U.S. firefighter life safety and the Swedish firefighting model
The following article represents the author’s opinion and does not reflect the opinion of Fire Engineering magazine.
Article by Scott Ritter
Photos by author except as otherwise noted
It is not as though Dr. Stefan Svennson, a fire behavior scientist and instructor with the Swedish Fire Rescue Agency, didn’t give fair warning to those in attendance at the Fire Rescue International conference’s International Forum, held on August 24, 2007, in Atlanta, Georgia. “I will probably be telling you things you don’t like to hear. I will be impolite and insolent; some of you will probably get angry at me.”1
For the next hour or so, Dr. Svennson was as good as his word, throwing down the gauntlet, challenging the culture of firefighting here in America. With all of the subtlety of a sledgehammer, he took the U.S. fire service to task on the issue of firefighter safety, finding fault in virtually every aspect of how we fight fires. From training, physical fitness, and operations to the most sacred aspect of our job, risking our lives to save others, Dr. Svennson provided critical commentary and graphic examples of how similar tasks are accomplished in Sweden. Sweden has had only one firefighter fatality in the past seven years, whereas 2007 is on track to be the deadliest year for American firefighters since 2001, with more than 108 line-of-duty deaths as of November 2007.
Dr. Svennson made valid points, even if his delivery was impolitic. Rather than focus on the specific facts spelled out in the course of Dr. Svennson’s presentation, many Americans fixated on his repeated use of the word “stupid” when it came to our firefighting practices. The feedback from American firefighters was quick and for the most part predictable. “Well, I’m certainly glad I wasn’t present to hear this guy spread his ‘you guys are stupid’ message of firefighter safety,” One online response proclaimed:”…Comparing the fire services of the USA [with that of Sweden] is like comparing oranges and lumps of coal. They are extremely dissimilar. How about we actually compare the demographics, rates with actual population and firefighter numbers, number of incidents, and types of incidents?” The poster concludes, “This ‘doctor’ has given me ample reason to never visit Sweden.”2
To be fair to Dr. Svensson, his presentation in Atlanta did take into account a comparison of demographics, population statistics, and incident numbers and types between Sweden and the United States. It also factored in training, physical fitness, and culture, noting, for instance, that there is a huge difference in building codes between the two nations that impacts tactics and firefighter safety.3
Other feedback contained more thoughtful reflection, such as a responder who noted, “I think that rather than taking offense at what Dr. Svensson had to say, it is another opportunity to continue to think critically about fire service best practices. I wonder if he would have gotten a different response had he been a U.S. chief?”4
The answer, of course, is “Yes.” The 2007 National Firefighter Lifesaving Summit, held in Novato, California, on March 3-4, published findings that thematically paralleled those put forward by Dr. Svensson in Atlanta. The 2007 Novato summit was a follow-up to the original 2004 National Firefighter Life Safety Summit. The 2004 summit produced the “Everyone Goes Home Alive” program and 16 firefighter life safety initiatives. The goal of the 2004 summit was to reduce firefighter fatalities by 50 percent in a 10-year period. Unfortunately, firefighter fatalities in the United States have not been reduced, and 2007 will prove to be the deadliest year for firefighters since the 2004 summit.
Rather than making headway in the struggle to reduce line-of-duty deaths for firefighters, the United States is losing ground. If you examine the 16 life safety initiatives that emerged from the 2004 summit (see Box 1) and compare them with your fire department’s actions in the 2004-2007 time period, any honest assessment would have to conclude that, other than for superficial cosmetic changes, nothing of substance has been accomplished. Some departments will be able to point out a modification here and an adaptation there, but in terms of the kind of deep-seated, comprehensive overhaul dictated when calling for “cultural change” (initiative number 1), the fact is that American firefighters remain deeply rooted in a tradition that has trapped us in a system that embraces outdated concepts, tactics, and methodologies that kill our fellow firefighters. We can play games with semantics and lexicon all we want, but until we accept the reality of the flawed approach we as Americans collectively have toward fighting fire and embrace the need for comprehensive top-to-bottom change, the results will remain the same.
