The Suppression Aggression Olympics

By Ron Kanterman

The fire service, especially in the U.S, has been discussing aggressive interior attack (AIA) for what seems like forever. In other areas of the world, exterior attack is the norm (unless a mother is standing outside screaming that her kids are trapped on the second floor). As we discuss this topic yet again, let’s look at some defining factors that lend themselves to successful interior fire attack and rescue operations. I titled this article “The Suppression Aggression Olympics” because firefighters are similar to Olympic athletes. Following are some parallels:

  • Training is the key to success through teamwork.
  • We strive for perfection each time.
  • There is very little room for error.
  • We shoot for the top. (For athletes, it's gold; for us, it's a life saved.)
  • Camaraderie and peer support helps the process.

As we delve into suppression aggression AIA, know that I am still a staunch supporter of AIA firefighting and rescue for our collective tool boxes. AIA is a necessary tactic that has saved thousands of lives over many years. This article will hopefully give some perspective on how we may be able to improve how we operate while injuring and killing less of our people.

Am I waving the safety flag? Maybe, but my goal is to make you rethink how you operate and how and why you and those around you make the decisions you make. We can be aggressive, but to the extent that we remember that life safety is part of the job, and it includes us.

 

AGGRESSIVENESS

In fire schools and fire academies across the nation, we take new people that have expressed an interest in our trade (career, volunteer, Department of Defense, industrial, tribal, on call, and seasonal) and teach them what they need to know to get started in the business. We all know that graduation from the fire academy is only the beginning. Like the numerous graduation ceremonies I’ve attended or have had the privilege at which to speak, the message is clear: “You’re done with your initial orientation. Now, the learning process really starts.”

In New York City, the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) tells its graduating class, “By this time next week, most of you will have gone to your first real fire,” noting that the live burns in the fire academy were not necessarily “real,” or perhaps not as real as out in the cruel world. Those who come back to the academy to train and visit basically say the same thing: “The training was great here, but was it different at a real job!” So, one of the things we teach is to “get in fast, get in close, and get everything wet.”

Chief Alan Brunacini (ret.) recently published a paper regarding this concept and based it on something that Benjamin Franklin had written when the American fire service was forming up. Brunacini wrote the following:

“Ben realized that when there was fire that the situation required rapid response, he taught his fire lads that they must be FAST. He also knew that he did not have long range hydraulic application equipment, so his firefighters had to get CLOSE to the fire. Ben also understood that the fire could not live in the same space with an adequate amount of water, so he told his troops to get the fire WET. This created our basic response routine: FAST/CLOSE/WET. The original routine that Ben established in 1740 had defined the cultural context of our service since the beginning, and has set the stage for how we have operated for the next almost 300 years.”

So with this in mind, we continue to teach this concept and operate the same way. The thing is―we have better technology, better information, better tools, and more smarts today than we did in the 1700s, 1800s, and 1900s. Therefore, we can still continue to teach aggressive interior attack, but with smarts.

Battalion Chief Dave Dodson (ret.), known for his The Art of Reading Smoke series, discusses aggressive interior attack on the Volume 4 DVD series of the Everyone Goes Home/Courage to be Safe program by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. Dodson says that we need to be “intellectually aggressive, not arbitrarily aggressive.” Wow! That’s one of the best fire service observation-turned-catch phrases I’ve ever heard; truer words were never spoken. It’s about making good choices for the right reasons; not just because, let’s say, “we always did it that way.” There needs to be choices on whether or not we make an AIA. We know a lot more today than we ever did about fire behavior; the materials that burn; fire gases; building construction (thanks to the late Francis Brannigan); and the tools, training, and tactical knowledge to pull it all off. But are we making good decisions?

FDNY Captain Stephen Marsar wrote an award winning research paper for the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program entitled “Survivability Profiling.” If you haven’t read it, do so! Marsar discusses the 32 line of duty deaths (LODDs) in the FDNY over his first 20 years as a member, and that there were no civilian fatalities in these same fires, concluding that these men died in “empty buildings.” In a 2005 study, the Boston Globe found that 80 U.S. firefighters were killed at 52 fires, with six civilians actually being trapped, and none dying. Marsar simply tells us that our people are dying in “empty” buildings for no reason. Although we continue to be aggressive, we need to be smart about it. Simply taking unnecessary risks on arrival based on initial size-up is not necessarily the thing to do, especially when things look a lot different when you arrive. With fire showing out of every window of a 2½-story structure at 0300 hours, is it safe to assume there are no survivors in that house? Most of us would think so. We can’t forego a risk assessment and leave things to chance. The late Tom Brennan (retired chief and former Fire Engineering editor) once said at one of a Fire Department Instructors Conference “Brennan and Bruno Unplugged” sessions, said, “We need well trained, thinking firefighters in order to be effective.” Thinking firefighters.

