Firefighters traditionally toll a bell at memorial services for colleagues fallen in the line of duty. In Texas, that bell has been tolling far too much and far too loud to date this year.
Feb. 15: A firefighter searching a burning Knights of Columbus hall in Bryan, TX, signaled he was low on air. He and a member of the rapid response team dispatched to find him died. Two others on the RIT team were seriously injured.
April 17: Fourteen people died in a massive explosion at a burning fertilizer storage facility in West, TX. Of the dead, 12 were firefighters or people responding to help the firefighters.
May 20: A Dallas firefighter died when a portion of a burning condominium unit collapsed.
May 31: Four Houston firefighters working inside a burning two-story hotel died in a building collapse. Twelve other responders were injured.
Seventeen firefighters dead and it is only June. To balance the books with a normal year, Texas can not afford another firefighter fatality until March 2016. Which is a notion I can get behind.
The disaster in West remains largely a mystery. A one-month, $1 million federal investigation eliminated all but three potential causes – a short in a 120 volt electrical system, a defect in a fire prone golf cart or an intentionally set fire. A clear determination may never be possible.
However, the other fatalities on the 2013 Texas list died under circumstances nowhere near as freakish as West. Firefighters were working inside burning one- and two-story structures. In Houston, firefighters were actively fighting fire. The rest were involved search and rescue.
Firefighters are dying in the kind of fires that should not be killing them. The problem is we can not grasp the difference between situations where entering a burning building is an acceptable or unacceptable risk.
Sure, it is always easier to go defensive and shoot water through the windows. No one should ever be critical of that decision. The problem comes when there is a preceived threat to life. People on the scene can not be sure that everyone got out. Or, even if the place is closed in the middle of the night, the nagging uncertainty that someone – a vagrant, a burglar, the boss doing inventory – is trapped inside.
Is it right to put a firefighter at risk simply to erase the slightest doubt that human life is in peril? What about the value of that firefighter’s life? Firefighters are not simply disposable assets that can be replaced like fire hose. Someone has to weigh the risks and rewards before making a decision to send people inside.
Maybe we have grown overconfident about our abilities to deal with the risk? We have the best protective equipment that modern science can provide. Too good. A fire captain once told me about a search and rescue operation in a burning house. He immediately dropped to his knees to get low to the floor. When he looked around, all he could see were the boots of the other firefighters standing tall.
Things went south in a hurry. The wind shifted and started blowing fire out the rear of the house. Still hugging the carpet, the captain saw two pairs of boots nearby, presumably with firefighters still in them.
“Get out of here,” he shouted. “Time is up.”
Once he got outside, the captain started looking for the two firefighters. Both were missing. He immediately informed the incident commander. The search team that rushed inside found them dead.
The moral of the story? Modern PPE is either 100 percent effective or 100 percent ineffective. In my day, the bunker gear might not have been as good, but it allowed you enough sensation to assess the risk.
Today, suddenly reaching the point of failure is like walking off a cliff. Short of a quick shout for the Good Lord, there is not much else you can do.
The closing lines of a famous poem by John Donne sums up best why these issues are so important to firefighters.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.