The 2007 Novato Summit was convened “…to advance the Life Safety Initiatives and evolve more concrete and usable strategies through which fire departments can reduce the potential for line-of-duty disasters” by adopting “specific strategies for implementing the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives, such as to create for fire departments real ways to avoid the path to line-of-duty deaths.”5 In doing so, 13 new initiatives, grouped into six related groups, were drafted (see box 2). These initiatives are designed to reinforce the original 16 Firefighter Life Safety Iinitiatives to initiate a process conducive to change.
Although the intent is commendable, it’s hard to see how the 2007 Novato Summit initiatives alter the fundamental issues at hand when it comes to firefighter fatalities any more than the original 16 Initiatives from the 2004 summit did. The Novato summit represents a “top-down” approach toward problem solving that fails to have meaningful impact at the level where change is needed the most–at the firehouse and on the apparatus. Change takes time, and the Novato Summit must be commended for its commitment to firefighter life safety. Its findings must be embraced and acted on. But unless there is concerted effort to bring about fundamental change in how we do business at the fire scene, change will come about at too slow a rate and more of our fellow firefighters will be condemned to a fate that should have been avoided.
Saving American firefighter lives was the intent of Dr. Svensson’s presentation in Atlanta just as it is the mission of the Novato Summit. However, it is sometimes difficult to accept criticism from outsiders (particularly foreigners), especially when there is not a basis on which to assess the foundation of culture, training, and operational methodology from which the criticism is sourced. Most American firefighters know little about Sweden and its culture of firefighting and are unable to determine the legitimacy of Swedish criticism of U.S. firefighting tactics.
I recently had the opportunity to travel to Sweden and observe the Swedish fire service firsthand– how Swedish firefighters are trained and how they apply their training on the job. Every year the Fire Service College in Revinge, in the south of Sweden, offers a weeklong advanced “Fire Behavior and Fire Suppression” class for international students. I was fortunate to have been able to attend this training and then follow it up with an operational “ride along” with the Malmo Fire Brigade, working out of the Centrum station, Sweden’s busiest firehouse. I was also able to witness the Malmo Fire Brigade’s in-service firefighter training at its “Barbara” facility, where all active firefighters undergo live-fire training at least twice a year. The ability to participate in training representative of the Swedish fire service’s core principles of fire suppression and then watch training theory transformed into operational reality provided a unique opportunity for insights into the Swedish approach to firefighting and firefighter safety. As such, I now understand more clearly the basis of Dr. Svensson’s critical comments.
To be a firefighter in Sweden, you must complete a rigorous two-year program that combines academic and hands-on training with operational tours of duty with a fire brigade. A key aspect of the Swedish training methodology is its focus on the science of fire behavior and how this relates to fire suppression. From the Swedish perspective, fire suppression is an all-inclusive term, incorporating not only the application of water or other cooling agents to the fire but also the use of ventilation as an integral part of the suppression operation. In America, we speak of the need to closely coordinate ventilation and suppression operations, thereby clearly establishing that these are two separate, albeit linked, activities. From the Swedish perspective, suppression is a single concept. The foundation of this methodology rests in the approach the Swedes take toward learning firefighting. Before they talk about nozzles, hoses, and flow rates, they first come to grips with fire itself (Photo 2).
Swedish fire instructor demonstrates fire behavior using a doll house.
On the surface, there is some similarity between the Swedish approach and the methodology used in the current Firefighter I curriculum in use in the United States today. The International Fire Service Training Association’s (IFSTA) Essentials of Fire Fighting (4th Edition) is a standard text used in the training of American firefighters. Chapter 2, “Fire Behavior,” covers much of the same scientific ground as the equivalent Swedish text Enclosure Fires.6 However, there is a world of difference between the two texts in terms of where the emphasis for comprehension is placed.
