By Chuck Wehrli
When I began my fire service career back in 1971, I was always told to “push in...let’s get this fire.” That’s what aggressive officers did. If you were reluctant, you felt like a weak firefighter--not as tough as some others. That’s how some of us were and some of us still may be. Other ways you should look at being aggressive is to call it being assertive, determined, insistent, and forceful.
First, you must understand that you can be assertive in areas besides firefighting. Some good ways an officer can be assertive is by knowing his district, his team, and his standard operating guidelines. For example, remember to wear your mask, never inhale smoke, and ensure that you send all your firefighters back safely after every shift.
An officer can be determined by conducting a 360° size-up of a structure; giving a progress report of fire conditions; and, if necessary, ordering a defensive exterior attack if it is warranted by fire conditions. Knock down the fire from outside, especially if the building is vacant, deteriorated, and unoccupied. I know the argument about defensive firefighting says push the fire through the building, taking hours away when we could be back in the firehouse. I don’t think this is worth an injury or death of a crew member. Do you?
An insistent officer should know that a building is only a building, and no building equals the life of a firefighter. We all know that some buildings can be death traps built with timber trusses, lightweight construction, maze layouts, and combustible plastic contents. This is typical of sealed-up, energy-efficient buildings that can’t be vented. In the past few years, we have lost too many firefighters to overaggressive firefighting tactics. A truly forceful officer controls his crew and makes decisions based on sound principles of strategy and tactics such as life safety first, which includes firefighters’ lives. Fire containment is the second priority of firefighting. Saving property is the third.
A determined officer sets an example. As General Patton said, “Always do everything you ask of those you command.” Set an example by taking classes. The Fire Department Instructors Conference and Fire Training Resources feature some of the fire service’s best instructors. A determined officer will review the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health’s “Firefighter Fatality Investigations” report to spread the valuable lessons firefighters learn. A forceful officer sets an example by supporting the goals of the department even when the goals are unpopular. This officer encourages good work, both in and out of the fire station. It is important for officers to balance attending important company functions and spending time with family and friends away from work.
An insistent officer helps in times of need. An assertive officer doesn’t let station pranks or harassment get out of hand, but he enjoys the firehouse humor.
A forceful officer continually calls for staffing and fire company response to meet the National Fire Protection Association standards. This entails having three engines, one ladder company, and a chief with an aide to respond to fires in the community.
The insistent officer works to get fire companies staffed with a minimum of four firefighters for low-hazard occupancies and five or six firefighters for high-hazard occupancies. High-hazard occupancies include high-rise buildings, schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and structures that present tactical hazards as recommended by the NFPA; in my travels as an instructor, there is hardly a class where we don’t talk about these buildings. With the downsizing of crews, we are doing more with less, and you have to consider alternative choices and tactics.
Some departments are lucky to have a three-person crew, and some are not. What can be done with a two-person crew? At a recent class, I was told that a two-person crew can get two lines stretched to the front of the building. Then what? If no rescue is required, the crew changes strategy from aggressive interior attack to defensive exterior attack, and hits the fire from the outside until another crew shows up. This follows firefighters’ priorities of life safety first, fire containment second, and property protection third.
I think most of us love this career, and we should make every effort to make it as safe as possible. An officer does this by setting a good example in firefighting and back in the firehouse. I have learned that you can watch things happen and say, “What just happened”; or you can make things happen. Make good things happen by being insistent, assertive, determined, forceful, and aggressive, as required.
Thumbnail photo found on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Denis Jannsen.
Chuck Wehrli is a Captain (Ret.) with the Naperville (IL) Fire Department. He is a National Fire Academy Instructor, sits on the NFPA 1006 Tech Rescue Committee, has contributed to three IFSTA manuals, and teaches NIMS Position Specific classes. Wehrli is also a former FEMA US&R Safety Officer and was deployed to Ground Zero on September 11 with MOTF-1. He can be reached at fireL7@aol.com.