By John Spicuzza
"The New Black" is an expression used to indicate the sudden popularity or versatility of an idea at the expense of the popularity of a second idea. The earliest use of "the new black" was in 1983 and indicated that other colors were temporarily displacing black's position in fashion or industrial design. This phrase is primarily used to say that something is the most popular or fashionable color or thing at the moment.
I have seen many changes over the years since I started in the fire service in 1975, many of them being for the better. However, I have noticed a trend over the past 10 years in which procedures or tasks that were at one time a normal part of the job have been rehashed, renamed, given acronyms, or updated and then promoted as something brand new or recently invented. Some of these fashionable trends have lasted quite a while and some are fairly new.
Let me start off with an observation about the fire service as a whole. We are either slow to learn, hard of hearing, or downright stubborn; I think it is a little of each, with an emphasis on the latter. So many individuals--educators, scientists, lecturers, and the like--are constantly bombarding us with the same message over and over and over again, in some cases over a period of decades and longer.
Now, don't get me wrong. These are all typically very important messages or educational snippets given out for all the right reasons. But a lot of it is not new stuff. Maybe we are horrible at passing on information from generation to generation. Maybe we pass it on and nobody listens. Maybe we put out the same information but in a more glamorous way, trying to get everyone's attention by giving them fancy names or acronyms.
I'm sure there are plenty out there, however a few stand out. If you have been in the business for only 10 years or less it may surprise you that a lot of what is "fashionable" today is old news disseminated in a new way.
Let's start out with one that started in the early 1980s and became formalized in 1989. urban search and rescue (USAR) is one that started making me think about "New Black" as it became more popular over the past decade. If you are part of a USAR team, you are the cool guys on the block. Everyone else is just your average Joe.
Let me clarify one thing. I feel strongly that the USAR system was one of the more progressive ideas that has come out in the fire service and has been instrumental in saving lives and keeping rescuers safe with an insane amount of dedication and training. I was a member of a local Type II USAR team for around eight years and was trained at the tech level in all disciplines; so I have an idea what these members are trained for and the work involved.
When I started in the fire service in 1975, we trained for many aspects of the job. In photo 1 you can see we were conducting training involving patient removal from a roof. The patient was tied to a wooden backboard with rope, a bowline tied to the top of the board with manila rope, and lowered by sliding down a ladder to the ground. The entire operation took around 10 minutes.
(1) Photo by firefighter Tom Watts.
(2) This 3/4-inch manilla rope was used as a high anchor point back in 1980. Photo by the author.
Another example is a bus extrication drill in the early 1980s in which we could not take advantage of numerous built-in "emergency exits" that we see today. An A-frame set up with two ladders, tied together with manila rope, and a mechanical advantage system with very basic tools pulled students vertically through the open windows with ease. This was quick to set up and move patients out.
In today's world it would take a technical rescue team (TRT) or a USAR team of around 20 personnel, a handful of specialty trucks outfitted with the latest and greatest equipment, safety belay lines in place, all kinds of hardware connected in numerous locations on specialty rescue rope, and about an hour or so to accomplish the same task.
I am not saying that all of this isn't a good thing. Actually, it is wonderful, high-tech, and very safe. The way it should be. I am thankful that we have crews trained to the level they are with the equipment that is out there. My question is this: Who did this before TRT, USAR, and all of the high-tech equipment and training was available? Firefighters--the average Joe. This is nothing new; we just added new techniques and equipment. We just didn't have an acronym for it. It was part of the job.
USAR is The New Black.
There are a lot of studies out there now that advocate the advantages of an "indirect attack" on the fire. We now have science backing up the theories that, in the right situation, it works well and may very well be safer than making the initial attack after typically going through the front door, stumbling through the thick and hot smoke, and trying to find the seat of the fire.
Why do we typically go through the front door and go through the abuse listed above? Because that is the way we have always...You get the picture. But now that it has been studied and brought to the forefront recently, it is as if this has never happened before. Some theorize that one of the reasons for an indirect attack is because of a lack of personnel due to the cutbacks on crews and stations. It gives us the ability to knock down the fire from the outside, then go inside through the front door in a less hostile environment and do mop-up. This makes perfect sense.
Due to these personnel cutbacks, a common engine company is staffed with only one officer and two firefighters. Some departments routinely have only two persons on an engine. I'm gonna bust your bubble again. Back in 1974, in the book titled Firefighting Principles & Practices, William Clark makes reference to personnel issues. He says only having one officer and two firefighters on a company was fairly common (Clark, 1974).
Well, once again, back in the day we didn't have the staffing we were supposed to have. I remember running a one-man engine at times with a best-case scenario of a two-man engine. Guess what? Once a room-and-contents fire got hot enough, the windows typically would fail and self-vent. We were able to identify where the seat of the fire was and typically would make an indirect attack from the outside to knock it down and then make entry to do mop-up. With only one or two on scene as first-due, it worked well. The problem today is we now have insulated windows, impact-resistant windows, etc. These windows will not be failing and just holding in the heat for a long time. Taking out one of these windows will be time-consuming as well, so this tactic may not always be available. This is another reason it is so important for you to keep up with the changes. So once again, an indirect or transitional attack is nothing new. We just didn't have a name for it.
