“LINE IN THE HALLWAY, OR DECK GUN THROUGH THE FRONT DOOR?”

LINE IN THE HALLWAY, OR DECK GUN THROUGH THE FRONT DOOR?

EDITOR’S OPINION

The aggressive interior attack on a working structure fire is the hallmark of the fire service. While strongholds of interior attack firefighting have elevated this strategy almost to an art form, some departments rarely or never conduct interior attacks—and are opposed to the idea. There is a subtle but growing resistance to aggressive firefighting, particularly among some fire service leaders, apparently motivated by a well-intentioned passion for firefighter safety. Are some among us blinded by their own light?

If we accept that the effectiveness of aggressive interior attack has no equal among structure firefighting strategies; if we accept that, when properly performed, it increases the chances of saving people and property; and if protecting people and property is the primary goal of the organization, it follows that an interior attack strategy most closely fulfills the organizational mission in a structure fire situation.

So why are some fire departments sticking hoselines into windows for oneor two-room fires?

  • Because they fail at risk management. The fire department is the risk management department. Every department activity is an extension of risk management policy. Performance is a direct reflection of the department’s ability to manage risk at everylevel. Organizational fire risk management defines life and property hazards and organizes the human and equipment resources needed to achieve or exceed “acceptable” losses. Fireground risk management — on strategic, tactical, and procedural levels—is the ongoing process of weighing risk vs. life safety/property conservation on the size-up scale. The motion of the scale depends on a complex relationship between numerous simultaneous riskassessment decisions and unique, changing fire conditions. The better the risk management, the greater the chance that the scale will tip favorably. A fire department that will not practice interior attack in suitable fire situations has failed at risk management, either from the organizational perspective or the operational perspective, or both.
  • Good risk management masters risk —it does not eliminate risk. The only way to eliminate risk is to stay in the firehouse. Firefighting is risky business. Communities support firedepartments because the police officer, the sanitation worker, anti the average citizen can’t and don’t want to work inside burning buildings. You are expected to take calculated risks because you are (or should be) well-trained and experienced professional risk managers. Otherwise, consider a salary reduction (for the career fire service) and a name change to “Exposure Protection Department.”

  • Because they let the building dictate inflexible organizational policy. The proliferation of lightweight construction, the effects of a house filled with burning synthetic fuels, and the increase in vacant buildings in our aging communities are and should be of grave concern to firefighters. Indeed, no firefighter should be expected to enter any environment that poses an undue threat to his or her safety.
  • However, “no entry” SOPs for particular construction types—some departments, for example, will not enter a truss roof building no matter what the circumstances—admit defeat before the battle is fought, give up on life inside the building before conditions become untenable. Can you be absolutely certain that a “vacant” building is vacant? Recently, city firefighters had just knocked down a first-floor fire in a vacant building when squatters in the basement began scrambling out. Professional departments do not wilt at the sound of the word “truss.” In professional departments, fireground decisions are made by competent, experienced chief and company officers on the scene, not in die city manager’s office. SOPs are meant to be a risk-management tool, not a death warrant for lives inside a burning building.

    Perhaps some departments need to post “In Case of Fire, Firefighters Will Not Enter” placards on these types of buildings to warn occupants that the fire will be fought from outside and they must evacuate quickly before the deck gun is applied through the front door. A special form, in triplicate, will formalize the policy—white copy to the building owner, canary copy to the insurance company, and pink copy for the fire department file. An added bonus is we can put the minimum staffing controversy to rest, since this “attack” will require only two members, one for the supply line and the other on the deck gun.

  • Because they have ignored the basics. The fire service wins or loses on the strength of its ability to reinforce the basics through ongoing training and actual firefighting operations. The basics are the cornerstone of all firefighting, and particularly the interior attack, which relies so heavily on teamwork and efficient, methodical completion of simultaneous fireground tasks. A solid foundation in the basics is the great equalizer in the struggle against fire risk. Why are fire departments losing a grasp of the basics? Ignorant leadership—the truth can be brutal.
  • Because they have neither nurtured nor demanded superior leadership. Fireground command policy is established and directed by the people with the gold horns. On his first day with a paid department in a small city, a probie hit a working house fire. Anxious to employ what he had learned in the fire training academy and impress his superiors, he began to stretch a line to the front door in anticipation of an aggressive interior attack. This annoyed the chief, who called the probie to his side for a reprimand. “We don’t do interior firefighting here,” growled the chief. I never found out if the firefighter stayed around long enough to pass probation.
  • A department that cannot perform interior attack is a sign of weak leadership. An inferior chief cannot lead a safe interior attack. An inferior chief will not demand the best from his city and from his firefighters. A weak leader is afraid of liability, has not demanded the highest level of training for his members, has not organized a system through which good firefighters grow into good company officers into good chiefs, has not demanded the proper personnel and equipment to perform the service the way it can be done. The weak leader leaves behind a legacy of weak firefighting.

  • Because they have forgotten that property has value beyond its market price. Who can put a price on the emotional value of a photo album, a teddy bear, an heirloom?
  • Continued on page 8.

    Continued from page 6.

  • Houses are sticks and bricks. Homes are the stories of lives. Saving even one item or one closet or one room may be of untold value and comfort to a person who has just experienced the destruction of a most sacred place.
  • Because they have forgotten the promise. Aggressive interior attack is not a philosophical intangible to be debated by men in suits. It is the actualization of the fire department’s promise to its citizens, a reciprocation of the public’s sacred trust. It is the fulfillment of an unwritten contract. The fire service has long since established, and reinforced within the minds of the public, the interior attack within its capabilities. To retreat from that public expectation is to break the contract.

It is easier to invoke the name of safety than to commit to, and invest in, all the elements that must be in place before an interior attack can be conducted with the highest margin of safety. It is easier to stick a handline in a window and call it a commitment to firefighter safety than to address—before, during, and after the fire—the simultaneous functions of a coordinated, aggressive interior attack and call it a commitment to life safety. If you cannot make good on the promise— if the tax dollars are not made available to support every function necessary to ensure that an interior attack can be mounted with the greatest margin of firefighter safety—you must tell the public. They must know what their tax dollars are buying, must know that their lives may be included in a dangerous trade-off.

More and more fire departments are placing less and less emphasis on the suppression function. Regardless of how many service avenues the fire department chooses to take, the commitment to fire—in prevention, protection, and suppression—must be total. Who can better educate the public? Who better to ensure fire safety in public buildings? Who else can attack a fire from interior positions and provide some hope that fallen victims still may get out alive?

Bill Clark, an esteemed veteran of many firefighting wars, says in his book firefighting Principles and Practices, “Whenever firefighting can be conducted inside the fire building, it should not only be encouraged but demanded. .. [T|he distinction between a good fire department and a poor one is based on whether or not they ‘get in’ when the going is rough. This distinction is not based on pride alone; it has its real basis in efficiency.”

Some, by their actions and words, believe that interior attack is an obstacle to firefighter safety. Others believe the real problem is the fire department’s ability to manage risk on the fireground and in city hall. There is a time and a place for everything—interior attack included. But when this strategy is attainable within appropriate limits of firefighter safety, it is difficult to understand how a department can place a deck gun in the front door when so much is riding on a stretch down a long, hot hallway.

What some advertise as a triumph for firefighter safety is a grievous defeat for life in burning buildings and those that survive them.

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