Maintaining Aggressiveness and Safety on the Fireground

BY RICHARD C. KLINE

The safety record of the American fire service continues to be dismal. Our death, injury, and accident rates have not changed substantially over the past two decades. According to U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) statistics, 87 firefighters were killed in the line of duty in 2010. Activities related to emergency incidents resulted in the deaths of 48 firefighters, 22 of whom died while engaged in fireground activities. In 2010, most structural firefighter deaths occurred in residential dwellings.1

Injury statistics also haven’t changed substantially over the years. A 2011 USFA firefighter injury trend report cites that 49 percent of firefighter injuries occur on the fireground. Of these, 87 percent occur while operating in structure fires.

We continue to injure and kill firefighters in the same manner as we did decades ago despite advances in technology, improvements in apparatus and protective equipment, and the implementation of incident management systems. Are we destined to live up to the phrase, “Two hundred years of tradition unimpeded by progress”?

A recent cultural shift within the fire service that involves finding balance between our traditionally accepted aggressive fire attack techniques and maintaining a safe fireground has taken many by surprise. Most firefighters and officers continue to believe that the two, aggressiveness and safety, cannot coexist. There should be little argument that safety has become an important element in developing our fireground action plans. Unfortunately, this increased emphasis on firefighter safety has mistakenly been interpreted to mean that we must sacrifice all of our aggressive instincts in structural fire attack. This isn’t the case.

Four predominant areas influence the need to reexamine our traditional approach to fireground strategy. They include our culture, the modern fireground, training, and decision making in stressful situations.

TRADITION AND HERITAGE

The fire service culture is steeped in tradition and heritage. Our cultural roots remain at the core of our service delivery. Although pride, honor, courage, service, and dedication are values that drive our cultural beliefs, they also reinforce overaggressive and reckless behaviors that lead to death and injury. Our culture has internalized many of the expectations that American society has stereotypically applied to the fire service. By internalizing and rewarding expectations, some of which are unrealistic and defy the laws of physics and chemistry, we unintentionally create personal, company, and organizational expectations of what constitutes acceptable behavior. When we reward and recognize unwarranted behaviors, we reinforce and validate the importance of what is acceptable. These behaviors then become the norm and become incorporated into our belief system. Continuation and support of unwarranted behaviors lead to exhibiting a greater degree of superfluous actions, a snowball effect. Although we can and should maintain our core cultural values, we must also redefine how these principles are subconsciously applied and define our actions.

CONSTRUCTION

The 21st century fireground has changed the dynamics of the modern fireground; the “box” has changed. Despite a dramatic change from legacy to modern lightweight construction, we continue to fight fires as we did in the 1900s. Our tactics haven’t kept up with the times.

The fireground of previous generations has changed substantially. Knowing your enemy has never been so important, but, unfortunately, we continue to apply tactics developed in the 1800s to today’s fires. I’m not suggesting that we throw out our age-old tried and true tactics of interior fire attack, but we often fail to recognize the challenges of the “new” fireground.

What has so dramatically changed is how the box is constructed, its design and contents, and the resulting impact on fire dynamics and behavior. The exclusive use of lightweight building materials that often support longer spans (load) drastically reduces the amount of burn-through time and promotes early structural collapse. The old “20-minute rule,” which states that if no progress is being made in extinguishing the fire after 20 minutes, you should switch to a defensive mode of operation, no longer applies. According to Underwriters Laboratories, Inc., we can expect early catastrophic structural failure in a quarter of the time it took with the old standard (legacy) construction.2 Our fires today burn much hotter, reaching untenable conditions much earlier, with toxic gases and smoke reaching incapacitating concentrations rapidly when compared with legacy type construction.

Our initial choice of operation mode often fails to consider the impact current construction methods and synthetics have on occupant and firefighter tenability, often creating a recipe for disaster especially if the default mode of operation is always offensive. We fail to perform an effective risk/benefit analysis in evaluating realistic victim survivability in well-involved, rapidly deteriorating conditions. We then commit our troops to interior attack positions, placing them at unnecessary and unwarranted risk. Though frowned on, it may be prudent to overwhelm the fire from the exterior and then commit to an aggressive interior attack.

Recently, following a presentation discussing alterative tactics to improve firefighter safety on the modern fireground, I was asked if the fire service will lose its identity if we begin promoting the transitional fire attack [a fire attack starting from a defensive position—applying water from the outside—and then switching to an offensive (interior) fire attack] as our first tactical option. In part, my response was that fire chiefs must be willing to initiate actions that may go against long-held beliefs of “acceptable” fireground tactics. Fireground decisions must support our motto of “Everyone Goes Home.”