Compare how the subject of thermal layering is addressed in the two books. In the IFSTA text, a short paragraph is devoted to defining the phenomenon of thermal layering before noting: “When water is applied to the upper level of the [thermal] layer, where the temperatures are the highest, the rapid conversion to steam can cause the gases to mix rapidly. This swirling mixture of smoke and steam disrupts the normal thermal layering, and hot gases mix throughout the compartment. This process is sometimes referred to as disrupting the thermal balance or creating a thermal imbalance.” The text is accompanied by a drawing that shows firefighters applying a fog-pattern water spray into the upper reaches of the thermal layer. “Many firefighters have been burned when thermal layering was disrupted,” the IFSTA text notes, a clear cautionary statement.7
The Swedes, on the other hand, take the exact opposite approach, emphasizing “smoke cooling,” the process by which water is applied to the thermal layer by means of a fog nozzle. “The best effect can be achieved by sweeping the nozzle so that it covers the whole smoke volume,” the Swedish text emphasizes.8 Far from disrupting the thermal layer, the Swedish tactic (properly applied) either maintains the thermal balance or reduces the thermal layer with no disruption. “Vaporizing water produces an increased volume of gas and, therefore, an increase in pressure. At the same time, the smoke is cooled, which reduces the volume and reduces the pressure,” the Swedes write. “With smoke cooling…the volume of gas in the fire room is reduced and the firefighters can feel fresh air flowing in from behind.”9
The debate over the relative merits of the fog nozzle versus the smooth-bore nozzle has raged for many years. Here in the United States, there is a trend toward embracing the latter. In their science-based approach toward studying fire behavior and fire suppression, the Swedes back up their approach with fact through both scientific and applied methodology. If you aimed a fog pattern at a 45-degree angle into a thermal layer and applied a sustained spray, the thermal balance would indeed be disrupted. But the Swedes do not promote that technique. They study the fire and its associated behavior and then apply the technique best suited to deal with the situation at hand. As such, when making entry into a compartment on fire, the Swedish approach would be to ascertain the stage of fire growth at hand, the size of the compartment in question, and the need for the firefighter to make entry. If entry is required or desired and a thermal layer that needed to be reduced were present, the appropriate amount of water would be applied to reduce the threat posed by the thermal layer without disrupting the thermal balance that would threaten the firefighters (Photo 3).
Student applies nozzle techniques for flashover suppression.
After being instructed from the Swedish fire behavior texts, the IFSTA Essentials of Fire Fighting manual begins to take on a one-dimensional character, especially when it comes to fire behavior and fire suppression. Although both the Swedish manuals and IFSTA speak of fire in terms of being fuel controlled or ventilation controlled, only the Swedes breath life into these terms by further studying the properties of flame, emphasizing what is termed the “reaction layer” that exists between the fuel (gaseous products of pyrolysis) and oxygen, and the importance of this “reaction layer” when it comes to both combustion and suppression.10 The Swedes further break down flame into being “diffusion” or ‘”pre-mixed” in character, creating a foundation to understand how and why certain phenomena such as ‘flashover,’ ‘back draft,’ and ‘smoke gas ignition’ occur and how these events can be controlled and prevented, a teaching method that anyone seeking a reduction in firefighter fatalities should embrace.11
The interplay between products of combustion and cooling agents (such as water) is complex and, if treated in a superficial manner, can create a gap between the reality (science) of fire behavior and the tactics of fire suppression. This could explain America’s continuing love affair with the smooth-bore nozzle, a tool that has been relegated to the museum of fire history in nations like Sweden. The Swedish approach toward fire behavior and fire suppression emphasizes the safest, most efficient application of a cooling agent to control and extinguish a fire. Water is applied for a specific reason, to achieve a defined result. Simply putting the “wet stuff” on the “red stuff” is not an acceptable answer.
Through their thorough analysis of fire behavior, the Swedes have simplified the fire tetrahedron (fuel, heat, oxygen, and sustained chemical reaction) to reflect a single element of concern: heat. By focusing on cooling (i.e., heat reduction), the Swedes can make entire fuel packages inert, reducing the amount of water required to extinguish a fire and at the same time limiting the fire’s ability to spread. Of course, by reducing the amount of water flow brought to bear on a given fire, the Swedes in turn reduce the potential for water damage. The Swedes are trained that, ideally, once the fire is out, there should be no water present on the scene, the water having been consumed in the cooling process. Firefighters are even graded on how much residual water there is once a given fire has been extinguished.
