just assume that a nozzle is a nozzle and a halligan is a halligan without looking into the specifics of the tool and those people are very misinformed. We need to know everything about our weapons. Whether the nozzle is an automatic fog, adjustable gallonage, or smoothbore. Does it have a stream straightener, or a metal strainer? We need to be checking to see if the nozzle has a split ball valve or solid ball valve. Firefighters need to know their hose loads, how to pull them, and how to troubleshoot them. Did the last crew repack the hose correctly? The only way you can be sure that everything works correctly is to check it/pack it yourself. We need to return to doing these things everyday and not just the first day back to work.

Another issue, particularly in the Miami shootout, related to the FBI agents’ use of 9mm revolvers. The revolvers held a limited number of rounds, required a manual reload (they did not have speed loaders), and didn’t have much stopping power. The suspect responsible for the deaths of Special Agents Ben Grogan and Jerry Dove was actually shot early on in the incident. The bullet stopped a few inches from his heart, be he was able to continue on his rampage. Ballistic experts agree that had the officers fired a larger caliber weapon, the suspect would have been killed instantly. As a result of the ballistic investigation, the FBI changed their weapons and bullets. Furthermore, the FBI agents were aware that the suspects had high powered long rifles that they used in previous robberies, but they still attempted to apprehend the suspects using small caliber hand guns and a shotgun. Prudence alone would suggest (1) the use of a larger caliber weapon against such an attacker and (2) FBI testing of service weapon effectiveness. Applying similar prudent strategies to the fire service requires that we ask ourselves this question: How often are we “outgunned” when we enter a burning building? I’m willing to bet it happens far more often than we like to think. The solution to this problem? We need to stretch the proper lines to the proper place with the proper nozzle for the upcoming fire fight. We also need to field test our “weapons” (nozzles). Do we know our flow rate for all of the nozzles on our specific engine? This information is key. Know your flow rate through your hose configuration and nozzle combination. We need to overwhelm the BTUs with superior GPMs. As Brian Brush says “if you find yourself in a fair fight, your tactics suck.” You wouldn’t bring a knife to a gun fight, so why pack low GPM? Be smart. Make sure you’re not in a fair fight.
A few of the officers were not wearing their body armor or did not fully load their guns because they were heavy to carry. This one is pretty easy to relate to the fire service. WEAR ALL OF YOUR GEAR. It may be heavy and restrict movement but it is designed to save your life. If you want proof, pull up the video from the fire where Fresno Fire Captain Pete Dern fell through the roof. Wear your gear. No excuses.

At the end of the day, firefighter LODD reports and NIOSH reports are an excellent resource for our profession and they will continue to be part of my daily reading, but we should not limit ourselves. We should be students on a never ending journey to gain information. If you put the job specific issues aside and read the reports of the military, police, or any other dangerous job while substituting their professional terminology for ours, we can all learn a great deal while also honoring those heroes who paid the ultimate sacrifice for protecting us. Expand your horizons, it may save your life.

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