Half Ready: Limiting Our Options

Firefighters advance hoseline with fire inside home
Photo from FDIC 2014 by Tony Greco.

Commentary by Mark J. Cotter

Excellent firefighters are easy to spot: they’re usually doing something that will enhance their skills and knowledge. Though individual abilities will differ due to such variables as time in service, experience, and level of training, the consistent traits of the best firefighters are that they tirelessly study the trade, practice skills, and critique responses in order to better assist the citizens they are sworn to serve. This quality is readily apparent in their focus, attitude, and performance. Before dismissing this description as being some idealized and romantic vision, consider the limitless variety of incidents and circumstances we might be called upon to manage. In that context, it becomes obvious that the pursuit and maintenance of competence must be endless! On the other hand, being unable to perform a needed task or tactic, especially one that falls within our potential duties, would be viewed by firefighters as an unthinkable failure. In light of this proud and powerful culture of capability, the refusal of some in the fire service to consider, much less practice, Modern Fire Attack (MFA) techniques is, at best, a contradiction.

Now, I am as aware as anyone of the controversies surrounding this or any other “new” approach or tool, and skepticism is healthy and necessary for weeding out tactical fads or commercial promotions that will not survive the real testing that occurs “on the street”. MFA tactics, though, which include exterior streams, door control, smoke curtains, and gas cooling, are supported by robust and repeated research, as well as “real world” successes that more and more fire departments are experiencing with their application. In my opinion, they have passed the point of being considered novel, interesting, “try them if you want” maneuvers; and are now worthy of being deemed proven, practical, “use them when indicated” techniques for our tactical toolbox. They remain “optional” in the sense that you should view them as an alternative, but not as something that can be ignored. That is, though they might not always be needed, we should always have them at the ready.


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Being unwilling, and therefore unable, to embrace a particular tactic is nothing new for the fire service. Indeed, when I joined over 40 years ago, many departments managed almost every fire with external streams. Firefighters were just as brave and dedicated back then, but many had not yet mastered the internal hose line deployment approach that we now know as the “Aggressive Interior Attack” (AIA), nor did they believe a change was necessary. In our defense, it was thought that the use of SCBA would slow firefighters unnecessarily; PPE consisted of neoprene coats and hip boots that were designed for resisting water, not heat; and our “quick attack” hoselines were 3/4 to 1-inch diameter “booster” lines that were sufficient only for incipient fires, especially since they could not be brought far into the interior while wearing rubber outfits and our SCBA usually still in their cases on the apparatus. In the years since, advances in PPE, which included increased fire resistance and the use of turnout pants; the adoption of larger, but still relatively easy to handle, attack lines, in the 1 1/2- to 2-inch diameter range; and an acceptance of the necessity of SCBA use, both for firefighter protection and enhanced ability to operate in an IDLH, have also occurred, all improving the chances of success with interior fire suppression operations. Still, the real bad-a**** that pioneered these tactics were doing it without these “enhancements”, a feat that we should both admire and be thankful we don’t have to emulate. In an example of the “pendulum-swing” of trends and habits, we now find ourselves with many firefighters who know and practice only the AIA approach!

One of the seductively corrupting features of poor preparation is that half ready still works more than half the time, and we can usually blunder or muscle our way through most operations with any method we choose. Fires blowing out windows will still go out if you take the extra time to stretch the hose line through the door, as did all of those fires that we used to fight with just exterior streams. Haphazardly opening windows and doors won’t have an ill effect at every fire, and we can continue to perform ventilation before flowing water without the fire growing faster than we can respond. The problems occur when there is a situation for which your “standard” approach will have little, or even a negative, effect; and the ideal maneuvers are unplanned, unpracticed, and therefore unavailable.

We now have additional, proven, and effective measures for the control of structure fires. Admittedly, we can still manage most incidents with our current, “tried and true” tactics, just as our forebears managed fires during their times with their favored methods. And, of course, the new techniques are not applicable to every fire or situation. Still, firefighting in the current era without at least learning, preparing for, and practicing exterior water application and ventilation control is like responding without a full complement of equipment. You can get away with it most of the time, but not all of the time, and those inadequacies might be demonstrated in life-or-death situations.

While progress has always proceeded unevenly, in firefighting or any other endeavor, we owe it to the citizens we protect to get ourselves up to speed as soon as possible. Resistance to change may be expected, but it is no excuse for failure.

Mark J. Cotter has more than 40 years experience in emergency services and is currently a volunteer captain with the Salisbury (MD) Fire Department. He can be reached at [email protected]

This commentary reflects the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Fire Engineering. It has not undergone Fire Engineering‘s peer-review process.