Commentary: Why Aren’t More Firefighters Making the Change to Intelligent Firefighting?

Firefighter with a TIC on exterior of structure while firefighter puts hose stream through opening
Photo courtesy UL FSRI

Commentary by Nick Salameh

I recently re-read Chief Peter Van Dorpe’s article, “Mounting an Intelligent Interior Attack.” I can’t agree more with his insight. Here is a guy who began his fire career and training during the legacy era but has also come to learn and understand modern-era fire dynamics and tactics. He can agree that we know more about fire today than yesterday and that modern fire education and understanding is better. This is similar to what I experienced in the fire service. I was never more knowledgeable about fire dynamics and tactics than I am today thanks to modern fire science.

Yet other firefighters seemingly fail to evolve and remain students of the profession. It’s not that they simply are unaware of fire science, but fail to recognize the contributions that the Underwriters Laboratories Firefighter Safety Research Institute (UL FSRI) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have made to the fire service, in the form of far better information, insight, and accuracy than we’ve ever had before. It’s hard to argue with proven empirical findings.


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Why, after a decade of findings, are firefighters still doing the same things they’ve always done when other proven tactics are available to make firefighters much more intelligent, efficient, and effective? Why do we continue to see examples of firefighters allowing fire to maintain control of the fireground in the first five minutes rather than emphasizing fast, sufficient water on the fire within the first minute upon arrival, regardless of where it comes from? 

When we watch video footage after the fact, many of us recognize where the opportunities existed to rapidly get water into the compartment. Yes, it’s in hindsight, but shouldn’t firefighters be training to recognize these opportunities in the moment rather than when it’s too late or after the fact?

The body of work UL FSRI and NIST have assembled should be the fundamental foundation of learning for every firefighter, old and new. UL FSRI has created the UL FSRI Fire Safety Academy and provides all of their proven findings into easy-to-understand classes to educate all firefighters—for free! It doesn’t get any easier than this.

However, it seems the same old characteristics—pride, ego; hubris, peer pressure, culture, ignorance, arrogance, and complacency—seem to be preventing the evolution of firefighters across our country. 

Too many are aspiring to be the tough-as-nails firefighters like those we consider legends of our past. It’s easy to argue that a crew that runs inside under the worst conditions (for them) is better than any thinking crew that dare place a properly positioned and applied water stream into a window (which immediately initiates a reset of fire and causes a dramatic and immediate cooling affect that drops temperatures by hundreds of degrees in seconds, for them.) The latter technique gains fire control faster and firefighters inside quicker and under better conditions to complete search and extinguishment, all while remaining proactive so fire doesn’t gain strength to come back on us. Rapid intervention teams are a great addition to the firefighting arsenal but are less likely to be needed if we get the water on the fire as quickly as possible.

We’ve all heard the rhetoric. If you want an immediate and supportive audience in the fire service, just pick any argument that argues against any of the proven science. It’s an easy argument that doesn’t hold water to modern fire science, unless of course you subscribe to conspiracy theories. It’s disappointing to see some well-known, influential names in the fire service trying to be counter to the modern fire science message of maintaining intelligent aggressive firefighting. I find comfort in knowing there are other well-known and influential names of the fire service who have seen the light and are supporting the change from what we thought we knew to what we truly know and understand today.

The fire service has extraordinary attention being devoted to it through the work of UL FSRI and NIST, for the direct benefit of firefighter and civilian lives, yet some completely disregard their efforts. In some ways, we are our own worst enemies! The fire service directly benefits from this body of work in more ways than some realize.

We will never match up to the legendary firefighters that came before us. Our stories will never match their tales. They lived in a different time, had different fires, different tools, apparatus, and equipment, and certainly not the kind of protection and technology firefighters have available to them today. They operated under a different understanding of fire dynamics and tactics, with the limited information they had. That information worked, though sometimes simply by accident. This still goes on today.

Today, we use our intelligence to read the building, read the smoke, identify the seat of fire, where it’s going, and where it will be in several minutes. We know clearly, like those who came before us, that if you put sufficient water on the fire, things immediately get better. Today we know it’s okay to put water on smoke and to cool surfaces ahead of us rather than hold water until we are right on top of the interior seat of fire. Today we know a transitional attack, which sounds like an indirect attack, is something altogether different and a valuable tool in the arsenal.

When the transitional attack is applied at the onset to visible, reachable fire showing, it can secure a fire reset; at a minimum, drops interior temperatures by hundreds of degrees in seconds, and when properly applied does not entrain air to push smoke, heat, and fire. We also know that the cooling effect of a solid or straight stream is highly effective without creating volumes of steam, which can have negative effects on trapped occupants, but rather causes gases to contract in the compartment. All of these benefits are proactive measures that result in better interior conditions for firefighters and for savable trapped occupants.

Science has evolved to be able to explore modern fire dynamics like never before, and has debunked, proven, and identified new findings to explain the truth about what we thought we knew we knew, what we didn’t know we didn’t know, and why some of what we understood in our past is no longer accurate for today’s firegrounds. This work has also made new discoveries and offers a proper context and vocabulary to discuss these topics accurately. 

The fire service must stop arguing with science and making excuses to avoid evolving as firefighters and as a fire service. Everything around us continually evolves, so our success is directly related to our ability to evolve and stay ahead of changing environments. 

A common denominator may be that we lack the leadership that advances our departments and our firefighters to evolve beyond what we’ve known and what we’ve always done. It’s easier to succumb to peer pressure than to challenge the status quo. 

The new firefighter learning modern fire dynamics and tactics easily adapts to what is being taught because it’s what they know. This is the same as firefighters who were trained decades ago during the legacy era. It sometimes seems harder to convince some of the more senior firefighters, and in some cases, newer firefighters that have been negatively influenced, that the fire science education and understanding firefighters have available today from modern fire dynamics and tactics is a better than what’s ever been available to the fire service.

So what is the new guy or gal supposed to do? They want to promote what they know and in nearly every case can argue a better/proven method through the modern findings, but they often don’t stand a chance against the masses that came before them. It should be the more senior firefighters and officers pushing to learn modern fire dynamics and tactics, but in many cases, it’s the younger firefighters. These folks are stepping up and leading from the rear, which is encouraging.

It’s not to say we’ve all failed to evolve and lead. Some departments have recognized for years that fast water, regardless of where it comes from, does the most good on our firegrounds. These departments have learned from modern fire science, have trained in modern fire dynamics and modern tactics, and have changed or created operational standard operating procedures to adapt and apply these tactics. 

Many want to be heroes in their own minds and want cool stories that create legendary tales. Some of us simply want to be the most effective and efficient firefighters we can be—in a word, “professional.” Stop wasting energy on the arguments and debates and focus that energy toward learning and understanding modern fire dynamics and tactics. With the proven science backing you up, what else do you need to improve your firefighting effectiveness?

Nick SalamehNICK J. SALAMEH is a 36 year veteran of the fire service. He was a Fire/Emergency Medical Services Captain II and previous Training Program Manager for the Arlington County (VA) Fire Department, where he served 31 years. He is a former Chair of the Northern Virginia Fire Departments Training Committee. Nick is also a contributor to Stop Believing Start Knowing (SBSK).

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.

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