American firefighters need only reflect on their most recent structural fire and the copious amounts of water applied. This is understandable given that we are taught that gallons per minute (gpm) extinguish British thermal units (Btus). A given structure is assessed from its potential fire load, and water flow rates are developed accordingly. However, when attention is paid to the fire-scene priorities of life safety, incident stabilization, and property conservation, there is much to be desired from the tactical approach toward fire suppression currently in vogue in much of America today. By focusing on the application of water through a specific gpm flow rate, one places the tactic before the science, meaning that the fire is not being suppressed in an efficient manner.
Although brute force more often than not wins out in extinguishment (but at a huge cost in terms of associated water damage), far too often the fire gets away from firefighters simply because the tactics applied are not dealing with the reality of the fire problem at hand. The end result is fire extension and firefighters being placed in harm’s way inside a burning structure because they are not aware of what is happening around them. If you were to take an unbiased look at the American tactical approach toward fire suppression, it would not be difficult not to conclude that more often than not our tactics place firefighters in danger, facilitate fire extension, and promote property loss through unnecessary water damage. Our tactics are in fact counterproductive when it comes to fulfilling our fire-scene priorities.
The Swedish teaching method mixes extensive classroom work, where fire theory is studied through lecture and small-scale demonstrations, with intensive practical applications under realistic conditions (Photo 4). Many American firefighters have experienced a “flashover simulator.” Developed by the Swedes as a means of demonstrating certain fire behavior characteristics associated with the phenomenon of flashover, the simulator enables a firefighter to observe fire growth through the incipient stage up to and including the flashover event itself. In the United States, the “flashover simulator” is more often than not a singular event which, if done without teaching about the theory and follow-up training, is little more than an intense sound-and-light show with little educational value. For Swedes, the flashover
Dr. Stefan Svensson instructs on ventilation theory using scale models and smoke.
simulator is just the first part of a multiphased approach to learning fire behavior. They follow this experience with backdraft simulators, fire attack cells (simple and complex), and flashover suppression cells. At every step, there is a solid link between scientific theory and practical application; the end result is that a firefighter is well conversant in the business of understanding and extinguishing fire in the safest, most efficient means possible (Photo 5).
Swedish fire instructor demonstrates prebackdraft smoke conditions.
The five-day fire behavior and fire suppression course taught at Revinge was one of the most comprehensive training experiences to which I have been exposed. It was, however, conducted in the context of a training environment where safety and the pedagogical need for field activities to closely mimic classroom learning objectives limit realism. The true test of the science and methodology presented at Revinge would come only by observing how a Swedish fire brigade applied the training ground theory in the real-world environment of a Swedish city.
Malmo is Sweden’s third largest city, with a population of around 300,000; it is approximately the same size as Buffalo, New York. Approximately 30 percent of Malmo’s population is comprised of nonnative citizens; about 10 percent of the population was foreign-born. Tension exists between the immigrant population and the native-born Swedes, which often manifests itself in acts of arson and violence.
The Malmo Fire Brigade has approximately 200 firefighters organized into four shifts, as well as administrative and training staffs. There are three fire stations: Centrum, in downtown Malmo; Jagersro in the north; and Hyllie in the south. Each station has as its core response capability a single engine staffed by a crew of five firefighters (an officer plus four) and a ladder staffed by two firefighters. Reserve engines are located at Centrum and Hyllie as well, and a reserve ladder at Jagersro, for a total of five engines and three ladders. (By way of comparison, the Buffalo Fire Department consists of some 760 firefighters and has 19 engines and nine ladders.) A chief’s car also runs out of the Centrum and Hyllie stations.
In addition to fire-suppression duties, each station maintains equipment and apparatus for specialized duty. Centrum is responsible for water rescue/diving, Jagersro for heavy rescue, and Hyllie for haz-mat response. The administrative headquarters is at the Centrum station, whereas the dispatch center is operated from Hyllie. The Barbara training facility, where the Malmo Fire Brigade conducts its in-service training, is on the outskirts of Malmo.
