I’m going to end 2018/start 2019 with a positive assessment of the past year’s progress spreading the new fire dynamics knowledge and integrating it into our tactics. To be sure, this may be an overly optimistic view, as sometimes there seems to be more than enough distance between the two sides to take an entire fire service career before they meet somewhere near the center. Still, I have been seeing and hearing more and more evidence of the spread of our evolving understanding of fireground realities, even from those who profess intense resistance to any changes in our methods.
First, though, I want to address a fundamental cause of much of our disagreement, which can be described with one word: Generalizations. And, I’m not talking about the obvious sin of using such terms as “always” and “never” to describe our favored or despised methods. Instead, it is the more insidious over-simplification of both our abilities and problems into slogans and mottos. This is actually a natural response to the overwhelmingly vast array of situations we must face and actions we must be ready to implement, leading us to mentally condense our innumerable responses into more manageable categories. While the resulting descriptive statements are inherently true as themes, though, they are often mis-used as justifications for operational rigidity.
Examples of these expressions include: “They (the public) come first”, “Interior fires require interior entry”, and “No building is vacant until we say it is”, the utterance of which intend to justify increased acceptance of risk, avoiding the use of exterior streams, and building search as a priority, respectively. These behaviors are often collectively self-described as “Aggressive”, a term that is similarly wielded to explain/rationalize an entire firefighting philosophy, if not strategy. To present a balanced account, I would have to include in this discussion similarly simplistic descriptives of the Modern Fire Attack (MFA) approach, many of which I utilize regularly. These are “Fastest water wins”, “Water flow is good, Air flow is bad”, and “Don’t get between a fire and where it wants to go”, describing, in turn, the importance of water application speed over direction, the generally positive effects of water and negative effects of air on compartment fires, and the dangers of flow paths. And, we can’t forget “Everyone goes home”, which emphasizes firefighter safety by suggesting the alternative.
While each of these phrases are either inspiring or educational, and usually even valid, they are appropriate as guidelines, not rules. The reality is, when firefighters of any tactical bent are presented with a specific scenario – a certain structure, occupancy, area of fire involvement, etc – which they are asked to address with their usual resources, the variability in approaches narrows considerably. Those who still believe exterior streams are less effective than interior will admit to their utility when faced with fire blocking their entry, or with fire blowing out of a nearby window and the entry door not yet breached. On the other hand, MFA converts may attack from the unburned side when fire is showing from the opposite end of an open structure, or outdoor features block ready access to the fire location. Even aggressive searchers will admit to avoiding entering structures that are fully involved and/or threatening to collapse, while VEIS is a technique with benefits confirmed, and techniques enhanced, by research. Lastly, the unrepentant advocates of vertical ventilation still have accepted the need to delay completion of the roof opening until after fire control, while those practicing ventilation control will open aggressively if needed for entry or water application.
The reality is, almost any firefighter will literally walk through fire if there is a chance a living person lies beyond, but only the most reckless would even attempt to do so if all occupants were known to be evacuated or likely deceased. And, most will choose a ladder over a hoseline when met by a victim in a window. It is often the specific circumstances that drive the choice of tactics, rather than the intent, desire, or perceived bravery of firefighting personnel. We speak in generalities, yet we only deal with specifics, as in determining the best plan for this crew, building, fire, wind, occupancy, time of day, etc. So, though we might debate at length the pros and cons of our preferences, our actual decisions on the fireground are always in response to the situation. Slogans notwithstanding, we all tend to do what we must, when we must.
Getting back to my optimism, what is feeding it is my perception of a slow but steady bleed-in of knowledge from fire dynamics research into our collective fire service awareness. These include the facts that exterior streams, correctly performed, cool as well as interior, and do not spread products of combustion further into the structure; ventilation before fire control increases the rate of burning more than it releases products of combustion; and flow paths are a thing to stay out of. Our different approaches to integrating this knowledge into our practices, or not, is what feeds most of our disagreements, such as when some focus on timing vertical ventilation more closely to water flow, while others advocate for abandoning that tactic altogether. Same understanding; different applications.
For better or worse, our disagreements often consist of theoretical generalizations, rather than specific instances, over such vague concepts as when aggressiveness becomes recklessness, or caution becomes cowardice. There will likely always remain significant differences of opinion regarding the “best” methods of fire control, due in no small part to the almost infinite variabilities in fires and the people who attempt their extinguishment. Reaching universal agreement on ideal firefighting methods may be an unrealistic goal, but consensus, or at least less disagreement, is often found between members of the different firefighting tactics camps when discussing the ideal approach to a particular scenario, rather than every, or even most, general situations.
Except for a few who remain entrenched behind simplistic arguments that are best expressed on t-shirts, there exists an understanding that there are few absolutes in this endeavor, and openness to all ideas benefits those we serve.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org