The Timeless Nature of War and Fireground Operations

By: Jason Brezler

On two separate occasions in recent years, I have transitioned back into my duties as a firefighter with the FDNY in the Bronx. In each instance, I had been off-line from the fire department for nearly a year, leading men assigned to U.S. Marine infantry battalions in some very volatile places….Fallujah, Iraq and Now Zad, Afghanistan. As I traded in my rifle in for a hook and halligan, quickly reacquainting myself with the duties of a ladder company firefighter, I could not help but measure the similarities of urban combat and urban fire ground operations.

I reflected on my studies pertinent to the history of warfare, as well as my personal experiences gained firsthand while leading Marines on daily patrols through the streets of Fallujah and the villages of Now Zad. The United States Marine Corps (USMC)’s fundamental publication on warfare doctrine: Warfighting, asserts that war is a violent struggle between two opposing wills in an environment that is influenced by: friction, uncertainty, fluidity, violence, and the human dimension. Historical studies in warfare all conclude that these factors have influenced and decided the outcome of every firefight, battle, campaign and conflict. The study of warfare affirms that uncertainty is a pervasive trait of war; even the best battlefield commanders acknowledge its existence, but find ways to reduce its impact. Fluidity is the dynamic phenomena of war that affords combat commanders fleeting and limited opportunities to act in environments where time is always the most precious commodity. According to the German warfare philosopher Carl Von Clausewitz, “friction is the trait of war that makes the simple difficult and the difficult seemingly impossible.” Lastly, the outcome of war is always contingent on the human dimension; and USMC doctrine suggests that no dimension of technological development will diminish the human dimension in war. The study of warfare establishes that these characteristics have significantly influenced the outcome of every armed struggle, in every environment and place. More importantly, the study of warfare, validated by my own firsthand experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, suggest that the best commanders not only understand the nature of war, but plan, decide, and act in ways to overcome these challenges.

Like warriors in combat, firefighters and fire officers consistently operate in violent and dangerous environments that are largely impacted by: friction, uncertainty, fluidity, and the human dimension. It is critical that we in a discipline entrusted to protecting life and property on the American homeland understand the characteristics that pervade fire and emergency operations. It is even more critical that we proficiently apply and develop concepts, practices, and techniques that enable us to consistently function in a safe and effective manner despite the presence of these “battlefield challenges.” My grandfather entered the fire service more than five decades ago, and my father more than four decades ago; over the course of their careers, every fire ground operation was subject to the innate presence of: friction, uncertainty, fluidity, violence, and the human dimension. Despite considerable improvements in: communication, equipment, training, and protective equipment, the nature of fire ground operations remains fundamentally unchanged today, thus signifying that the like war, the nature of fire ground operations is constant and timeless. Tactics and strategies evolve over time due to environmental and resource advancements (or in some cases setbacks), but the nature of war and fire ground operations remain unchanged.

Many in the fire service employ clichés that capture the parallel between war and fire ground operations. It is in our best interest to move beyond the cliché and acknowledge that the similarities and correlation between the nature of war and fire ground operations are overwhelming. If both environments are consistently comparable, then we can reasonably conclude that the ingredients for success in both environments are similar, particularly in critical areas such as command and control, planning, and decision-making. Furthermore, leaders in the fire service stand much to gain from the study and familiarization of military warfare. Formal study and research in the fire service is in its infancy when compared to the depth of warfare studies generated across the globe over the course of centuries. By taking a hard look at military campaigns and the traits and actions of the great, innovative, and effective battlefield commanders, we can become even better at mastering our craft of protecting life on the home front.

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