Recently, while discussing tactics among chiefs in a working group from Connecticut, of which I am a part, this very subject surfaced. Chief Kenneth Scandariato of the City of Norwich simply stated, “We don’t fight fire, we fight time.” He explained that no matter when we get there, we’re late, whether it’s a four- to five-minute response by a career department or a five- to 10-minute response by a volunteer department. No matter what, we’re late! We all agreed. He went on to say that en route, we all have plan A in our head, but on arrival we need to think plan B or maybe even plan C; however long it takes us to get there, there’s no time out for the fire itself. The clock keeps ticking despite our best efforts. It may sound obvious to most of you. However, when you talk about it, it brings it to the forefront. It’s all about the clock.

So, what now? Do we dare think that we can actually pull off a transitional attack that so many have discussed in the recent past? Those who have written about it, particularly from understaffed departments, say it works. I wrote about transitional attack using dry chemical and Class A or B foam in the window just to get out of the box and maybe get ahead of the war on hydrocarbon contents. [See “New Fire Loads, New Tactics: Smashing the Tactical Box” (7/17/2012, www.fireengineering.com).]

As an aside, even the lay person in the community doesn’t expect us to take unnecessary risks. After LODDs, many citizens have asked if those guys “died in a vacant building?”, “died protecting trees?”, or “died in an empty house?” With all due respect to our fallen firefighters, even everyday folks are questioning our tactics. Monday morning quarterbacking by those who are not in the know? Maybe. We need to know and understand the risks and have the ability to do something about it. It’s about wanting to do something about it.

Dr. Burt Clark recently wrote a piece about two fire service editorials that were written 37 years apart but were in agreement that “getting killed is not part of the job.” He found an article written by a six-year rookie firefighter in 1976 who was touting higher education for fire service personnel in his firehouse. Of course, the rookie got the usual “college degrees don’t put fires out,” and so on, with his lieutenant adding that, “Firefighters have to get killed, it’s a part of the job.” We know better than that.

“We have to learn the lessons from those who have gone before us, that were bought and paid for in blood.”— Chief John Norman (ret.), Everyone Goes Home, Volume 4.

 

EXPERIENCE

“Next to the real thing, nothing beats training.” — Battalion Chief (ret.) John Salka, Everyone Goes Home, Volume 4.

Nothing in this business beats experience and, if you’re not busy, you’re training has to be often and top-shelf because nothing beats experience in this business. That’s why we’ve told new guys to hang out with the old guys at a job; the older guys have experience and must be willing to teach, share, and exhibit good habits. They’ve been there, done that, and gotten the T-shirt. Passing down bad habits to the next generation is poor, at best, and we’ve been doing it for almost 300 years. It’s really time to step back and a take a good look globally at what we’re doing and make some fundamental changes.

This is hard to do with the veterans in the firehouse. But, if we don’t start somewhere, we’ll never make the changes we need to commit to when creating a smarter and safer fire service. We need to strike a balance between what we learned, what we know, and what we want the next group of guys to know. Relying on the experience of others is paramount to this process.

There is a recall theory known as recognition primed decision making (RPDM). It’s taught through various curricula at the National Fire Academy—and worldwide as well. It’s a model of how people make quick, effective decisions when faced with complex situations through deciding what makes sense and evaluating a course of action through imagination. It’s the old slide show going off within your cranial hard drive.

Ask yourself, “We’ve been here before. What did we do last time, and how did we do it? Were we successful or not based on the decisions we made?” This happens within seconds, and a decision is made. Only experienced people can use RPDM effectively. It’s been known that inexperienced people tend to use the first course of action they believe will work, and have the tendencies to use “trial and error” through their own imagination. Success is rare with the inexperienced person including military bosses, police bosses, company fire officers, and incident commanders.

Situational awareness is something that we’ve been trying to instill in all fire personnel for quite awhile. What’s going on now? What can happen next? The experienced firefighter should have a more heightened situational awareness based on the aforementioned RPDM. However, new personnel can start to think the same way. During an AIA, even the new guy should know the signs of a flashover through rollover, smoke and heat changes, and so on.

Chief John Oates of East Hartford (CT) Fire Department says that if we take this concept for one moment and reword it “situational curiosity,” it may take a very different track. We know our people are curious and have forced or opened fire doors “just to take a look.”

