By Pete Van Dorpe
Unless you have been hiding under a rock for the past couple of years, you must have heard at least a little something about “the great debate over fighting fires from the outside.” You know, all those researchers in lab coats trying to tell us how to do our jobs, telling us to “give up on the victims,” sending secret packets of sinister information to all “those people” who want to cut our personnel and trying to turn us into a bunch of “lawn fairies.” After all, we’ve been doing it this way successfully for hundreds of years. Hundreds? Really? My dad always gets a kick out of that one. He was a Chicago firefighter for 40 years (1959-1999). He knows what it was like trying to go down 50 feet of hallway without a self-contained breathing apparatus. It didn’t happen–not until you got some water on the fire first. Ask him. I think about him and his generation of firefighters every time I hear one of my contemporaries bragging about his fireground experience.
Sorry. I digressed before I even got started. Enough of that nonsense. I hope you will forgive me for venting a bit and my lame attempt at a little satire. This is, after all, serious stuff, and a good deal of the discussion that is happening surrounding the research and its application has been thoughtful, well-reasoned, and advanced in a sincere effort to contribute to the well-being of firefighters and the public we serve. Still, as you can tell from my opening remarks, I get frustrated now and again with that part of the conversation that devolves into platitudes like, “being aggressive interior firefighters” and “putting ourselves between the fire and the victims,” as if the fire or the hot, wet poisonous soup of fire gases swirling around and choking the life out of the victims knew or gave a rat’s patootie about where we or our nozzle was located at any given moment. The thinking part of the fire service knows, and has always known, that the faster you get water on the seat of the fire, the better things get for everyone on the fireground. Being inside the building only has value when it positions you to do just that. The research doesn’t change this and isn’t trying to; the research is offering information to help us accomplish this more efficiently and effectively.
A Look Back
Conversations along these lines always remind me of an experience I had co-instructing a tactics class to a group of newly promoted officers in the Chicago Fire Department (CFD). More accurately, I wasn’t actually instructing; I was observing because my co-instructor was Ray Hoff. If you were in a room where Ray was talking tactics and if you had any brain at all, you just shut the heck up and listened. That man (God rest his soul) would accidentally lay more golden eggs of practical knowledge in an afternoon than most of us can manage in a lifetime. I remember that class as if it were yesterday. Ray asked the group to write down the answers to two questions regarding structure fires. First, “What is the mission of the first-arriving engine company?” Most responses went something like, “Locate, confine, and extinguish the fire.”
Ray would acknowledge those answers but would point out that those were actions. He was looking for the guiding principle, which he usually rendered as, “The mission of the first-arriving engine is to locate and secure, or to establish and maintain, a means of egress from the building.” He reasoned that when you established a means of egress, you necessarily established a means of ingress, which not only made all the other interior operations possible but inevitably got you closer to the confinement and extinguishment of the fire. I was a firefighter and an officer with nearly 20 years of experience in the country’s second largest fire department when I first heard those words and remember thinking to myself (yet again), “How could I have lived so long and remained so dumb?” It was an epiphany for me. I immediately recalled a dozen incidents where things would have gone better if I had just used that basic mission statement to guide my decisions.
Ray wasn’t done yet. There was the second question: “What is the mission of the first-arriving truck company?” Before I go any further, you need to know that Ray was the “truckman’s truckman of all God’s truckmen.” He literally and figuratively wrote the book on tower ladder operations, as well as the vast majority of the training material, for the CFD. Because of this, his answer surprised most people. When posed with the question, “What is the mission of the first-due truck?” most officers responded, “Search and rescue, ventilation, forcible entry,” or various combinations and versions of the same. Again, Ray would acknowledge the importance of those tasks and then conclude with, “The mission of the first-arriving truck is to support the mission of the first-arriving engine” (see above).
This would kick off hours of discussion on the practical aspects of doing just that and demonstrating how all the tasks of the truckies, rescue in particular, got a whole lot easier when the nozzle got to its objective. To quote Ray yet again, “I can be a whole lot more aggressive on my feet than I can be on my knees or on my belly.” The magnitude and import of that lesson continue to grow within me to this very day. It manifests itself in a multitude of ways, not the least of which is in ensuring the holy grail of fireground operations, the “coordinated fire attack.” If we want to have coordinated operations, we darn well better be on the same mission.
