I recently watched a short television spot that starred you. The piece highlighted some concerns you have with the seemingly mindless adoption of “new” fire suppression techniques. I watched your spot, read the transcripts and was indeed compelled to write you a letter.
You are right. “It certainly is a lot easier and a lot safer to be out there than inside,” and if that is where the story ended all of your other points would be immediately validated. And you are right when you say, speaking of the researchers, “They set all these beautiful controlled conditions up, do an experiment and then write down with their little pencils the results and say, `look what happened. Look what happened. Look what happened…” I start this letter by saying that on more than one point you are right.
We met once upstate, you and I. I was there to talk about risk assessment, and the relationship between uncertainty and fireground decision making. You were there to talk about putting fires out from the inside, your usual fare. It stands to reason that your audience was bigger than mine. I suspect you don’t remember.
Your audience was bigger, best I can figure, because you are the embodiment of a John Wayne archetype. It’s 5 minutes until high noon on a bright summer’s day when you swagger into the town square and proclaim, “I don’t fight fires like that…I am not a scientist, but I have done some experiments myself. Like about 30,000 experiments. I’ve been to a lot of fires.” A younger me would certainly been caught up in the romance of such charisma, but alas….I aged and I changed as did the built environment.
Your resistance to the continued investigation of fire behavior is likely to be denied vehemently by both you and those who support you. So it goes. If I could hazard a guess you would say that research has its place, pencil and lab coats have their place just not on your fireground, at least none of the 30,000 to which you lay claim.
But what I think you most object to is the application of the research to particular fire problems- to this or that particular house fire. I think I understand. The laboratory is ok so long as it does not require the individual-the consumer of said research- to question the core underpinnings of what they do, why they do it, or how they do it.
Experimentation is just that, experimentation. It requires, as you so aptly describe, the creation of “…all these beautiful controlled conditions…” and it indeed requires any number of people to write things down with their “little pencils.” The rigor of the repeatable, the rigor of the controlled environment, is exactly that which might possibly validate those 30,000 uncontrolled experiments that you speak of.
Interestingly, what you have accumulated so far is a bunch of individual circumstances, 30,000 individual circumstances, that while related (in that they were fires) are so varied, so different, so not repeatable, that no reasonable collective conclusions can be drawn from them. Taleb speaks about experience in terms of a turkey, This particular turkey was being fattened for slaughter. He says, “Consider that the turkey’s experience may have, rather than no value, a negative value. It learned from observation, as we are all advised to do (hey, after all, this is what is believed to be the scientific method). Its confidence increased as the number of friendly feedings grew, and it felt increasingly safe even though the slaughter was more and more imminent. Consider that the feeling of safety reached its maximum when the risk was at the highest!” Whether it is 30,000 feedings or 30,000 fires what does it matter, experience is a teacher, but not the only teacher, nor necessarily the best one.
Fire research, that tightly controlled, repeatable set of circumstances, while much more limited in sheer number than your “experiments” are more capable of being the nexus for a more comprehensive or universal framework for applied firefighting. It is important to both know and to accept the limits of your knowledge.
But with that initial discussion aside I suspect I was most inclined to write because of two comments:
- “I’m fairly certain that it is designed to assist and protect firefighters, rather than civilians,” Salka said.
- He worries that the new approach is being driven by a desire among firefighters for self-preservation.
The mission of the fire department is to protect life and property. On that I suspect we can agree. But dead firefighters are not capable of assisting civilians. The firefighter who crashes on the way to a call is not capable of assisting civilians. A firefighter who is burning while searching for civilians cannot save civilians. The only way to execute the mission is by being alive. Self-preservation is an integral part of “assisting” and it should be encouraged.
The mission of the fire department is to protect life and property. On that I suspect we can agree. I suppose where we might part ways is on how far one should go to do either. I expect firefighters to accept risk, perhaps even extreme risk, when a rational analysis of the salient facts supports the taking of that risk. I support extreme risk when there is a reasonable chance that by virtue of taking that risk a life might be saved. Not a house or a car nor a cherished photograph but a life. I will support, I must support, some risk to save a house or a car or a cherished photograph because life comes with inherent risk, it is embedded in each action or non-action.
This is quite different from being rash. It is not now, nor should it have even been acceptable to risk one’s life willy nilly on the off chance that someone might be inside a house. Should I be willing to disregard my self-preservation (as if that is some pejorative) in order to search a house where it is unreasonable for someone to be alive inside?
