SINCE MY FIRST DAY AS A FIREfighter, I have heard a certain word repeated over and over. We use the word to describe how we operate and the way we feel about how we operate. The word is a major part of our culture. I strongly suspect that Ben Franklin used the word when he recruited the first firefighters. They loved the word, because it reflected exactly what those young lads were (and today’s lads are) seeking in an occupation. It is a password to get into the service. If your actions do not reflect the word, we push you out. We use the word to exclude others, who are not firefighters, out of our service-we say they (outsiders) can’t understand us because they don’t or really can’t understand the word. The word can be a very exclusive (or even secret) word. We also use the word in a critical way about those who do not live up to the word-when the peer group is actively moving, everyone seeking inclusion had better be moving with them. Sometimes, we use the word as an excuse or an alibi when things go wrong. The word brings out the best in us and causes us to do incredible heroic acts. It also can make us do stupid things. The word creates the happiest days of our lives and also days that are so sad that we wonder if we will endure.
The word is AGGRESSIVE.
The effect of being aggressive is extremely powerful, and we can quickly see that from the various definitions of the word: vigorous, energetic, boldly assertive, using daring or forceful methods. Wow! It’s pretty easy for a group of young, energetic, episodic gang members (Engine 1) to embrace this definition and use it as a big part of what it takes to get and keep a ticket to be an E-1 club member. Luckily, E-1 is staffed with firefighters who are the smartest, most adaptable, mischievous, basically nicest workers on the planet who will (literally) kill themselves to protect Mrs. Smith and each other. I am going to pause here, because I’m certain you are now thinking that the old codger is trying to turn our service into a garden club. Not true.
Ours is the public agency called on to quickly go into hazardous zones to physically remove those hazards. This is what we routinely do, and this more than any other thing defines us in our community. The last thing I would want to attempt to manage is a timid bunch of firefighters. My concern is that although it is a firefighter’s job to go into hazardous zones (many times, aggressively), it’s also the responsibility of fire service bosses to see that we are always able to COME OUT of those zones we enter.
In previous back pages, we have blabbed about standard conditions/actions/outcomes. This is a pretty basic place, where we can make sense out of connecting our methods of engagement and their effects on the conditions we are trying to control. The conditions we encounter exist on a scale ranging from minor to severe. We must effectively evaluate where those conditions are on the scale and then create an appropriate response (action) that matches those conditions. For structural firefighting, we have developed an interior/offensive-exterior/defensive strategic position approach. The basic logic of these two modes recognizes (the reality) that fires burn through a set of standard stages and that as these stages progress they create conditions that outperform the capability of our interior firefighting safety system. That’s why there is a defensive strategic mode. Most fires we respond to are house fires that are in the offensive stage. They are situations where a fast interior attack typically puts out the fire. When the fire goes out, everything gets better. In these situations, our safety, operations, and command systems adequately direct and protect us. Because we do mostly house fires and because a bold, forceful, assertive attack (remember the definition) works so well in these single-family residential situations, being aggressive works and can become a habit.
When we take these house fire habits to every fire, however, we can create a big problem, because we will eventually encounter a fire that is neither offensive nor residential (nor both). Such a situation could care less about how aggressive we (think we) are, simply because the conditions produced by the larger, later-stage, or unusual situation are much more aggressive than we could ever be.
We must create and practice an operational versatility and agility that will help us to better understand that our tactical approach must range on a scale ranging from aggressive to cautious (not timid), based on the size, scale, and stage of the fire/fire area and the status of our response resources. We must realistically (and pessimistically) evaluate the effect the fire is having on people and property and apply the standard risk management model that connects a big/little/no risk based on what we can (and cannot) save.
Developing the understanding that aggressive is a place on one end of a scale and not a single one-size, post-hypnotic suggestion that fits every response will eliminate a lot of preventable road rash. Until a remote-control device is developed that will enable officers to “set” the aggression level in their firefighters, those officers must directly supervise (and sometimes control) their firefighters so they get to be old firefighters.
Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site bshifter.com.