On the surface, there is a great deal of similarity between the Malmo Fire Brigade and its U.S. counterparts. The platoon system creates a sense of teamwork and camaraderie that is unmatched in other vocations, with the kitchen and dining room serving as the nerve center. Swedish firefighters have the same rough sense of humor and professional dedication to service as their American counterparts. However, where an American firefighter operates as part of an extended firehouse family on and off duty, the job ends at the station door for most Swedes. You won’t find many Swedish firefighters wearing fire department T-shirts off duty. There is an unspoken ethos, known as “Jantelagen,” which rejects any pretense at bragging or bravado. The Swedish people may love their “Brandman” every bit as much as Americans loves their firefighters, but the sense of social humility brought about by Jantelagen keeps the Swedes from putting their firefighters on a public pedestal (Photo 6).
The author with the Styrkechef, or lieutenant, of Malmo Pumper 1, and the Insatschef, or deputy chief, of Malmo Centrum Station. The camaraderie among Swedish firefighters is just as strong as it is among their American counterparts.
The Swedes view firefighting and carrying out rescue operations as a normal part of a day’s work for the fire service. The concept of awarding medals for conspicuous service is not as widely embraced as it is here in America. This is a cultural difference, which can lead to a misunderstanding of the sort exhibited by Dr. Svensson when he denigrated the America “cult of heroes” in his Atlanta presentation. As the authors of the Novato Summit noted:
“A proud tradition of bravery and raw courage is one of the fundamental components of the established American fire service culture. Firefighters are known for and take great pride in their unswerving commitment to saving lives and protecting their fellow citizens from fires and other imminent perils. The fire service is viewed and sees itself as a ‘family’ that is founded on the dedication and shared commitment of every ‘member’ to the mission, to the organization, and to each other. Firefighters are prepared to risk and, if necessary, lose their own lives to accomplish their mission.” 12
This American cultural approach to firefighting is incomprehensible to the Swedish Fire Service. The Swedes categorically reject the concept of legitimizing the death of a firefighter in the name of mission accomplishment. This does not mean that Swedish firefighters are not brave and will not place themselves in harm’s way when conducting their mission. It just means that culturally the Swedes are prepared to spend the time necessary to train their firefighters and provide them with an operational and administrative framework that does not condone unsafe practice or needless risk-taking.
The Swedes also integrate physical fitness into their daily operations in a manner that would be foreign to most American fire departments. By law, each Swedish firefighter must perform 90 minutes of physical training a day while on duty. This can be done through running, lifting weights, swimming, or playing organized sports. Once a year, each firefighter must take and pass a demanding physical fitness test and pass a comprehensive medical examination. For American firefighters accustomed to taking the CPAT early in their career and then having to do nothing thereafter, the Swedish system would seem quite foreign, but the end result is a firefighter who is extremely fit for duty, much more efficient on the fire scene, and less susceptible to heart attack and injury.
The workhorse of the Malmo Fire Brigade is the engine/pumper, and the one running out of Malmo Centrum station is the busiest engine/pumper in all of Sweden, making approximately 3,000 calls per year (Swedish engine/pumpers do not operate as EMS/paramedic engines). The engine operates with a crew of five: one firefighter/driver, one Styrkechef (resource chief or lieutenant), and three “smoke divers” (interior firefighters). Only the three smoke divers carry out SCBA operations inside a burning structure. The lieutenant functions as external command, supervising the operation, leaving the tactical decisions inside the building to the three firefighters. The Swedish system has two “smoke divers” operating a single hoseline inside a building; their work is monitored by the third senior smoke diver, who typically remains at the entrance to the building observing the work of the two-person entry team and the fire conditions. On calls requiring two engines or more, an Insatschef (incident commander, equivalent to a deputy chief is dispatched to the scene. If the incident expands, a Brandingenjor, or fire engineer (chief) will be deployed.
