In the middle of the day last Wednesday, the fire chief’s bright red SUV was spotted speeding down North Sound Road with emergency lights ablaze, heading to what had been reported as a structure fire.
The night before, Cayman Islands Chief Fire Officer David Hails spent several hours at a major fire on West Bay Road where Treats restaurant sustained serious damage.
These were just two recent examples where the islands’ senior fireman has been seen at emergency response incidents around Grand Cayman.
“I can’t get to know the island and the risks involved by sitting behind my desk listening to incidents on the radio,” Mr. Hails said last week, when asked why he was responding in person to incidents.
Mr. Hails, who was appointed late last year and who started on the job in February, is the first non-Caymanian fire chief since the service was formed in the 1950s. He knows he has to get up to speed quickly.
“I need to be out there, getting to know areas and the communities that live there so, when I am faced with events such as hurricanes, I will be better equipped to deal with any life-threatening situations,” Mr. Hails said.
The fire chief, who has more than 35 years’ experience in the U.K. and around the globe firefighting, as well as managing and training firefighters, said he is hardly the first chief fire officer in the Cayman Islands to head out with the rank and file. Former fire service Chief Kirkland Nixon often did so and the practice was continued by his successor, Roy Grant.
Mr. Hails said it can be a delicate balance on scenes like the Treats restaurant fire last week. He wants to express confidence in the scene management skills of his line chiefs, but he also wants them to know he can serve as “an extra pair of eyes” to look over the scene. Sometimes, he said, the added experience will lead to decisions that reduce the likelihood of injuries to firefighters and the public.
There’s a term for this in firefighting, called Recognition Primed Decision-making or RPD. “This is where an individual with lots of experience can possess a situational awareness of events and predict the outcome of actions before they occur,” he said. “If I predict an outcome that may be dangerous, I will convey this to incident commanders and suggest a different course of action.”
So far, the response to seeing the boss at emergency scenes has seemed positive, Mr. Hails said.
“It is important to gain respect from my firefighters and that isn’t going to happen sitting behind a desk,” he said.
Even if the fire chief is not directly involved in scene management, watching the fire officers work can be helpful in observing the procedures and tactics the crews are using. This helps in an event where he cannot be at a scene and needs to make serious decisions remotely, or even in procuring new equipment for the fire service, he said.
“This will ensure we get trucks and equipment that suit our exact requirements and prevent us from wasting money on stuff that isn’t required or is impractical,” Mr. Hails said.
Mr. Hails said he does not consider himself any different than any other Cayman Islands fire officer when it comes to serving the community.
“It is the duty of every firefighter to save life, no matter what position they hold within the department, and I will endeavor to do this to the best of my ability,” Mr. Hails said. “If that means I’m being spotted at calls, then so be it.”