Commentary, Fire Dynamics, Firefighting

Being Aggressive Does Not Mean Being Reckless

By Duane S. Daggers Jr.

Change will happen. It is inevitable and uncomfortable yet necessary in any industry for participants to stay competitive. Many of us who have spent years in the fire service have seen a lot of changes— changes in equipment, apparatus, buildings, and building components, all of which demand adaptation in our strategies and tactics. For some fire service members, adapting new techniques is common and considered “adding tools to our toolbox.” Others, however, maintain that their way is the best way, justifying this mindset with statements like: “It works,” “That’s how I was trained,” or “I can’t help that I’m aggressive.” Unfortunately what some firefighters consider to be aggressive many not only be counterproductive but reckless in certain circumstances.

Being aggressive means more than being first inside the fire, taking out windows, and and searching for victims on the fireground. Being aggressive is a complex dynamic and means considering more than the fire. It requires thinking about the incident priorities, protecting the citizens and property, mitigating the incident, and protecting your crew. It means creating an action plan to quickly and efficiently address these incident priorities, and implementing strategies and tactics to meet the plan. These areas are all important and have a common theme. Improving our performance calls for accepting the changes in our profession and learning how to adjust how we do our job based on what we’re learning. Being aggressive means broadening our knowledge base.

Being aggressive doesn’t begin with the first hoseline. It starts long before you get the call. Tactics we used 10 years ago are not the same as those we may use today. The world has changed and we must do the same. Fire service leaders need to keep learning what is going on around them and share this with their members. Firefighters are also responsible for keeping up on the latest strategies and tactics and bringing new ideas to their companies. Our crews are only as strong as the weakest firefighter, and when we all learn and share it makes all of us better.

Some changes in lifestyle and economy have had effects on our job as a whole. Residents who used to be out of the house or in common areas years ago are now spending much more time in their bedrooms on their phones, games, and computers. Time of day and cars in the driveway were once strong indicators in determining the potential for victims. Things have changed. Many people now work from home and many now work second and third shifts. The economy has caused families to move back together and, in some instances, reduce their number of automobiles. It’s possible to arrive at an incident at 9 a.m. with no cars in the driveway and have several occupants possibly inside.

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Many firefighters were taught that the most effective way to extinguish a fire was to open up the house, go interior, and search for the seat of the fire. These lessons were based on the beliefs of those before us. Some of the theories we were taught to believe are that venting equals cooling, exterior attacks are purely for defensive fire attack, and exterior attacks will hurt victims and firefighters by pushing fire and causing steam burns. Comparing what we were fighting, where we were fighting it, and how we were fighting it has informed the culture of aggressive firefighting and helped fire agencies improve their delivery of service.

Changes in construction mean advances in technology. These advances that have allowed us as a profession to learn that some of these previous impressions are untrue, and some of these factors are occurring because of how firefighters are operating, not where we are operating from.

Buildings are not built in the same style or with the same materials. Modern buildings have an increased level of petroleum-based products, increasing the fire load. This, combined with the efficiency of our modern construction, suggests a mismatch of fireground tactics. Fires are burning hotter and releasing more toxic products of combustion. Firefighter injuries and fatalities in these environments re still happening and some of them are now being closely scrutinized. Why the scrutiny? Because our statistics are NOT improving.

The Hampton Roads (VA) Fire Chiefs Association (HRFCA) held a fire dynamics program. The train-the-trainer module allowed attendees to learn this information and share it with others.

The HRFCA program shared some staggering information. The rate of firefighter deaths because of traumatic injuries has doubled, and our annual number of fire incidents has decreased (1). Citing a 2010 a publication from the National Fire Protection Association, in the late 1970s, the fire service averaged 1.8 deaths per 100,000 fires. In the late 2000s, we were up to three deaths per 100,000 fires (2). In this same time period, our annual number of structures fires decreased by 53 percent. So our fires are decreasing, our fatalities are increasing, and our experience level is dwindling. This implies a need for change in how our members operate. Part of the need was for understanding that much of what we thought regarding fire attack is not actually the case. For more information on this publication reference it below:

Advances in construction and the fire services mindset for safety have brought science and the fire service together to make some discoveries in our operations. A series of fire-based scenarios were conducted in a collaboration with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute, and the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). These scenarios were scientifically backed live-fire evolutions. Their goal was to recreate many of the beliefs our service held regarding firefighting and be able to prove or disprove them with data. The results revealed dramatic data backed by science that allows us to improve what we do on the fireground. Some of the key points from those studies are worth noting.

  1. Increasing the ventilation to a ventilation-limited structure fire increases the hazards from the fire, such as rapid fire spread and even flashover. This worsens conditions for both building occupants and firefighters. By limiting or controlling ventilation (flowpath), crews can limit fire growth.
  2. Applying exterior hosestreams through a window or door of a working fire resulted in improved conditions throughout the structure, even in fires where a flowpath has been opened through the building.
  3. Firefighters are able to drop the temperatures in the interior at a rapid rate with just 30 seconds of water from the exterior prior to entry. These temperature drops are critical for victim and firefighter survivability.