I could tell Ray Hoff stories all day. If you are at all fortunate, you would have had a leader and mentor like him in your career. Ray was my battalion chief for many years. He taught me a great deal about a great many things. His biggest lesson of all was, I hope, captured in the story above: “Think, ask, understand.” Ray didn’t just allow you to ask “why”; he expected (even demanded) that you do so.
I am by no means the toughest firefighter who ever lived, but you’d have to go some if you want to keep up with me. More to the present point, I don’t own a lab coat. I am a product of the Chicago Public School system of the 1970s, which means I graduated by virtue of my age, not my accomplishment. However, I am reasonably bright and like to think I am educable. I have had the very good fortune to have been guided, supported, and carried on the shoulders of my betters until I woke up and began to educate myself about my profession. To quote yet another Hoff brother (the famous one), “The day you stop learning on this job is the day you retire.”
Bringing the Science from the Labs to the Street
For several years, I have been doing my best to help bring the science of the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and National Institute of Standards Technology (NIST) research to the street-level officer and firefighter. There has been so much work done, and there are so many important lessons to share, but somehow many of us can’t seem to get past the “water through the window” debate. My friends, there is so much, much more than that! This isn’t at all about the location of your nozzle when you start to flow water, nor is it about when and how you do or do not close a door. What this is about is becoming what it is we profess to be, professional firefighters. Professionals question, professionals challenge, professionals change and adapt, professionals strive to be masters of their profession, which, by definition, means that they must understand the practical science (i.e., engineering) that underpins their craft. How is it that we can lay claim to being firefighters and yet turn our backs on the science of fire dynamics? Mastering that body of knowledge should be foremost in each and every firefighter’s career, from the first day to the last.
Each year, more research-derived information and more experience on both the training ground and the fireground lead to a better understanding of the modern residential firefight. Lightweight building construction (if you think I am referring to gusset plates, you have just crawled out from under that rock), more fuel (not plastic per se, but low-density extruded polyurethane foams), and less experienced firefighters (meaning anyone who came on the job post-1980 –if you ask me) are creating unacceptably dangerous firegrounds.
We can do something about this. There is a lot of “real estate” between the so called “aggressive” interior attack and “surround and drown.” (By the way, when and how did aggressive become synonymous with successful?) Identifying this real estate and learning how to occupy it are the keys to mounting and sustaining an interior attack that accomplishes our mission without sacrificing firefighters–not only that (and I am deliberately, though reluctantly, going to stoop to the all caps bit here): learning to mount and sustain an intelligent interior attack is key to successfully locating and rescuing survivors as opposed to finding and removing victims.
I am indeed a fortunate man. One of my many good fortunes has been to become not only a colleague of, but a good friend of Steve Kerber from UL and Dan Madrzykowski from NIST. As a result, I can tell you with an unequivocal certainty that neither wants to tell you, me, or anyone else “what to do” at your next fire. What they, and I, and all those who have devoted themselves in some way to this work wish to do is to engage you in a dialogue about our vocation, professional to professional.
PETER VAN DORPE is the assistant chief of the Algonquin-Lake in the Hills Fire Protection District. He recently retired as chief of the Chicago Fire Department’s Training Division after a 33-year career with that department. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science management from Southern Illinois University. He has made presentations on modern fireground challenges at FDIC, and other industry conferences and at the National Fire Academy. In 2012, he delivered the General Session Keynote address at FDIC; he addressed the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government on the “Effectiveness of Furniture Flammability Standards and Flame Retardant Chemicals.” In addition to his work as a field instructor for the Illinois Fire Service Institute, he has been a lead instructor for the Chicago Fire Department’s Fire Officer School and has taught building construction for the fire service through the City Colleges of Chicago. He is a member of the Advisory Group for Underwriters Laboratories’ Firefighter Safety Research Institute.
He served as a Subject Matter Expert for Underwriters Laboratories’ research on “Structural Stability of Engineered Lumber In Fire Conditions”; the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) “Evaluating Firefighting Tactics Under Wind-Driven Conditions”; the International Association of Fire Fighters/NIST “Firefighter Safety and Deployment Study” in high-rise buildings; and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health investigation into the line-of-duty deaths of two Boston firefighters that occurred on March 26, 2014.