Vest-Wearing Yard-Breathers

I am one of them, so be nice.

You have likely heard others say, “Discretion is the better part of valor”.  This is actually a misquote.  In fact, Shakespeare’s Falstaff said: “The better part of valor is discretion, in the which better part I have sav’d my life.”  You have to understand the context in which Falstaff said this, which was after playing dead to escape being killed. His justification was that words like “honor” and “valor” will get you nothing once you’re dead. Falstaff’s suggestion implies that feigning death in this situation, which was a cowardly act, was defensible because what good are those terms if you are dead?

There is a certain argument made by people in our profession that indeed, having a safety mindset is, well, cowardly. There is a belief that the goal of the reflective vest-wearing, “yard-breather” population is to deprive each and every one of you out there of a draped casket and a bagpipe escort, that ‘tis much better to serve you and your company up as cannon fodder and damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. If you want to meet the objective of a LODD funeral, I suggest that at least you do it for a good reason. Unfortunately, given the statistics, that’s the least likely way you’ll go down in our business.

While there are excesses in every aspect of our lives, and I’ll grant that the safety officers sometimes come up with some really less-than-fun approaches to our jobs, you aren’t serving any purpose to get killed in training, except to inflate the LODD death statistic every year. If you happened to be one of the valiant 343 who died saving the equivalent population of several small cities, to me, you are a hero. If you happen to die because you refuse to buckle your seat belt, to me, less so.

We must make snap decisions daily that involve life and death. Sometimes we make good decisions and sometimes, things don’t go as expected. In the eyes of some, discretion suggests cowardice, but to me, discretion suggests a good command of resources and appropriate application of force to create leverage, thus defeating an enemy. Napoleonic conflict didn’t go out of vogue because it was effective; instead commanders realized the solution was impossible if  there were a finite number of live bodies available. Thus, there was a practical need to change their approach.

If I may appeal to your rational side, if safe practices are really just sucking the life out of you, then try thinking about it from the perspective of your survivors. When you go off half-cocked and do something you think might be “heroic”, the rest of us often have to clean up the resultant mess. You may be off to Valhalla or whatever it is you believe in, but the rest of us earthbound souls have to pick up where you left off, get the kids to school, pay the bills, go to other calls, etcetera, etcetera. Like it or not, when you tap out 5-5-5-5 on us, life goes on down here. If you want valor, talk to a mother supporting several young children on a firefighter death benefit, or those same children who must go on and now won’t get to see Daddy at Christmas.  Those individuals represent valor to me.

Discretion is, in truth, the better part of valor, if you are of the belief that there is more to life than another parking lot. Sometimes it takes more courage to push on. If you can’t see that for yourself, put yourself in the shoes of those who have to deal with the aftermath. If you’re not going to be safe for your own sake, do it for your family.  There’s nothing heroic about making dumb choices.

While the vest-wearers may have a job we don’t like as much, in essence, they are there to protect ourselves from ourselves.  We have to pull back on the reins sometimes and that goes against what some of you all might like, but honestly, we need a much more mature attitude from everyone on the team when it comes to approach of our most dangerous situations.  Like we football coaches say to the youngster who has just done his best T.O. imitation in the end zone: “Act like you’ve been there before.”  If we can all exhibit calm, cool, professional behavior, not only will we conquer every emergency, but we might live to talk about it later.

  • chiefreason

    It’s funny, but I was rewarded for promoting safety by being called a yard breather.
    The irony is that I CAN breathe; unassisted by bottle or nasal cannula.
    There is the notion that by going defensive, you allow more property to burn, which goes against the credo.
    However; hose streams directed in the right direction will reduce property loss as well; especially adjoining properties in close proximity to the building on fire.
    People still struggle with the whole risk assessment thingie.

  • Jared Alexander

    Chief, you’re a man among men. The cretins who complain about “vest-wearing yard breathers” have never stopped to actually listen to themselves. I think it’s sorta like arguing with a bigot or a schizophrenic… You’re never going to sway them from their opinion, it’s too deeply entrenched in their psyche.

