From The Jumpseat: The Hazards of Aggression

by Mark Cotter

Went to a reported apartment fire in one of the local housing projects. I shared the jumpseats with a much younger fellow volunteer. Through SOP, his responsibility was to hit the hydrant and make a connection, remaining as we pulled away. Not only did he carry out that function, but he still met the engine at the fire scene, having handed off to the Medic crew the duty of connecting the supply line and opening the hydrant.

I was the nozzleman, and I immediately exited the cab upon our arrival, moved to the front of the Engine to be able to deploy the bumper line, and awaited orders from our officer, who was still in the cab giving a size-up on the radio (nothing showing). I then looked over to witness my young partner, having already obtained an SCBA and tool, breach the front door and enter the apartment. The report of “food on the stove” came from within the residence, but the smell of burnt meat that met us might instead have been a backdraft explosion.

With today’s virtually “standard” offensive interior fire attack, fires that earlier in my career would have been a day-long campaign are now controlled by the first Engine using tank water, with additional units performing support services. While modern building construction and contents may have lead to fires burning hotter, and the toxins they produce more deadly, the Fire Service can take pride in the fact that we have improved our practices at a quicker pace. We have stayed ahead of our enemy.

Still, some of our members can get a little too far ahead of the rest of us, and that brings us to the “Hazards of Aggression.” My seat-mate at the incident described above was almost a victim of his own unrestrained enthusiasm. If a fire within the apartment had burned down to the smoldering stage, the results of his premature, uncoordinated entry could have resulted in his and other’s injury or death. There are other manifestations, and causes, of such risky actions.

One time, when approaching a fully-involved apartment fire as the second firefighter on the initial hoseline, a rookie demonstrated recklessness caused more by ignorance than adrenaline. The fire location was a one-story garden apartment with units in long rows that backed up to, and shared a common rear wall with, similar units. My partner and I crept forward, in full protective gear and SCBA, the line charged but the nozzle unopened, as the fire blew out of the now-failed sliding patio door. Inexplicably, though we moved near enough that the flames were now almost over our heads, he did not open the nozzle, and instead tried to move still closer. Finally, I knelt on the hoseline and, when he turned around to look at what had stopped our forward movement, I pointed up at the flames.

He got the message, opening the nozzle and quickly darkening the fire. The officer and other firefighter completed the search of the one-bedroom unit, removed the other windows for ventilation, and we overhauled the smoldering contents. Afterwards, I inquired of my junior teammate if he was aware that water would flow out of the nozzle for some distance, and that the hose did not actually need to be touching the flames in order to extinguish them. He answered that he was attempting to follow the tactic of “attacking from the unburned side!”

I instructed him that passing through the fire was not an acceptable means of carrying out that otherwise sound approach to extinguishment, and that it could be honorably and reasonably ignored in a situation such as this. Furthermore, I informed him that our turnout gear, though state-of-the-art, would not have provided sufficient protection for even 5 seconds of direct exposure to those flames. While not he did not argue, his attitude was one of obvious disappointment that he had not been allowed to commune properly with our adversary, instead of taking the easy way out with the hose stream.

We in the fire service are responsible for the behaviors embodied in these young firefighters, and even many veterans. We esteem bravery to the point of promoting nonchalance in the face of danger. We preach the importance of personal protective gear without emphasizing its limitations. We continuously push to improve our speed and performance, but do not equally promote the value of restraint (e.g., defensive actions, withdrawal in the face of untenable conditions).

Correcting these unintended, and unsafe, attitudes requires a comprehensive set of solutions. First, the entire culture of the department, as practiced on the fireground, might need to be changed. Do critiques emphasize correct processes or successful results? Is safety during operations only enforced after someone is designated that specific responsibility, typically after much of the most dangerous activity has already occurred? If reckless actions are considered acceptable, an attitude often conveyed merely by the fact that they are ignored, then a shift in priorities is required in order to reduce such hazardous behaviors.

Next, the maintenance of strong command is vital. Firefighters’ actions should only occur by direct order from an officer or by an SOP that specifically addresses that situation. Any other actions should be accurately labeled “freelancing,” and dealt with appropriately. This can include reprimands, fireground “time-outs,” or even suspensions. Hand-in-hand with strong Command, of course, is a strong Incident Commander. The officer in charge must be able to quickly assess situations and assign tasks to minimize firefighters’ undirected urges to “do something.” (Having personnel standing around waiting for direction might be better than freelancing, but it’s only a little better.)

Finally, information about the limitations of our gear and tactics, and descriptions of the worst-case scenarios for which we must always be prepared, must be integrated into our training. When being taught about tactics, firefighters should be provided as many examples of when each will work as for when they will not. Also, the hazards inherent in our many activities (e.g. backdraft explosions upon entry to an unventilated fire compartment, electrocution on contact with energized wires during ladder use, deterioration of personal protective equipment with direct flame impingement) must be repeatedly emphasized.

Both new and seasoned firefighters sometimes need to be protected from themselves. The greatest tragedy would be to injure or lose one of our own while they were acting the way we had showed them, or at least the way we had allowed them.

Mark Cotter joined the fire service more than 30 years ago, and is currently a volunteer firefighter/EMT-B with the Salisbury (MD) Fire Department. Previously, he served with departments in New Jersey and Pennsylvania as an EMT-paramedic, emergency services consultant, and fire chief. The author can be reached at fromthejumpseat@comcast.net

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