By Eddie Buchanan
I recently spent a weekend in a big city with my wife, the first getaway we’ve had alone since our firstborn joined us many years ago. One of the highlights of the trip was walking into the local fire department, arriving for an alarm activation. Their arrival was quite impressive: one minute hearing distant sirens and the next, standing in the middle of fire apparatus and an army of firefighters. We both commented on the speedy arrival of the full alarm and how different that was from where we live. We should be so lucky, we joked, when it comes to staffing.
You see, I live in a mid-sized suburban area of the United States. We have a county fire and EMS department with some very rural areas and some suburban areas bordering on urban-level populations. Our staffing and deployment are drastically different from what we saw in the department we visited during our weekend getaway.
The reason it is important to note these differences is that the latest research in fire dynamics and behavior is just starting to reach the firefighters in the field. This research has been quite controversial and challenges many of the firefighting truths we have believed since we were rookies. Now, we are trying to figure out what to do with this new information. Some have said this idea of attacking a fire from the outside is wacky and that the idea of a transitional attack is just plain crazy. It’s said that if a transitional attack is attempted, we will surely burn the house down. Others have quickly adopted these “new” methods as the new preferred way to conduct our firefighting business. Many of us are caught in the middle, our heads snapping back and forth as we try to figure out who is right.
I believe both perspectives are correct. The important thing to consider is the environment in which we operate. Our big-city brothers and sisters have historically enjoyed a synchronous arrival of responding units with enough people to do the job (although even the big cities are seeing staffing reductions these days.) Out in rural America, we consider ourselves lucky if we arrive with two or three firefighters on the first unit; the rest of the alarm is understaffed and responding from long distances. So an aggressive interior attack in a city environment with a well-staffed first alarm continues to make sense. They have the people to make the building behave, as Chief Tom Brennan used to say, and can attack the fire with a reasonable expectation of safety. Attacking a fire from the exterior of the building may seem absurd to firefighters accustomed to operating in this environment.
We get into trouble when understaffed fire departments attempt aggressive interior tactics without sufficient staffing–in other words, we attempt big-city tactics with a small-town crew. We are unable to make the building behave in conjunction with the attack, and thus experience tragic outcomes.
Unfortunately, limited staffing is a reality for many departments across the country. For whatever reason, firefighters find themselves leaving the station en route to a working fire with two firefighters aboard. So arriving on scene and conducting an interior fire attack in the absence of a rescue is silly. The new research demonstrates that our fears of pushing fire by way of a window attack are unfounded. I could have sworn I’ve seen fire pushed in the past, but the new research demonstrates that the fire is actually following the flow path we created when we opened the door and ventilated the building. If we make a minimal opening to the window to attack the fire and do not create a flow path by adding other ventilation openings such as opening doors, we are unlikely to push the fire or make the situation worse. In fact, we will likely knock down or “reset” the fire, buying us some time for additional personnel to arrive and “transitioning” to an interior attack for mop-up and overhaul. Look at it this way: With only two people on the scene, you were going to burn the building down anyway, so what do you have to lose?
Many of the big-city tacticians have a loud microphone because they work in high-profile fire departments and sell out classes time after time. They will likely struggle with the idea of a transitional attack because it is not consistent with their operational staffing and environment. And if I worked in their departments, I’d likely agree with them. But, I don’t work there. My department is wrestling with two-person staffing because of brutal budget cuts. My reality is much different than theirs.
So whom do you believe? I encourage you to research the topic and develop your own opinion based on the conditions and situations in your department. Many of our small-town officers will hear the big city chiefs discount the transitional strategy as bogus and just accept that view, simply because the famous chief said so. Get educated on the topic. Go to www.fire.gov and read the reports, watch the videos of the tests, and decide what will work best where you live. You may find it makes sense to modify your primary attack strategies based on what you learn because it fits your real fire-suppression capabilities. You may find you have enough personnel on scene in enough time to mount a traditional interior attack, but make your tactical decisions based on scientific research and smart firefighting, not simply because you’ve always done it that way or someone says so.
I wish we all had the staffing my bride and I saw on our vacation getaway. But I bet that isn’t the case for many of us, and I’m afraid it may get worse before it gets better. Let’s move through these challenging times using critical thought and the courage to challenge the traditional tactics when the science says otherwise. Maybe what we learn will warrant a modification, or maybe not. But let us make these choices in an informed manner.
Eddie Buchanan began his fire service career in 1982 and is a division chief with Hanover Fire & EMS in Richmond, Virginia. He is a member of the FDIC Executive Advisory Board and author of the Volunteer Training Officers Handbook (Pennwell Publishing). He is a past president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors and is active in a variety of fire service associations.