Malmo’s immigration situation is a source of domestic tension that often manifests itself in acts of arson and violence toward responding firefighters. On November 3, 2007, the Centrum engine was dispatched to a school building where there was a report of an outdoor fire impinging on the building. The fire was a pile of leaves that was quickly extinguished before it could spread to the structure. However, while putting out the small fire, the Malmo firefighters were pelted by stones thrown by local young immigrants.
Later that night, a fire again was reported at another school. This time the firefighters weren’t so lucky. The arsonists had done their job well, placing a burning trash can at the base of a door, catching the side of the wood-framed school on fire and subsequently burning through the eves of the roof into the roof itself. Fortune did aid the firefighters in one way: It was a windy night, but the wind blew perpendicular to the side of the building on fire. Had the wind shifted and directed itself into the fire side of the structure, it would have raced into the roof and burned down the entire structure. But even with this small bit of luck, the fire had gotten a good jump on the firefighters, and the initial responding crews had their work cut out for them.
The fire came in as a two-engine/two-ladder alarm, with an Insatschef assigned as the incident commander (IC). The arriving engine was confronted by visible flame that was engulfing one side of the building with fire extension well into the roof and interior of the structure. Smoke could be seen rising through the ceramic tiles along the roof’s peak. Using exterior attack tactics, the Malmo Fire Brigade knocked down the fire along the side of the structure and in the lower roof (Photo 7). But worsening smoke conditions farther up and into the roof showed that the fire, far from being extinguished, was extending. In consultation with the Styrkchef from Jagersro, the IC instructed that a trench-like ventilation operation be conducted on the roof to cut off the flames’ advance..
Swedish firefighters make an exterior attack on a structure fire in Malmo. (Photo by Patrick Persson.)
To reinforce the viability of the trench ventilation and to extinguish any flame and cool associated fire gases, the IC ordered the use of a high-pressure water-cutting tool off the Jagersro ladder. The senior firefighter located hot spots with an infrared camera, and firefighters operating the injected high-pressure water vapor into the advance of the fire, extinguished the fire with steam (Photo 8). With the main body of the fire knocked down and the danger of fire spread eliminated, the Malmo Fire Brigade committed its firefighters to an interior operation to mop up the remaining fire.
Swedish firefighters use a high-pressure nozzle to attack fire extension in the roof of a building on fire in Malmo. (Photo by Patrick Persson.)
Swedish building construction, which emphasizes fire-resistant materials and heavy insulation, hampered the firefighters in their work. Pockets of ventilation-controlled fires were trapped above the ceiling of the building, and firefighters had to pull down the ceiling in certain areas of the structure to reach them. The initial call came in at 8:32 p.m. By 10 p.m, the fire was extinguished.
Amazingly enough, when conducting a post-extinguishment inspection of the building, there was hardly any evidence of water damage anywhere. Four rooms had been impacted by fire and smoke, but the remainder of the school was undamaged and would be open for business on Monday morning (Photo 9). From the standpoints of life safety, incident stabilization, and property conservation, the Malmo Fire Brigade’s response was a textbook example of efficiency and effectiveness.
The interior of the fire building after the Malmo firefighters completed their extinguishment operations. Note the lack of water damage.
One fire does not a fire department make, and it would be wrong to draw definitive conclusions based on the results of a single incident. Just a month before, a fire involving a structure of similar construction as the school, was not able to be brought under control, and the entire building was lost. Likewise, the Malmo Fire Brigade struggled to extinguish an apartment fire on the 11th floor of a high-rise building because of high winds blowing into the windows of the fire floor. Rather than sweeping these incidents under a rug, however, the Malmo Fire Brigade, from senior officers on down, discuss and dissect each incident to isolate the reasons for failure and develop the means, through training, to ensure that mistakes are not repeated. These postincident reviews take place around the fire station in informal sessions and, more importantly, are incorporated into the formal in-service training conducted at the Malmo Fire Brigade’s Training facility, called “Barbara.”
