By Scott Joerger
It is believed that Sun Tzu wrote “The Art of War” in the 6th Century BC. It is a step-by-step account of warfare strategies composed of 13 chapters. Military generals and strategists have studied and applied his ideas on warfare through the centuries. Today they are joined by professionals and managers who use his insight to succeed in business. Although Sun Tzu never intended its application to the fire service, consider this adaptation, since we call ourselves firefighters…
The Art of War for Firefighting
It is called firefighting for a reason.
The fire is your enemy.
Buildings, terrain, and objects are your battleground.
Know your enemy, yourself, and the battleground while protecting life safety.
Your Enemy can grow, spread, and become more powerful.
Your battleground is dangerous and can become weaker.
Use strategy, tactics, and force to defeat your enemy.
Strategy and tactics must be well-timed and appropriate for changing conditions.
Force refers to manpower, equipment, and water in terms of gallons per minute.
Choose strategy, tactics, and force that will defeat your enemy quickly.
Do not underestimate your enemy, yourself, and the effects of the battleground.
Most of us are proud to call ourselves firefighters. Are we prepared to fight? Have we maintained healthy lifestyles and physical fitness? Sun Tzu understood that soldiers who were not ready to fight would lose. When a fire truck pulls up to a fire, chiefs, officers, and firefighters must be ready with knowledge to develop strategy, apply tactics, and use manpower to fight the fire. Like any fight, firefighting is a difficult struggle and one that we must win every time.
Fire has always been our enemy. Sun Tzu said that you must know yourself and your enemy. We must be educated on how to stop fire from killing occupants trapped inside burning buildings; from killing firefighters who respond to help; and from destroying buildings, property, and the environment. Are we training enough in fire behavior, safety, strategy and tactics? Do we understand building construction. and do we get out into the district for preincident planning? Do we understand how topography, weather, and fuel can greatly change the severity of fires? Do we recognize the impact of hazardous materials when involved in fires? We have to continue to train, drill, learn, and prepare. When the fire department arrives on the scene of a fire, it has many decisions to make and actions to take. Those decisions and actions must be correct to win this fight.
Sun Tzu stressed the importance of moving quickly on your enemy, to avoid attacking when it was strong, and to strike when it was weak. At most structure fires, the weakest point in the fire’s progression that firefighters will see is when they first arrive. This is the exact opposite of the structural capacity of the building, which is at its strongest. After a complete size-up to evaluate conditions and safety, firefighters must immediately attempt to save lives, stop the fire, and protect property. If not stopped quickly by firefighters, most fires grow or spread and create additional problems. Trapped occupants must be rescued as soon as possible to improve survivability. The fire must be extinguished quickly to protect property, but more importantly for firefighter safety, to stop the fire from attacking structural components of the building which will eventually cause collapse.
Fireground decisions and actions must be appropriate, given current conditions and expected changes. There are certainly fires that are too advanced or powerful to successfully fight and buildings too dangerous to enter when firefighters first arrive on scene. Some factors are outside the control of the fire department. However, are there factors that the fire department could have controlled that caused the fire to grow, like poor knowledge and training, unfit firefighters, inappropriate strategy and tactics, broken equipment, failure to staff a firefighting force on scene quickly, and so on?
An important strategy and tactic at most fires is to safely and aggressively extinguish the fire using the right application of water. Even with the rapid arrival at a structure fire with a fully staffed and well-equipped fire department, failure to apply enough water on a fire can be the result of poor training and tactics. Safe but aggressive fire attacks can be taught through realistic training and be reinforced by the experience and guidance of officers and senior firefighters. Officers may need to further reinforce this at difficult fires to push firefighters to their full potential and maximize performance for the desired outcome.
Tactics can also falter when too little water is applied to a large fire. This may be a result of a poor water supply, but a common mistake which must be avoided is the selection of the wrong appliance or hoseline. Gallons per minute must always be considered with the application of water. Sun Tzu believed that success in war required winning decisive engagements quickly and to avoid lengthy campaigns or operations. In firefighting, this means controlling fires as soon as possible by putting a lot of gallons per minute of water on the fire to extinguish it. Most room-and-contents house fires today can be controlled with the use of a 1¾-inch handline, but do not try to repeat these tactics on well-involved structure fires, commercial building fires, exposure fires, and with some standpipe operations fires. A 2½-inch handline, a portable monitor, a deck gun, or an elevated master stream should always be considered at fires. Sun Tzu wrote, “Do not repeat the tactics which gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.”
More than 2,700 years ago, “The Art of War” was written as a treatise to win at battle and war. It is amazing that something written so long ago could still have relevance today. As firefighters, we face many battles— budgets, safety, EMS, training, regulations, time management, tradition and honor, career advancement, maintaining quality firefighters, administration, and so on. Our most important battle is–and has always been–firefighting. Do not underestimate fire or the effects of the fire on the building, terrain, or object. Also, do not underestimate your potential to succeed, to enhance learning, and to improve the way we fight fires.
SCOTT JOERGER, a 28-year veteran of the fire service, is the captain of Engine 5 with the Rochester (NY) Fire Department and a former volunteer chief of the Pittsford Fire Department. He has worked as a wildland firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon. He has an associate degree in fire protection and a bachelor’s degree in management.