You can read about the studies by going to the link below:

FDNY/YouTube
UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute/YouTube

These drills helped the fire service change its thinking on fire attack. Operationally we grew accustomed to deploying resources for either offensive or defensive fire attack. If conditions changed during our operations, we could call for a transition to the other strategy based on fireground factors. Our crews would stretch handlines to the closest entry point and go interior for fire attack and search while other companies were opening windows and doors. Coordination with the engine and ladder companies was important for rooftop operations and positive pressure ventilation. Now we have more tools to handle fire incidents based off of our scene size-up. 

Knowing what we do about fire spread and interior conditions, we can select a strategy (offensive or defensive), and then determine the best attack mode. Three modes of attack are offensive, defensive, and transitional. With transitional attack, crews go to any visible fire egress and attack for 30-40 seconds, dropping interior heat and fire conditions. This “reset” of the fire gives crews a window of opportunity to transition to the interior to contain and extinguish the remaining fire. This is still an offensive strategy, but there is no delay in providing the most important stabilizing factor: the water.

The second most important stabilizing factor is controlling the flowpath. Leaving doors and windows open during a working fire allows air to feed the fire, but also gives it the means to travel. Crews need to limit the openings made into the fire building until hoselines can be placed in positions to control the fire. If doors are open when we arrive, part of our 360° walkaround is closing them, thereby minimizing air flow. When we make the interior attack, it is important to close any doors and windows that could be feeding or drawing fire and heat. Once crews are positioned and are operating, opening doors, windows, and roofs are all critical in removing toxic smoke and gases, but only when there is a coordinated effort between the crews.

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This knowledge and the science behind it suggests some of our beliefs are not true. Crews are not pushing fire by attacking from the exterior; fires are being spread by opening up the structure and creating a flowpath. Our exterior crews are not causing steam burns to those inside of the structure; exterior water application is actually cooling the interior compartments, allowing victims and firefighters precious time. The stigma of exterior water application has changed. Hitting a fire prior to entry does have an impact on the incident and has proven to be an aggressive way to control the fire.

This information is nothing more than a tool for our toolbox. It does not change everything about our tactics. What this information shows us is being aggressive starts earlier in the scenario and is measured by your ability to rapidly change fireground conditions. An aggressive fire attack is a smart fire attack. Our job is to control the fire, extinguish the fire, conserve property loss, and save citizens. Meeting these objectives aggressively is a combination of interior suppression, interior search and rescue, and exterior fireground activities. From arrival to departure, our actions will have an impact on the fireground.

Exterior firefighting is an excellent tactical option when implemented along with a strong interior attack, not instead of one. If you hit the fire from the exterior and have improved interior conditions, it is crucial that you get crews inside to complete the attack and achieve the interior benchmarks. Cooling the interior quickly is giving any trapped occupants critical time they need, and giving our interior search crews better operating conditions to locate them. These strategies go hand in hand with effective ventilation practices. Control the flowpath by closing doors and windows. Coordinate ventilation with suppression crews.

How we conducted operations in the past allows us to evaluate what we were doing and adapt to changes in the industry. Keeping up to date with the latest strategies, tactics, and data is how we stay ahead on an incident. But aggressive leaders and firefighters need to bring this information to their crews, holding them accountable for stronger expectations when it comes to performance. Firefighters need to understand their surroundings and carry out the tasks assigned to them. Officers must be able to analyze the scene, initiate an action plan based off the critical factors, and deploy resources not just quickly but effectively.

Learning the latest strategies and tactics is part of the equation. Companies need to take what they are learning and apply it in the field. Training on our basics daily will keep us sharp for when we need to use them. Group discussions on construction in your area get the crew thinking alike. Driving the area gets crews out in the neighborhoods, looking at the design of houses and streets. Allowing time for physical fitness keeps our firefighters’ bodies strong. Allowing quiet time for crews to unwind when possible is also important for our crew’s mental fitness.

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One of my senior firefighters offered some insight on being aggressive. In his words: “We have a lot of ‘cowboys’ out there. Each tactic, whether it’s transitional, offensive or defensive has merit in different situations. You have to take the situation and match your tactic. Don’t be reckless, be smart, and be coordinated with other tactics. Our experience is leaving and we now have limited experience, so being aggressive also means ‘aggressive and smart training.’ We teach them so they learn the skills and understand what and why they are doing what they are doing.”

Firefighters have an obligation to protect property and save lives. This is a responsibility to the citizens they serve, but also to their fellow firefighters and their families. How do we do that? By being aggressive. Learn the job every day. Train for the incident every shift. Treat each incident the same, regardless of its nature. When you arrive on the scene, don’t give 10 percent, give 100 percent. Every incident, every task. Be smart with your decisions and actions, and make sure everyone returns when the incident is over. Be aggressive; don’t be reckless.

References

H.R.F.C.A. “Fire Dynamics Train the Trainer Program.” Fire Dynamics Train the Trainer. Hampton: H.R.C.F.A., 2014.

Fahy, Rita F., Paul R. LeBlanc and Joseph L. Molis. “Firefighter Fatalities in the United States — 2009.” June 2010. NFPA.

Duane S. Daggers

Duane Daggers is a 35 year veteran of the fire service. He is captain with the City of Chesapeake (VA) Fire Department and a life member with the Gouldsboro (PA) Volunteer Fire Company. He has been an active instructor for over 20 years. He holds a master’s degree in occupational safety and health, a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership and management, and associate’s degrees in fire science and emergency management.