This facility is a miniature reproduction of the Revinge fire service school, with classrooms, burn buildings, and an exercise field designed to replicate a Swedish highway (a high percentage of the calls responded to by Swedish firefighters consist of traffic accidents, many of which require victim extrication). Five days a week, Monday through Friday, the Barbara facility is used to train the firefighters of Malmo and the surrounding area.
A typical training operation involves pulling firefighters from different stations and a Styrkeche’ to create a “response crew” of one pumper and one ladder. This crew is then put through the paces in four carefully designed scenarios (two traffic accidents involving live “victim” extrication and two fire scenarios, one with live fire). Having never before worked together as a team, the assembled firefighters must draw on their individual technical skills. The fluidity of operation exhibited by crews who have worked with one another over an extended time often hides the flaws of individual firefighters.
The methodology used at Barbara isolates each firefighter as an individual and evaluates their collectivs overall efficiency as a team. It was interesting to observe the evolution of the ad hoc team through the different phases of training and the inefficiencies of the initial training event giving way to solid teamwork by the end of the final live fire (Photo 10). In between each scenario, the team was brought back to the classroom, where experienced instructors debriefed the exercise using a system of feedback that required each student to explain what he did and why he did it. Shortcomings were addressed directly, as were the means of redress.
The fire attack team preparing to make initial entry into the burn building under the watchful eyes of the lead instructor of the Malmo Barbara training facility.
The training process at Barbara possessed an intimacy between instructor and instructed that is often lacking in similar exercises in the United States. More importantly, the in-service training provided at the Barbara facility reinforced not only the operational methodology employed by the Malmo Fire Brigade but was also directly relevant to the foundational training provided by the Revinge fire service college. The link between the skills and methodology learned in basic training to the real-world operational activity of the Malmo Fire Brigade was seamless, a reflection of the high quality of the Swedish training system.
There are many differences between Sweden and the United States when it comes to firefighting, making any direct correlation between established practices and results difficult at best. One major factor is building construction. Swedish building codes require each structure to be designed from the standpoint of subdividing the building into discreet “fire cells” that can contain a fire for at least one hour. Swedish firefighting tactics have been developed with this reality in mind. American building codes, on the other hand, usually seemed designed to place responding firefighters in the worse possible predicament, what with their widespread use of lightweight truss construction, TGI beams, and other construction materials and techniques that place cost efficiency over fire safety. Aggressive American firefighting tactics are often the product of the reality that in this country firefighters do not have the luxury of time provided by Sweden’s one hour fire cells.
Nonetheless, there is no difference whatsoever in the science of fire behavior, meaning a fire in Sweden burns on the basis of the same scientific principles as a fire in the United States. The low level of fire behavior training the majority of American firefighters of all ranks have represents a fundamental problem that, if not addressed, will continue to result infirefighter injury and death. This is especially true when it comes to enclosed structure fires. A lack of familiarity concerning fire behavior leads to poor size-up of a fire scene, which in turn leads to the employment of a fast and aggressive interior fire attack, which more often than not proves to be ineffective and unsafe during an enclosed fire situation. The bottom line is that American firefighting tactics are derived more from decades of tradition than from the science of fire behavior and, as such, are more likely to bring harm to the firefighters who employ them than to put out the fire in a safe and efficient manner. Our tactics are the enemy, which means that we as American firefighters, dedicated to the mission of life safety as set forth in the Novato Summit, must dedicate ourselves to finding solutions based on scientific fact and sound training practices.
Change is never an easy process, especially from the standpoint of a proud service grounded in centuries of tradition and service. But if American firefighters are to live up to the commitments made to significantly reduce line-of-duty deaths, a fundamental reevaluation of how we as a service conduct our business is required, even if the end result is the need for dramatic, deep-rooted change. Change for change’s sake is not the answer. Problems must be identified through the process of a thorough analysis that assesses the mission of fire suppression in relationship to the prerequisite of life safety. Once such identification has been made, specific solutions can be developed and implemented.
