I chose this obvious firefighting truism and its medical counterpart as the title to emphasize this point: Although there are many effective approaches to extinguishing structure fires, we must still continue to seek out the most efficient methods. In other words, extinguishment of every fire will eventually occur regardless of the relative superiority (or inferiority) of our skills, resources, or tactics, whether because of our efforts, the complete consumption of fuel, or other factors. Given the opportunity, though–just like we want to stop bleeding before the patient exsanguinates and succumbs to their injuries–we want to stop a fire before the building and any victims perish. Therefore, though “success” in some form is virtually guaranteed no matter the methods used, that does not excuse us from continuing to search for the right combination that provides the best outcome.
I am a strong believer in the value of the principles of modern fire attack (MFA), an approach to firefighting that I believe is quicker, easier, and safer than the tactics on which I and every other North American firefighter until now were trained. That said, there is passion, knowledge, experience, and intelligent arguments on both sides of the debate over its pros and cons, and I don’t pretend that MFA advocates have all of the answers or have figured out all of the problems. Given the wide diversity in everything that contains the word “fire”–departments, -fighters, etc.–there truly can be no “one size fits all” approach. Still, with the substantial body of evidence contradicting the basis of many “traditional” tactics, and so many National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health firefighter line-of-duty death (LODD) reports citing a failure to account for newly identified fire dynamics principles (flow paths, smoke as fuel, etc.), the topic is of critical importance to the fire service and its customers. Failing to keep up to date with the continuing research is tantamount to malfeasance.
An encounter that occurred about 25 years ago comes to mind, when Alan Brunacini brought his Fire Command road show to our town. My brother and I were two of many who lined up to speak to him after the program wrapped up. The general theme for the seminar was firefighter safety, with the use of seat belts and fully enclosed riding positions being hot topics of the time. I thanked him for helping me save so many buildings as a young incident commander through the commonsense and practical advice he provided in his textbooks and articles, and even joked that plaques ought to be placed on many a still-standing building proclaiming that fact. In response, he commented that if such a policy were strictly enforced there would be a lot of plaques on empty lots in Phoenix, marking incidents that may not have gone as hoped, but which helped hone his technique and philosophy.
While we were speaking, a chief from another town ambled up and asked if his department was in danger of non-compliance with the new standards as they had just received delivery on an engine that did not have enclosed seating for firefighters. Chief Brunacini reassured him that the guidelines were not retroactive, and that they could use the apparatus without restriction, but then posed this question: “Knowing what you know now of the dangers of riding in open seats, would you specify that same design if you had to do it again?” After a brief pause, the other department “leader” answered “Yes,” and walked away. He was barely out of earshot when Chief Brunacini muttered, “Brain dead!”
This story has more impact and clarity given the passage of time, with riding on tailboards, or even in open cabs, not even a distant memory to most firefighters. If I had shared the story of this encounter during the era in which it occurred, though, there would have been a flurry of letters to the editor (the ancient equivalent of blogging) defending the older-style apparatus (e.g., “better views upon arrival”, “quicker deployment of supply hose,” “keeps us tough,” etc.). It’s impossible to tell in the present what enlightenment will be offered to us in the future, but the only sure way of keeping your mind alive is by staying current with the research so deeply affecting our profession.
Resistance to change is virtually a tradition for the fire service. What may explain some of the current strife amongst firefighters is the recent pace, and breadth, of the modifications in the basic tenets and practice of our craft. Consider this: For most of recorded history, only small, incipient fires could be extinguished, given that the primary water delivery device was a hand-held container (bucket or similar), while any fire that was more advanced would typically continue to spread until all of the available combustibles were consumed. Or it rained. As cities became larger, so, too, did the conflagrations that destroyed them. Enter the invention and manufacture of portable pumping devices in the 17th Century, and there was finally a method for applying sufficient water to a burning building to potentially limit its spread. Still, it was not until the development and adoption of modern personal protective equipment—fire-resistant fabric and self-contained breathing apparatus–in the late 20th century that entry into a burning building could be accomplished. This finally allowed for the means of extinguishment to be brought to the seat of the fire, and for effective interior searches to be performed within an IDLH environment.