MAKING DECISIONS

Fire officers are constantly required to make rapid, critical, time-sensitive decisions with a high degree of accuracy based on little information in a matter of seconds. Understanding emergent decision theory is critical for all decision makers. Research suggests that we use a recognition primed decision-making model. The foundation of this model is pattern matching. We reach our decisions by looking for typical solutions to the current problem, find a close match, and then make a decision based on what we have experienced. All of this mental process is subconscious, taking milliseconds to react. Our decision is often based on the first recognition (match), making a change to the original choice difficult.

The fire service has witnessed a shift in the experience and maturity levels of our decision makers. Our new generation of leaders often lacks the mental card file to rely on to make informed, rational decisions. Although our card file is full of our life experiences, if decision makers don’t possess the previous experience to make a decision, they will struggle to reach a logical conclusion. Tenured members not willing to adapt to and adopt new fire service techniques may also struggle with making a prudent decision. A good example of both is our inability to change gears when our first decision goes awry. Our decision are often based on what has worked in the past and, depending on that past experience, may either help or hinder success on the fireground. Our younger decision makers are also easily influenced by peer and organizational expectations. When organizational expectations promote overaggressive (reckless, inappropriate, unnecessary) behaviors, a natural predisposition exists within the younger leader to meet and exceed expectations. This often leads to actions that result in injury and death.

TRAINING

When our fire service training doesn’t match field conditions and does not reflect the dynamics of the “new” fireground—e.g., the impact of lightweight construction, our synthetic environment, and reduced staffing on fireground tactical choices—we set the stage for poor fireground decisions. In the United States, we continue to train to the “melt the shield” mentality without providing enough, frequent, and realistic education on knowing your enemy (the box), being able to recognize the indicators of rapid fire growth, and then offering real-world tactical alternatives to reduce risk on the fireground. Recruit personnel must receive more in-depth education on fire behavior and how to recognize and react to life-threatening situations. Incumbent members cannot be forgotten when it comes to continuing their education, especially in how their actions (decisions) affect fire behavior dynamics.

Based on our synthetic environment encapsulated within a lightweight structure, we need to reexamine smoke as a fuel and combine this with very rapid fire spread as witnessed in today’s structure fires. Some of our age-old teachings such as “shooting smoke” and ventilation practices must give way to recognition of the new enemy. Modern structural fires necessitate that we overwhelm the fire for quick extinguishment, often flying in the face of the teaching of conserving water to reduce property damage. When fires reach flashover and extend beyond the compartment in a short time, the best strategy to improve the life safety of civilians and firefighters is to quickly put out the fire. Minimizing water damage is important; however, in well-advanced fires, experience indicates that fire, heat, and smoke damage occurring far offsets the potential for water damage. In many cases, the building is already a total loss before our arrival.

Fireground strategy and tactics must match the realities of the 21st century fire environment. A few key points to consider when choosing your strategic approach follow:

• Resources (available and responding, capabilities and limitations). Staffing drives tactics, not the other way around. If you don’t have adequate staff to conduct concurrent operations, practice tactical patience. Don’t push the envelope.

• Building construction (type and size, condition, fire protection features, contents). Control the fire first with “adult”-sized handlines. Consider a transitional fire attack; take the energy out of the fire. Rethink handline positioning. Attacking from the unburned side is not always your best choice. It is important to maintain operational flexibility—the ability to switch operational modes and evacuate the building is essential for firefighter safety.

• Occupants (known or probable, survival assessment). Reprogram your assumptions of occupant risk and occupancy type. A rational appraisal of occupant survival is needed. Consider fire factors (location and extent, estimated time of involvement, smoke conditions) as well as staffing requirements. Manage risk in a calculated manner.

• Use interactive simulations during training evolutions to gain experience in critical decision making.

Developing a rational aggressiveness is best approached through a dedicated effort to educate and train those in decision-making capacities. As we begin to adopt this philosophy, we will also realize a cultural shift within our service that reflects an acceptance of true fireground safety: finding balance between aggressiveness and safety.

References

1. “Firefighter Fatalities in the United States in 2010,” U.S. Fire Administration (2010). Federal Emergency Management Agency, Washington, D.C., 2011.

2. “Structural Stability of Engineered Lumber in Fire Conditions,” Underwriters Laboratories, Inc. Project: 08CA33476, 2009, 7-8.

RICHARD C. KLINE has been chief of the Plymouth (MN) Fire Department since 1992. He has a master’s degree in public safety and has attained accreditation as a chief fire officer. He is the chairman of the Minnesota State Fire Chief Association’s Safety and Health Committee.

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