A Chief from England once said to me at a conference, “You Yanks are a curious lot, aren’t you?” We are. At times, it has gotten us in trouble. Although curiosity has killed the cat, it can be something that may lend itself to safer and more effective operations, where looking around for a second time or a bit deeper may pay off. We know that getting too deep may get us in trouble. Controlled curiosity of firefighters can work to our advantage (e.g., opening another wall or prying baseboard molding looking for hidden pockets of fire). It’s about balance, experience, and supervision.

At the end of the day, experience rules, but we need to be cautious about passing bad habits along. We all believe “it can’t happen to me,” but we need to at least have an awareness that, in fact, it could.                            

 

TRAINING

We want our personnel to think and act on the fireground using their training, experience, and muscle memory. Why do we repeat the same drills time after time? Because we want it to be second nature; the saying, “if you don’t use it you lose it,” is true! For example, if you don’t practice your knots, you will forget how to make them when you need them—in the dark, with gloved hands, wearing a mask.

Members of my former rescue team were issued three feet of rope to be coiled and carried in their pants pocket. They tied knots during lunch break while watching TV in the reading room, at home, on their days off, and so on. When your members start asking, “why do we do this drill every year, every other month, over and over again?” My answer is, “to build muscle memory. It has got to come to the frontal lobe at the right time, under pressure, when things are quickly going to hell.” Remind the troops that it’s for their own safety and well-being and, perhaps, for the safety and well-being of those around them.

A case in point is donning personal protective equipment (PPE) for runs. No matter what type of emergency to which you are responding, look the same each time to get on and off the apparatus whether it’s a fire, gas leak, gasoline tanker on its side, and so on. Good habits have to be instilled early on to build that long-lasting muscle memory in your personnel. Getting fully dressed for all runs should be automatic.

Building muscle memory revolves around knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs). Gain the knowledge you need to be successful on the fireground, to hone your skills based on that knowledge, and to develop the ability to put it all together and make it work. Through it all, we find out who is competent and who is not.

“You cannot compensate for incompetence” — Chief (ret.) Dennis Compton, Everyone Goes Home, Volume 1.

If you have incompetent people, they will hurt themselves or someone else. Hopefully, they’ll be weeded out at the fire academy during the early stages of what will hopefully be a short career. If not, they’ll be discovered when they show up at your house. Make sure it’s not a training or a learning issue, and then do everything in your legal power to get them off the job or place them where they can do no harm (which will probably be off the job or out of the fire company).

Another major aspect of training is health, wellness, and fitness. A FDNY lieutenant was interviewed for Everyone Goes Home, Volume 4, regarding this aspect our profession, and he said, “like it or not, we’re professional athletes, only we don’t know when our game day is. Football players know they play on Sundays. We never know when we get to play.” What a great analogy of what we do and who we are. Like Olympic athletes, we go from zero to 100 in 10 seconds, sometimes out of a dead sleep. Top physical and mental conditioning leads to successful and safer fireground operations. When we perform aggressive interior attack, we need to have the KSAs, physical and mental fitness and, moreover, the muscle memory to make good decisions so we can go into the most dangerous of situations and come out alive.

 

PROCEDURE

Procedure is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a particular way of accomplishing something or of acting; a series of steps followed in a regular definite order; a traditional established way of doing things.” So, one would immediately think of standard operating procedures (SOPs) or guidelines (SOGs). Procedures are steps in definite order. Unless it’s a robotic task, procedures can have far reaching ramifications, particularly if an injury or worse should occur. Investigators from almost anywhere will testify against you that you didn’t follow procedure. Even though the procedure says to run the pump at 150 pounds per square inch (psi), the pump operator ran it at 125 psi for the needs of the moment. He broke procedure, which equals violation, which equal fines or any other penalty.

So, if you have procedures, ensure they are attainable and are one-size-fits-all for those specific situations. If your SOP for PPE says that “all members shall [note the word “shall”] wear bunker pants, coat, boots, and helmet while riding on apparatus for any emergency run except the driver,” then that’s fairly easy. When it’s not so cut and dry, SOGs can be used. In the early 1990s, private industry petitioned the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to allow for guidelines to be more flexible. OSHA  surprisingly agreed, and the SOG was born. All other industries, including ours, adopted the SOGs for flexibility purposes. Everyone was in agreement with the general idea of what needed to be done. However, thinking firefighters and thinking officers may need to alter the plan. As long as we’re communicating and we all know what the alteration is, then we’re good.