So, the approach that many in the fire service consider the “standard” – rapid interior entry by firefighters for extinguishment, search, and rescue–usually preceded by ventilation; and sometimes referred to as “Aggressive Interior Attack” –has been in existence for just a little more than a generation (it was considered “reckless” by senior firefighters when I joined my first department in the 1970s). Viewed in the context of the history of civilization, which is how long mankind has been trying to improve our ability to manage structure fires, this is a mere “blink of the eye.” And, as brief as its reign has been, now it, too, is being replaced by something even better. This will also be the fate of the next “big thing,” and the ones after. Such change is the way of the world, though it can certainly be said to be happening much more rapidly than ever before. Look at the accelerating pace of these changes: Millenia (thousands of years) for the bucket brigade, a few centuries for exterior attack with pumpers, maybe three decades for aggressive interior attack, and just a few years since MFA was introduced. The term “modern” is, of course, relative, and will soon (months, weeks?) no longer be appropriate for the tactics many of us are just coming to understand.
Keep in mind, though, that the “standard” AIA method, while put forth as an ideal to strive for, was never universally embraced by the fire service, nor routinely accomplished even by those who did. Although those firefighters in self-proclaimed “aggressive” departments train hard to be able to precisely accomplish all of the various tasks involved in what had been considered “cutting edge” firefighting, even they are not always successful in meeting their own expectations for a coordinated attack. Being able to correctly perform such synchronized maneuvers, at dynamic events, from a standing start, at all hours of the day and night, is a lofty ideal that is not always realized. I have to admit that most fires I have attended were extinguished without the benefit of anything that could be described as “coordinated” ventilation. Sure, the roof and/or windows were usually opened at some point, but the contributions of those actions to the overall success of the operation were questionable, and that is an observation that I made prior to my perspective having been tainted by the fire behavior research that found the practice to be generally detrimental. And, still, the fires went out.
So, where I previously spent much time and effort trying to improve the integration of the ventilation tactic into our operations, now I have been relieved of that concern by data showing we hadn’t been missing anything important. Many advocates for the traditional methods state that such shortfalls in performance can be overcome with continued practice. I say don’t bother, and instead practice doing things that we need to be efficient at (i.e., forcible entry, hoseline placement, interior search) and have benefits. Again, not every fire department has perfected, or even adopted, AIA. What many of us had derisively labeled “outstanding firefighting” (because firefighters were standing outside the building directing hose streams) may have been all they could accomplish because of such constraints as staffing, experience, or training. Yet those fires went out, too, and continue to go out.
We receive much of our indoctrination in large part following the medieval model of apprenticeship, whereby masters of the craft pass on their knowledge to novices. Give this fact, the status quo will tend to continue until challenged by outside pressures or “malcontented” insiders. A substantial amount of the external forces currently acting on the fire service are in the form of fire dynamics research, which in large part began as investigations of firefighter LODDs. From within, many of us pushing for change have been inspired by those findings.
In fact, our otherwise tradition-bound profession also has a long history of innovation, both in response to such things as changes in construction methods or the development of new technology, and because the many challenges we face attract, or at least inspire, problem-solvers. Textbooks, magazine articles, and now the Internet are filled with a multitude of tips and techniques designed to shave a few seconds of time or a few calories of effort off of a particular procedure because, in both firefighting and medicine, sometimes the difference between success and failure is measured in such tiny increments.
My challenge to those reading this, whatever the opinions held on the relative value of newer or older methods, is to dedicate yourselves to continuous evaluation of our practices in light of what will undoubtedly be continuous improvements in our ability to carry them out, including our understanding of the principles upon which they are based. Even absent additional research (no chance for that), the natural progression of technical and procedural modifications inherent in such a widespread practice as firefighting guarantees constant improvement, as long as we are aware of and open to change. We need to keep in mind that there are many different perspectives and approaches even on the topics on which we all agree.
The fire service should be actively seeking out new ideas and perspectives, and looking at everything we do with the intent of continuous quality improvement, instead of merely perfecting our current techniques (which remains a noble, if incomplete, goal). This can take the form of reviewing the various forms of fire service literature, whether periodicals, Internet postings, or formal research; networking (i.e., asking and answering questions of other persons, then sharing contact information to allow for future conversations); and even looking outside of our profession at how others have adapted to and overcome challenges (e.g., military, business, education). There is a rich legacy of firefighters sharing knowledge between different departments, and even disciplines (e.g., wildland principles being applied to structural fires, urban tactics to rural settings, and, most recently, laboratory findings to the street). The overall intent is to develop and maintain an inquisitive and accepting mind that allows for the recognition and integration of better ways of doing things.
We need to not only get the job done, which we are already very good at, but must continue to seek out and perfect the most efficient and effective methods so that our success, which is somewhat preordained, is accomplished in a manner that provides the maximum benefit all around.
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Mark J. Cotter has more than 40 years experience in emergency services and is currently a volunteer captain with the Salisbury (MD) Fire Department. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.