Indirect or Transitional Attack is The New Black.
I have heard all kinds of stories about VES. I have heard and seen many variations on how to conduct this task that range from the simplistic to the dangerous. Everyone is trying to put their two-cents-worth into the idea and trying to make it the norm. I even heard that Fire Department of New York invented it. Maybe so, but not in the 1980s like I heard. Maybe they came up with the acronym. I don't know.
I do know this much. We conducted what is now called VES in the mid-1970s. I'm sure it was done well before that, too. It was simply a very similar process we are all familiar with now. Classic scenarios of flames coming out of the front door and the entire delta side on fire with bedrooms on the bravo side that are not impinged with flames. We are told a victim is in one of the bedrooms and still in the house. Guess what? We took out the window, crawled in, went straight to the door to look into the hallway, closed the door, did a quick search of the bedroom, then either exited or came out with a victim. If no victim was found, we went to the next viable room. Sound familiar? One again, this is nothing new. We just didn't have an acronym for it.
It's just that VES is The New Black.
Okay, I am going to get on my soap box on this one. Really? We need to be aware of lightweight construction, lightweight trusses, etc? This is where I think we fit in the category of slow learners. Newsflash! The National Fire Protection Association has just created a PowerPoint presentation on the dangers of lightweight construction materials under fire conditions (2013). The focus of this presentation is on the need for home fire sprinklers, but nonetheless it is talking about lightweight construction like it is a new construction method we have to worry about.
I started building and woodworking in 1970. I eventually obtained my contractor's license and built custom homes and additions. I can tell you that I personally was installing engineered, lightweight, TJI floor joists on new homes in 1972.
TJI floor joists have been around 50 years now, and the brandhas been the most-often-used engineered I-joist in the industry for the past 14 years. Even Francis Brannigan in his 2nd edition on Building Construction for the Fire Service (Brannigan, 1982), mentions "chipboard" sheathing products, engineered floor joists, and gusset plates on lightweight trusses.
Let me make this clear. Lightweight construction is NOT new! We keep making it out like it is a new construction method. Stop it! It we haven't figured out that we have to deal with lightweight construction and its dangers over 50 years or more, what makes you think we will ever get it?
In Florida, we require certain structures to display a symbol on the front of their building to denote lightweight floor or roof construction or both. This is for our use to give us notice to be aware during a fire. Great idea, but the thinking was backwards. We should have had symbols displayed showing dimensional lumber or stronger materials being used alerting us that it will be safer to work a fire in and around the structure.
What has happened is that around 95 percent of all structures have these symbols. Of course they do. That is the norm. It is to the point that firefighters don't even see them anymore because they are on almost every building and they don't stand out. It is like expecting us to notice a mailbox in front of a house; we don't pay attention to it because it is part of the everyday scenery.
In my opinion, lightweight construction is the most popular subject that has been "in style" for way too many years. This is nothing new. All firefighters in the business have had to deal with it their entire careers, unless you have been in the business over 50 years.
Lightweight construction is The New Black that will never go out of style.
Please understand that I am NOT advocating that we do things today as they were done in the past; I could not be more against that way of thinking. The one thing that gets under my skin more than anything is when you ask why something was done a certain way and you get the "Because-that-is-the-way-we-have-always-done-it" answer.
All I am trying to point out is that many techniques and tactics that are now considered "The New Black" in the fire service are nothing new; they usually just have a new name or acronym. All good, but keep it in perspective.
We have come a long way in many areas of the fire service and even improved on many aspects of the job over the years. This is the way it should be. This job has to be one of the most dynamic industries in existence. Almost every aspect of the job has changed to some degree (self-contained breathing apparatus, gear, construction, fire behavior, equipment, technology, etc).
The preceding are only a few "fashionable" examples that are still popular. I know there are more out there, and would love to hear about them.
What makes us progressive is the younger generations asking why and dissecting what we have been doing over the years and asking why we can't do it differently. This turns into progressive thinking that makes our job safer and more effective as times change. We have to change as an industry with the times or we will become a more dangerous profession. We have to change as individuals or we will become what some like to call dinosaurs. And we know what happened to them.
This is why it is important to decide if you want to be that guy with 25 year's worth of experience or one year's worth of experience 25 times. You decide if you want to be fashionable or to keep wearing the bell-bottoms. Oops. Seems that is the New Black in fashion. Wish I hadn't thrown out those pants with my paisley shirts and crushed velvet tie.
Brannigan, F. (1982). Building Construction for the Fire Service. Quincy: National Fire Protection Agency.
Clark, W. (1974). Firefighting Principles 7 Practices. New York: Technical Publishing.
John Spicuzza is a battalion chief with Cape Coral (FL) Fire and Rescue. He has 38 years of experience in the fire service and has been a fire academy instructor for 16 years. He has an associate degree in fire science from Edison College and a bachelor's degree in business administration from Hodges University, has an Executive Fire Officer certification from the National Fire Academy.
Questions and comments can be directed to John Spicuzza at firstname.lastname@example.org.