Interior Fire Attack: Obsolete or Indispensable?

A firefighter applies an exterior stream at a structure fire
A firefighter applies an exterior stream at a structure fire. Photo courtesy of Rick McClure.

By Leigh H. Shapiro

Intermingled within the vast online world of fire service opinions, many of which are given life by various “trade” blogs, is an idea predicting the not-so-distant future of firefighting devoid of any interior fire attack whatsoever: working fires will be mitigated from the outside of the structure much like the days of old, prior to the adoption of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and science-based suppression techniques. The thinking is that interior suppression evolutions are simply too dangerous, financially unsustainable, and based on antiquated operating models steeped more in tradition and pride than actual modern concepts1. This concept does not address the need for all existing structures to be gone in the near future, thus creating a false panacea of safety rendered by the “do not enter” method. I submit to you a direct challenge to the entire premise of “no interior firefighting ops, period!”

It is true that the constantly evolving changes in modern building construction materials and design concepts have had unwanted and sometimes fatal results for firefighters. Petroleum-based furnishings and contents, cheap and often substandard construction materials, radical “designed to fail so it can be cheaply rebuilt” construction concepts, open floor plans, increased fuel loads, and the all-important rising rate of cancer due to the inclusion of carcinogens are all unwelcomed aspects of contemporary firefighting. The compounding trend of personnel affected by cancer and the associated death rates demands immediate attention at all levels of the fire service, especially operational models, methods, and policies.

However, the fire service’s mission is the foundation of what we do, how we do it and why, and the expected outcomes. Just as the military is constantly modernizing and increasingly using remote operated and unmanned platforms to minimize inherent risk to soldiers and optimize outcomes, so too has the fire service adopted similar changes like robotics, drones, and computer-based technology. One only has to look as far as the 2019 Notre Dame Cathedral fire in Paris, France, to see drones and robots deployed to assist in suppression evolutions, thus initially keeping suppression forces out of harm’s way. The key word here is assist, not replace.

Purveyors of the exterior ops-only concept create a new problem in their limited and overly simplistic attempt to solve an old one: many fire departments short on resources or other operational hindrances may become overly reliant on the exterior extinguishment method.

However, the primary element this “hit it hard from the yard” fire suppression concept is missing is the human factor. Conceptually, the incident action plan forgoes primary and secondary searches for occupants, thorough overhaul activities, and careful salvage actions. Firefighters cannot write off every building fire no matter the size and scope because the tasks are too dangerous. The cost both in financial and humanitarian terms would be incalculable. The modern-day mindset of safety at all costs has become a beacon for this operational model of ineffectiveness and inefficiency devoid of any application of common sense and critical thinking. This overbearing, broad-brushed mentality of risk aversion is problematic at best, and dangerous at worst!

Let’s assume this paradigm shift is adopted in a municipal professional fire department generally known and admired for their aggressive interior fire attack methods. How long do you think this new practice would be acceptable until it became unacceptable? Insurance companies covering property and casualty losses would be screaming about how the fire department turned a simple “food on the stove” fire into a multimillion-dollar loss or created a billion-dollar catastrophic event due to the inaction of responding fire companies to initiate mitigating measures (which is why we’re here in the first place). This strategy would bankrupt an already financially strapped municipality because it was repeatedly sued for knowingly allowing rescuable people to die over and over due to its fire department’s policy of “exterior only operations at working fires.” There would be mobs with pitchforks and torches in front of city hall demanding the fire chief, the mayor, and anybody else connected to this ridiculous policy be fired immediately for allowing this to occur and failing to protect the residents, workers, visitors, and property within the municipality.

A December 2015 fire in California has entangled a fire department in litigation because of the adoption and application of an exterior operations-only method of structural firefighting. The plaintiffs (the property owners and insurance company) contend the fire department, predicated on this strategy Purposefully burned down the structure rather than put firefighters in harm’s way!

While research at UL and NIST has shown transitional attack to be a viable option for rapid knockdown of a large volume of fire, the January 2018 UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute report titled Impact of Fire Attack Utilizing Interior and Exterior Streams on Firefighter Safety and Occupant Survival: Full Scale Experiments 2 states the transitional “knock-back” method of exterior fire control with the proper nozzle selection, as tested in a controlled environment, is safe and effective for modern day suppression evolutions. In fact, the entire report debunks any myth of exterior only fire attack. This “transitional fire attack” method is widely considered to be an acceptable practice today as the way of first attacking a large volume of fire in order to advance suppression evolutions to their eventual conclusion of “putting out the fire.” The premise of exterior only operations, however, is rooted in the political “bean counter” mentality of junk science having no basis in the real world of fire science. Applying the Daubert Standard method, the “No Interior Firefighting” concept does not hold up under scrutiny:

  1. Has the new concept been extensively tested?
  2. What are the rates of error when applied?
  3. Has it been subjected to peer review?
  4. What control standards is it based upon?
  5. Has it gained widespread general acceptance?

