I returned from FDIC 2017 with the nagging impression that the American fire service remains divided into two general camps regarding our tactical approaches: those who embrace the results of research, and have modified their methods accordingly; and those who have little accord for experimental evidence, and continue to embrace familiar methods. There was even a significant imbalance in the reactions to the different viewpoints: presenters who spoke of the duty, honor, and sacrifice inherent in our traditional methods were cheered; and those who pointed to evidence, data, and proof supporting the need for changes were generally greeted with yawns. It seems the only passion inspired by discussions of firefighting process improvements is that directed towards their resistance.
To be sure, the divisions are neither strict nor distinct. Many of those who cling to “traditional” tactics also acknowledge the beneficial insights provided by fire dynamics research, and have adopted at least some of the new procedures. And, even amongst those on the “cutting edge” of tactical reform, all new information is subjected to additional scrutiny and analysis before being considered for translation into operational changes, if ever. (I was actually shocked to learn how many leaders of the MFA movement come from, or even still still work in, departments that have not yet made the decision to incorporate some of the recommended changes. The dividing lines actually cut through organizations.) Complicating the situation further, the rush and satisfaction of accomplishing an aggressive interior fire attack remains a strong attraction to every firefighter, and the continued, if only occasional, need for that approach requires that we all must work to maintain the skills required for its performance. We still need to be experts at even the less-effective methods.
So, we don’t agree on some fundamental issues; individuals and organizations are slow to change; and the opposing groups each feel they are “in the right”. Just like the rest of humanity, since the beginning of civilization. Despite the entrenched, muddy, and shifting positions, the differences in philosophy and interpretation remain significant enough to motivate me to continue to produce these uninvited sermons on the principles of modern fire attack. Why? Because, in my opinion, getting it exactly right will save the lives of firefighters and those we are sworn to protect.
Though few in the fire service are completely ignorant of the new information, what I commonly see is a skewing of the data and its meanings in order to justify the particular approach favored by the speaker, as well as an even more widespread failure to appreciate how the significant modifications to the theoretical basis of our practices must affect the practices themselves. Like any instructor, my goal is to enhance understanding, while my topic is the application of new information to the process of firefighting. The medium I use is the written word, where I attempt to explain how changes in our knowledge can/should result in changes in our tactics, especially when some of their very foundations – the reasons we decided to use those methods – have changed. Often, these discussions stimulate strong reactions from readers. Sometimes, I even attempt to provoke such responses in order to increase engagement and contemplation.
Although I believe that neither side in this great fire service debate intends to bring harm to our members or customers, or even to sow discord, that does not relieve us from the responsibility of having difficult and uncomfortable conversations as we examine what many consider to be our fundamental purpose and identity. Harmony is a worthy goal, but not at the cost of compromising our potential for excellence.
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