    We either evolve or perish, that’s the adage of progress. The ‘firemen’ who believe safety and aggressive firefighting cannot be synonymous don’t see the bigger picture, and our attempts to enlighten them will only ever be taken as cowardice and weakness. They have been raised up in our profession by the dinosaurs, the guys who say, “that’s how we did it 20 years ago and it worked for us.” never mind the changes our enemy has undergone in the past four decades. Synthetic materials, lightweight construction, etc. etc…

    Those of us who “get it” will push along, and eventually we will prevail. Unfortunately, the fire service culture doesn’t just change slowly, it changes withe the speed of petrifying rock. So, keep up the great work, and at least I’m sure that the firefighters down in HHI operate safely. Not like the “heroes” in NoVa, DC and the likes…

    Stay safe, take care of each other, and take care of the job.
    In that order.

  • Mark

    Well, don’t know where this fits in, but I’ve been doing “the job” for near 30 years, first 16 as a volunteer, las 13 as paid. The safety thing is killing ALL the fun. Take the vests? We are supposed to wear refletive vests OVER our reflective turnout gear while standing beside/in front of our reflective, well lit apparatus. It’s foolishness. Those vests don’t even protect professional flaggers!If someone doesn’t see the truck/police cars or my striped gear, then they won’t see the vest, and there’s a chance going to put on the vest MAY cause another problem.


    OK I believe in safety with that said I read a story on line that the Chief pulled the FF’s out of the building because it had a trust roof. In the story it stated that the fire was was on the first floor of a two story building, the FF’s were doing their job knocking down the fire…but in the end the fire extended to the second floor and into the attic and trust roof…..building lost

  • Rhett Fleitz

    I have never really considered the white hats “yard breathers”. I have considered the guys afraid of fire, too out of shape, or whatever other reason for pulling up lame at the fire scene the yard breathers. Keep doing what you do Chief, take care of the guys inside (or outside) fighting fire. It is your view and your actions (strategy) that defines our tactics. We cannot fight fire without someone looking at the big picture and taking care of the firefighters.

  • chiefreason

    The romanticism and part of the allure of firefighting is fires. Much has been written about a small percentage of LODDs that were caused from flashover, backdraft and wind driven fires and collapses of the involved structures. And we have taken a look at what we can do better there to predict the fire behavior (“where’s it been; where’s it at and where’s it going).
    Unfortunately, firefighters are dying from cancer, pulmonary disease and heart disease/heart attacks.
    And that’s where much of the focus is and should be.

  • chiefreason

    The romanticism and part of the allure of firefighting is fires. Much has been written about a small percentage of LODDs that were caused from flashover, backdraft and wind driven fires and collapses of the involved structures. And we have taken a look at what we can do better there to predict the fire behavior (“where’s it been; where’s it at and where’s it going).
    Unfortunately, firefighters are dying from cancer, pulmonary disease and heart disease/heart attacks.
    And that’s where much of the focus is and should be. That’s where we can marry safety with behavior.
    As far as the vests go? We just purchased all new sets of turnout gear and we have tear away vests over the coats in their lockers. If they don’t need them; they simply “tear” them off. And that ain’t nothin’.
    I’ll take notice when the vest becomes a DETRIMENT to the safety of our people.

  • Ben Waller

    “The safety thing is killing ALL the fun.”

    I didn’t know that we were supposed to be having fun while engaging in a life-threatening profession while other people’s property is being destroyed.

    Having fun should never be the focus when fighting fire. The fire has a way of taking the fun out of thing very, very quickly.

  • Ben Waller

    Old Fireman, how do you know that the fire was confined to the first floor when the chief ordered the defensive attack?

    Do you know the condition of the structure prior to the fire?

    Do you know if they had adequate manpower and water supply to fight the fire in the first place?

    Do you KNOW that the fire was extinguishable with the resources on scene when the defensive attack was ordered?

    If not, then it’s likely that the chief made the right decision. Even if they had the resources, if the chief didn’t consider the attack worth the risk, then he did the right thing by not risking trading a firefighter or two for a structure.

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Michael "Mick" Mayers

Deputy Fire Chief - Operations Division for Hilton Head Island (SC) Fire Rescue and an Emergency Response Coordinator with the United States Department of Health and Human Services  National Disaster Medical System Incident Response Coordination Team.
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