Remember that SOPs and SOGs are needed, but training to them is absolutely necessary. If we don’t do that, then they are not worth the paper they’re printed on. It doesn’t matter if it’s a tactic, incident management, or even a preventive maintenance issue on your equipment; train to your department standards. Effective and safe AIA will depend a lot on how you train and to what documents. Check your SOPs and SOGs against your current training program, and ensure you have alignment.

A lot has been discussed recently regarding fire service culture, cultural influences, and culture change. Some believe we need a culture change; once we do that, everything else will fall into place (see Firefighter Life Safety Initiative #1), and yet others don’t. Some say that culture change alone won’t do it, and that culture is just one of many things that we need to change to get us to a manageable place. Perhaps those who think this are right. Whichever side you are on, culture is an issue for us.

The late leadership guru Dr. Kimberly Allyn had said, “Culture trumps structure every time.” When trying to create structure in the fire department (rules, regulations, SOPs, orders, SOGs), the underlying current culture is what stems the tide. Enter the “recliner snipers,” who lay back in the firehouse recliners and shoot holes in everything that moves: rules, regulations, procedures, suggestions by the new guy or the old guy, anything an officer says or does, and so on. This is where strong leadership is needed. It’s hard work to convince the veterans that, “Hey, we’re going to change it up because the old way doesn’t work anymore.” After the recent National Institute of Standards and Technology tests on Governor’s Island, New York, the FDNY as well as the rest of us are now convinced that a change in tactics is due because of hydrocarbon rich fire loads. Now an entire segment of the U.S. fire service—the 10- to 25-year fire service veterans—has to vent, attack, and flow differently than they’ve been doing for a long time. This is not an easy task. However, at the end of the day, the members on the line need to know that training to procedures and making changes or tweaks is smart, and a lot safer. A discussion with a seasoned FDNY battalion chief at FDIC 2013 revealed that his troops are working within the new thinking, guided by the test findings, and his fires are now going extremely well.

 

SAFETY

Those who know me realize I’m a firefighter safety geek. I’ve been around the service for 37 years and, being a member of the National Fire Fighter Foundation for 14 years, I have seen much grief. Some love to talk about safety, some don’t. Do we really think we can operate the same way for almost 300 years and not get ourselves in trouble? I don’t think so. The change I talked about in the previous section was necessary for us to be more effective in making an AIA and getting better results while getting the occupants out and hurting less of our people. So, we’re looking at better tactics, which in essence leads to safety. We still get to go in fast, close, and wet, but we have a better chance of coming out unscathed. The line members are happy, and the bosses are happier.

We are also discussing acceptable vs. unacceptable risk in today’s fire service. We all swore to protect life, property, the environment, and so on. However, we are realizing that we can profile a building for the survivability of the occupants and make better decisions. We’ll risk it all for another life, but not if that life is already gone.

While this is all going on, we also need to remove the pressure to act. Firefighters are the type “A” personalities of the world; we’ve got to do something! Well, not necessarily. Sometimes doing nothing is a strategy. For example, a Midwest chief made a decision a few years ago to let a propane rail car in the center of town burn itself out. It eventually did. No injuries or worse, and no peripheral damage. In another incident of which I was involved, a fire department was applying water from handlines on a burning gasoline tanker on a street in a residential neighborhood because “the mayor was watching from across the street.” I suggested foam on my arrival, and the deputy chief agreed that water was not the way to go, but he felt the pressure to act. We decided “go or no-go” based on the conditions and what we knew. It can’t always be “go, no matter what.” That’s how we get in trouble.

We place the concepts of “survivability profiling,” “go, no-go,” and “changing tactics” into our risk management plan along with SOPs, SOGs, strategy, KSAs, incident command system, the International Association of Fire Chief’s rules of engagement, training, conditioning, and experience, and perhaps we will start having safer fireground operations and better outcomes. Let’s try it.

 

GOING FOR THE GOLD

As we go forward, think about some of the concepts discussed here. Encourage those around you to start thinking about the factors that go in aggressive interior attack, and to be as smart as they can be. We can be aggressive, but we must also be “intellectually aggressive, not arbitrarily aggressive.” Take stock in yourselves and your department members. We’d love nothing more than to issue gold medals (medals of valor, medals for good strategy, tactics, training, leadership, behavior, and so on) vs. folded flags and a rose any day of the week.

 

Ron Kanterman is a 38-year veteran of the fire service. He has a bachelor's and two master's degrees and is a career fire chief in southeast Connecticut. He is an advocate for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and serves as chief of operations for the annual Memorial Weekend ceremonies each year in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He teaches graduate and undergraduate fire science and lectures each year at FDIC and on a variety of topics around the country. He can be reached at mfdcar1@comcast.net.

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