There is no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to fire safety The Swedish fire service went through a similar process of change some 20 years ago, and the American fire service could very well benefit from its experience. When the Swedish government decided that firefighter line-of-duty deaths were unacceptable, they instituted a series of sweeping reforms that manifested themselves in fundamental changes in the way Swedish firefighters are trained to fight fire. Although no two fire services are exactly alike, there is no doubt that much of what the Swedes have experienced in the way of change is relevant to what must be done here in the United States. The fire services of Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia, and elsewhere have embraced the Swedish methodology in one form or another.. Everywhere the Swedish approach has been adopted, a decline in firefighter line-of-duty deaths was seen, The American fire service would do well to heed this precedent.
What is needed, of course, is leadership at the national, state, and local levels. The National Fire Academy (NFA) should initiate an exchange program with its Swedish counterparts, the goal of which would be to create new national curriculum for fire behavior adapted from the Swedish model that can be made available to state fire agencies for further dissemination. By adopting the model of skill development used in other fire service-related disciplines, the NFA could create three levels of fire behavior skills (awareness, operations, and technician). Awareness-level skills would be at the level currently taught in the firefighter I program. However, awareness-level skills are insufficient to prepare a firefighter for interior SCBA operations under live-fire conditions. As such, the national standard would need to be changed so that an operations-level course, similar in content to the five-day fire behavior and fire suppression course taught by the Swedes at Revinge, would become the standard for national firefighter I certification. An even more advanced fire behavior course, at the technician level, should be developed for fire officers to enable more effective size-up and tactical decision making.
State-level fire training agencies, as well as those of major municipalities, would likewise benefit from exposure to Swedish firefighting training and methodology. Making funding available for select personnel to attend the fire behavior and fire suppression courses offered at Revinge and working with the Swedish rescue service agency to jointly develop training programs and associated operational firefighting models based on Swedish experience as adapted to the American reality are all appropriate activities for state and municipal fire agencies.
The bottom line is that if there is going to be any action taken in light of the initiatives set forth by the Novato Summit, such action needs to be linked to practical needs identified at the fire department level. To effect genuine cultural change within the American fire service of the scope and scale recommended by the Novato Summit necessitates recognition at the local level that current practices are unacceptable. Such an awakening can be accelerated through a process of education and training along the lines of the Swedish model, as presented here. This, of course, was the intent of the presentation made by Dr. Stefan Svensson at the August 2007 Fire Rescue International conference. Rather than let damaged egos get in the way of progress, the American fire service should be mature enough to recognize the merit of Dr. Svensson’s argument and professional enough to act on it. After all, it is our own lives that are at stake here.
Scott Ritter is a lieutenant with the Delmar (NY) Fire Department and a nationally certified Fire Service Instructor II. He is also a haz-mat specialist with the New York Task Force 2 Urban Technical Search and Rescue Team.
1 ‘Firefighter Safety: A Swedish Perspective’, paper delivered by Dr. Stefan Svensson at the FRI conference, 24 August 2007, p. 1.
2 “Swedish Firefighter, Researcher Schools FRI n Safety”, Jamie Thompson, FireRescue1, (August 24, 2007), response posted Tuesday, August 28, 2007 by ‘srbaker911’.
3 ‘Firefighter Safety: A Swedish Perspective’, op. cit., inclusive.
4 Ibid, posted August 29, 2007 by ‘Engine13Bombero’.
5 National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, 2007 National Firefighter Life Safety Summit Report (Novato Report), pp. 1-2.
6Essentials of Fire Fighting (4th Edition), Richard Hall and Barbara Adams (Editors), International Fire Service Training Agency (Oklahoma, 1998) and Enclosure Fires, Lars-Goran Bengtsson, Swedish Rescue Services Agency (Huskvarna, Sweden, 2001).
7Essentials of Fire Fighting (4th Edition), op. cit., pp. 53-54.
8 Water and Other Extinguishing Agents, Stefan Sardqvist, Swedish Rescue Services Agency (Huskvarna, 2002), p. 151.
9 Ibid., p. 152.
10Enclosure Fires, op. cit., pp. 49-50.
11 Ibid., pp. 48-49.
12 Novato Report, op. cit., p. 6.