Firefighters and incident commanders alike acknowledge that to enter a fully involved structure, the main body of fire must initially be knocked down, effectively slowing the overall momentum and intensity of the fire thus minimizing any occurrence of flashover or another catastrophic event. Once the volume and intensity are reduced, advanced suppression evolutions can effectively continue. This method is generally reserved for specific applications where there is a large volume of fire emanating from a structure upon arrival, thus inhibiting any interior access until it is addressed. It is also reserved for those structures which are deemed unsafe to enter due to compromised structural integrity and a comprehensive risk vs. reward analysis determining there is nothing to gain by placing personnel in harm’s way. Any well-trained, disciplined, and experienced company or chief officer can make a sound decision based on the information at hand on whether to engage from the outside or to enter the structure for interior operations, including rescue. Removing any option of discretionary flexibility and reassessment of operations based solely on the “no entry” policy is a hinderance, not an advantage.

The most recent wildland fires in California were all conducted as exterior fire attacks, yet there still were fatalities and total devastation to the geographical area, all of which destroyed families and will cost billions to recover. How is the exterior only premise applied to these situations? Interestingly though, most fires are still fought with water, much like prehistoric days. As a seasoned company officer, I often directed my crews to poke an inspection hole into a warm wall to confirm the reading of the thermal imager, as well as obtain further information such as intensity, velocity, travel, etc. If suppression crews are outside the building, none of this “heads up” info can be obtained. Historically, this concept has been the most effective in formulating tactical suppression evolutions; no reinventing the wheel is needed. Unfortunately, the fire service has a high rate of injuries and fatalities because of the inherent dangers of the work, which is why we are constantly introducing improvements in tools, equipment, tactics, and gear.

Firefighters have always maintained the ability to adapt and overcome, not simply throwing up our hands and deciding it’s too dangerous for us. During the horrific February 2018 mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida, which left scores of young people dead and wounded, there was in fact, an on-duty police officer at the school during the shooting. His subsequent ineffectiveness and unwillingness to engage based on his perceived information came with a high cost: lives lost! There are consequences for inaction or under-action in the public safety arena and limiting direct engagement in fire suppression evolutions because “it’s not safe” is counterintuitive to our mission.

The bottom line is simple—it doesn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to comprehend that firefighting is inherently dangerous work. However, there are accepted risks fire departments recognize to fulfill our mission to save lives, stabilize incidents, and protect property. Just as soldiers fighting in a war, unfortunately, some get hurt or even die, which is why the services work so hard to minimize risk. The study of fire science has afforded our industry the chance to obtain the most accurate information. This research allows firefighters to formulate best practices and make sound decisions, acquire modern functional equipment, and formulate comprehensive operating policies and standards, and achieve the best outcomes for our citizens.

Risk cannot be totally eliminated to save lives, stabilize incidents, and protect property; we strive to minimize inherent danger through comprehensive risk management programs, utilizing state of the art tools and equipment, and best standards and practices, and incorporating consistent reevaluation for improvement. Career fire departments are sworn public employees charged with the duties to serve and protect, and are expected to deliver every time, not just when things are deemed safe! Unlike garbage pickup crews or other municipal employees who are not sworn to protect, firefighters and police take an oath upon being sworn in, as does the chief of department. A refusal to deliver on the promise to serve and protect is negligent, criminal, and simply goes against everything the fire service stands for. The chief of department, along with the governing state and local administrations should be doing everything possible to minimize the risk while simultaneously affecting positive change to protect both firefighters and civilians, including best practice policies. About 20 years ago, the national trend was to utilize plastic shopping bags at the grocery stores in order to “save the trees and forests” from unnecessary deforestation. Today, the trend is back to paper bags because it turns out plastic bags are bad for the environment and wildlife. Here we are again, vacillating between trends because it seems like a good idea at the time. However, the feel-good trend backward to the good old days of past “exterior only” fire attack makes for unsound practices based on a false narrative.

Leigh H. Shapiro MS is a retired deputy chief and senior tour commander from the Hartford (CT) Fire Department. He served 28 years on the line as a firefighter, lieutenant, captain, deputy chief/senior tour commander, and interim assistant chief/deputy director of emergency management. He now operates a fire service consulting firm and is an adjunct professor and lecturer on fire service leadership development, and also a contributor to Fire Engineering Magazine. He can be contacted at bernenbush@comcast.net.

REFERENCES

(1) Avsec, Robert. Why Interior Firefighting Will Be Obsolete by 2030. Dec. 17, 2018; Fire & EMS Leader Pro.org.

(2) Impact of Fire Attack Utilizing Interior and Exterior Streams on Firefighter Safety and Occupant Survival: Full Scale Experiments. January 2018, UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute Columbia, MD 21045.


This commentary reflects the views of the author and not necessarily the views of Fire Engineering.

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