By Arturo Arnalich
In recent years, an invaluable amount of scientific research on fire dynamics has been delivered to the fire service, which is struggling to digest and incorporate these findings into its practices. Either in the United States or in Europe, our priorities have not changed: Life is our primary mandate. But we must learn that to preserve life, we need to coordinate and integrate ventilation, suppression, and rescue tactics.
Over the past weeks, with the perspective of belonging to a different firefighting culture and tradition–I am a battalion chief in the suburban area of Madrid, Spain –but yet the knowledge and respect of being involved in many ways with the American firefighting scene, I have been following the intensive and active debate among SLICERS and DICERS. Some will argue that this new acronym is changing things too fast. Some others even talk about a change in our mission of putting ourselves first. And others just embrace these new findings, forgetting about how traditions were forged on time, successes but also losses. Five thousand miles away, I can tell that in the end everybody is talking about the same thing. Changes hurt because we shouldn’t diminish the value of something that has worked for long. No matter if you are “slicing” or “dicing” or if in Europe or in North America, life is certainly still our first priority–but not only the victim’s life but also the firefighter’s.
Ventilation, rescue, and extinguishment are operations that we must be prepared to face in every fire incident. But because life is our first priority, that does not necessarily mean that rescue should be performed before ventilation or fire attack. A number of scenarios require fire control before any rescue can be performed, not only for firefighter safety but also for the survivability of all the other victims in the building, who may be spread throughout the structure. Some other scenarios must be ventilated to be able to start a search and rescue operation.
During a recent visit to deliver training in Argentina, I was shown footage of a high-rise incident in Buenos Aires: 12 people were trapped in heavy smoke; there were no fire-proof staircases and no standpipes; and the staffing response was low. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3255p0LJnkw) This is a clear example of where fire control and ventilation must be accomplished before rescue. Isolating the fire room, transitional from an aerial and defensive positive-pressure ventilation (PPV) are surely better choices than just focusing on the two victims in the window and forgetting the fate of the other 10 people.
But this is just an arguable example, and we could all come up with different situations where a particular tactical approach would be a clear winner. A fire scene is a very dynamic scenario; it changes continuously. On top of that, no two fires are alike: building, fire parameters, and venting profile make each situation unique and not a place for recipes. This is probably the beauty of firefighting.
All the Answers Are Not in Yet
On the fireground, science will easily explain fire behavior and fire dynamics, but it will fail to provide tactical responses to or a best practice for every single situation. Our scenarios are nonrepeatable. In addition, there are several other parameters other than fire to consider in a firefighting operation: rescue, available resources, degree of training and operational tradition for starters. Let’s just settle for science being able to assess the situation and inform and influence our practices. I will agree that the scope of recent scientific firefighting research is limited. We have learned a lot about fire dynamics and the effects of ventilation and some suppression techniques, but we definitely need further research on victim survivability during fire attack. The good news is that it is already on the way, and we will be able to acquire this knowledge soon.
As we wait for further reports on these ongoing studies, we must understand the impact of what has already been published. The bottom line in many cases is the need for coordination between practices. Coordinated ventilation with water application is the only means for not making things worse in the interior. Ventilation-enter-search or any other rescue practices cannot alter the venting profile and, thus, the need to isolate. Exterior attack is a means for easier, safer, and faster interior attack.
Putting it another way: Whoever is holding the nozzle at the end of the line needs to know and facilitate rescue and ventilation operations while ventilation crews must consider the impact of their actions on fire growth and, consequently, on victims and interior crews.
The fire service has developed and mastered hundreds of tools, techniques, and tactics–in many cases, with completely opposite approaches. Supporters and haters of a particular tactic could endlessly argue. But, what is the tactical approach of choice? Is any tool better than another? Most surely, there is a time and a situation for each of them. Maybe we shouldn’t approach them as individual tools but as a part of our firefighting resources, which ultimately is our tool on the fireground for assessing the situation and solving the incident.
Picturing our firefighting knowledge and technical resources as a thick multipurpose Swiss Army knife helps us understand that this is our one and only tool. The faster we are able to change from one use to another will allow us to achieve safer, more efficient, and more effective firefighting operations.
Coordination Is Key
The key point is coordination. It is not only science that is calling for coordinated practices. If we carefully read the books, that has been the call for years. Big-mustached mentors also made the same call. Keeping in mind that life is our priority, this tactical combination needed in today’s fireground will sometimes imply engaging ventilation or extinguishing operations prior to rescue to safely reach the victims or not overexpose interior crews unnecessarily. Sometimes, it will not.
Should we approach ventilation, extinguishment, and rescue operations in an integrated and flexible way—and not as separate specific actions–we would not have the feeling that we have to change our public mandate to preserve life and still operate according to science and tradition.
Do you just do your job on the fireground, or do you coordinate your job with everybody else’s? Coordination is a great lesson to learn not only in the United States but also in Europe.
Arturo Arnalich, M. Eng. in civil and environmental engineering, serves as a battalion chief in the Madrid, Spain. metro area. He responsible for the Operational Division after having been Training Division chief for six years. He is deeply involved in the international fire training community and collaborates in projects in France, Germany, Canada, the United States, and Argentina. He takes part in the International Fire Instructors Workshop, focusing on tactics and fire ventilation, and is a member of the Underwriters Laboratories technical panel for the positive-pressure ventilation study.