One of the more powerful sentiments I have been hearing and reading in response to suggested firefighting tactical improvements is that it is understood and expected that firefighters risk their lives in the course of their work, and that they need to put their self interests behind in order to save lives and property. Essentially, the “suggestion”, typically provided in an admonishing tone, is that anything that gets in the way of interior operations constitutes a dereliction of duty, and is a blatant and cowardly violation of our profession’s promise to those we are sworn to protect. It is further argued that concerns about LODDs are no reason to deviate from our sacred mission or methods and, anyway, they don’t happen that often.
Like so many of the indirect criticisms of the MFA movement, this belief is not completely unfounded; just not as applicable or meaningful as those who proclaim it believe. (I have also addressed it previously in MFA #34: Life Safety vs. Life Saving – Compatible goals at http://community.fireengineering.com/profiles/blog/show?xg_source=a…). Extreme risk is certainly inherent in every aspect of firefighting, and that reality must be accepted by anyone who engages in this activity. Contrary to the inference of a “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” motto, though, managing risk does not mean ignoring or avoiding it, but requires a comprehensive approach to identify and address predictable dangers. (See “Negotiating Hazards” at http://www.fireengineering.com/articles/2015/09/from-the-jumpseat-n…). Still, with this passionate cry repeatedly being chanted in an attempt to drown out discussions about alternative methods, and gaining traction amongst some in the fire service despite evidence contradicting its veracity, I will here take a slightly different tack in arguing the contrary position.
Inherent in the call to ignore our mortality in the pursuit of our duties is the idea that it is acceptable to be injured or killed as long as we are endeavoring to save lives or property. It is not. While life-threatening and -ending injuries can, do, and will happen, given the level of risk, urgency, and chaos in our workplace, normalizing such occurrences requires a leap of logic to a level somewhat beyond sanity. That is, it’s “crazy talk”. Certainly, there is no hesitancy, and for some even an eagerness, to risk our lives if there is even a slim chance of saving another person. (Or, as Nick Brunacini so eloquently stated, “..each of us will joyfully throw ourselves from a cliff to save small children and puppies…”.) Since the majority of life and property in a burning structure is lost long before our arrival, though, we are being told to “sacrifice” ourselves for the sake of a principle, not for any practical purpose.
Yes, the possibility of savable property or victims requires us to often position ourselves in hazardous environments in order to effect their salvation. And, our gear and training allows us to regard “Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health” (IDLH) as a mere workplace definition. There is also the “Catch 22” that, except in the most extreme cases – a structure fully-involved with fire – we cannot definitively make the determination if there is anyone worth risking our lives for without first risking our lives to check. While the completion of a search is a fireground benchmark, that does not render it priceless; just necessary. Ascertaining when, or even if, to make entry into a burning building is a complex decision, naturally hampered by the time-pressured setting in which it occurs, and not one amenable to over-simplification through a vague, passionate, and misguided “do the right thing” slogan. Furthermore, the potential costs – death or injury to firefighters – is not a mere “price to pay”.
Consider for a moment what will happen if a fellow firefighter becomes lost, trapped, seriously injured, or killed: the fire immediately is relegated to secondary importance, except as it relates to controlling it in support of protecting the firefighter and his/her rescuers. In essence, the focus of the operation will shift to ourselves, the very thing that an aggressive “save people and property” approach was purporting to avoid. Despite the proliferation and success of RIT methodologies that attempt to prepare for and manage such occurrences, the reality is that the majority of firefighter “Maydays” are handled by non-RIT members already operating in the hazard zone, which necessarily and inevitably removes them from fire suppression and search activities. Essentially, and predictably, if any of us falls, the operation will falter, so pretending that such an occurrence is in any way acceptable ignores, in the guise of “duty”, the immediacy and gravity of the effect of an LODD/LODI.
The possibility of saving a life motivates us to perform extraordinarily brave feats, not the least of which is entering a structure that is actively being decomposed by fire. Our success in this endeavor can be reduced to whether we have the capability of reversing hazardous conditions before they exceed those of our PPE. Rather than merely stubbornly clinging to and more loudly defending our current methods, we should be actively seeking out and embracing anything that we can do to tilt the success/failure balance in our favor. The early application of water, and the restriction of air entry until that is accomplished, are two proven techniques to assist with that goal. On the other hand, anything that we do that increases our chance of failure, such as neglecting to manage flow paths, or ignoring signs of untenability and structural decay in our rush to make entry, should be avoided. If we are to bet our lives, we need to do everything possible to shift the odds in our favor.
We all agree that putting the victim/property/customer/taxpayer/public “first” is the correct approach, but placing ourselves “second” does not make our welfare inconsequential. Our lives and limbs are on the line as soon as we respond to an alarm, and we must continuously match the degree of risk we accept to the chances of benefit we expect. While our skills and abilities allow us to survive conditions that are lethal to civilians, they are not absolute, despite noble intentions or fearless attitudes.
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