The mission of the fire department is to protect life and property. On that I suspect we can agree. But do we get to pick and choose the hazards? If we are expected to “risk it all” to conduct the search at a house fire where there is no verifiable information, save for a car parked out front and some toys scattered across the yard, that people are trapped, why would we limit that life risking to a singular scenario?
If instead of a house I gave you a cold storage facility and if instead of a fire I gave you anhydrous ammonia, a cloud of it wafting out the front door. And if I parked those same cars in front of it would you be as inclined to go searching for people who “might be” inside? And if not please help me understand how that is not the same self-preservation that you are so critical of. And if not, arguing that anhydrous ammonia is somehow different than smoke, heat, and flame, I offer that your structural firefighting ensemble provides you the exact same protection from flashover as it does from anhydrous ammonia; not much.
Ballistic behavior is when you shoot the gun and the bullet goes where ever the gun was last pointed. Ballistic behavior is when you step off of the fire engine with the belief that someone is trapped and you don’t adjust that belief or the series of actions that follow. Ballistic behavior is also when you stand in front of every structure and assume that a search is not necessary.
I argue that the better position is to understand that the decision to enter a structure for manual fire suppression is a decision made independently of the status of the occupants. A structure on fire is either stable enough for firefighters to enter or it is not. However, once entry is made the decision to search the structure is immediately necessary. And that issue of whether the structure is stable is a not a one-time question. It is a question that must be revisited over and over. As fire is knocked down, as more information is developed, as time goes on, things change. We must evaluate, then act, and re-evaluate over and over until the work is done.
But then you never know. You never know which vacant house contains a living soul. On that we can agree. We should also be able to agree that human life is fragile. A flashover can bring heat flux values of 15-20 kW/m2. Your facepiece fails, falls apart at 20 kW/m2. Who lives through that? Under ventilated fires, as most structure fires are these days, are capable of producing carbon monoxide at well over 20,000 PPM. The IDLH, the value immediately dangerous to life, is 1500 PPM. Who lives through that? I could go on, the oxygen levels are too low for life, the hydrogen cyanide levels too high. People who are intimate with the fire don’t often live to tell about it.
And you know never know whether or not there is a person alive in that factory with 110 PPM of hydrogen cyanide available to be absorbed through your skin. Shall we go look for them too?
People who survive fires are people who are not intimate with the fire. They are people who are separated from the fire by walls and doors, they are the ones who live and they are precisely the ones we aim to save. We aim to save people from circumstances that if left unchecked could violate the separation, creating an untoward intimacy.
The same walls and doors that protected them from the fire will protect them from the steam, should it ever be proven that the steam was a great hazard. The same walls and doors will produce them from the fantasy of the fire “pushed” by the hose stream. The walls and doors do the protecting. We must remove the hazard and then search for them.
If the mission is to protect people, and the thing that most threatens the people is a growing fire, it stands to reason that firefighters would do whatever they could to apply water to the burning surfaces, lowering compartment temperatures, reducing radiant heat flux, making an unsurvivable situation a little more survivable. That is if the mission is really about the people and not about some latent desire to prove something. Protecting people cannot be done well with ballistic behavior.
I want you to consider that it all costs. Fire engines cost money, injured firefighters cost money (lots of money), dead firefighters cost money in benefits paid out over time, lost property costs money. But then, arguably, all loss is not measured in dollars.
The final point on which I am sure that we can agree is that when a firefighter enters a burning structure he/she accepts risk, sometimes extreme risk, because life has a price tag too. It has value. A firefighter should not devalue his/her life as a matter of course, should not make a de facto decision that a civilian life is somehow worth more than his/her own. That makes sense said no one ever.
All life has an intrinsic but self-similar value. My point is that although I am sometimes in a position to ask my guys to risk their lives in order to save someone else, I must never devalue their lives to the point of mere trading and I must never make such a decision as the function of an standard operating procedure, or worse yet an outdated ethos rooted in a failure to consider that sometimes the world changes, and sometime people die, whether you like it or not.
I end this discussion, for now, hoping maybe you find the time to respond but hoping that in the meantime you understand that there are legions of young, impressionable firefighters who stare glassy eyed at their American cowboy archetypes, it is what young men do. I suspect that when you take stock of that capability to capture their attention that you will concurrently realize the awesome responsibility that comes with it and at the very least do as Mark Twain once implored, “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please”
Charles Bailey, from unnamed East Coast Fire Department.