Bobby Halton: Tactics and the “Downrange” Mentality

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At this morning’s General Session, Bobby Halton, editor in chief of Fire Engineering and FDIC International education director explained how the fire service can attain the “downrange” mindset that maximizes confidence and skill at the point where, according to the military definition, we meet the enemy and the fire. Halton described how tactics fits into this process.

Firefighters love tactics, Halton said, because it is the fun part of the mission and where they best shine based on their ability to assess the scene, apply the right solution, improvise, and adapt with effortless creativity and finesse.”

According to Halton, tactics constantly evolve; they do not change. A major difference he cited between evolution and change is that some change is brought about by force and often comes suddenly and without warning.

On the other hand, tactical growth is natural and unforced, an evolution embraced by all. We do not resist it or feel threatened by it. The fire service’s successful tactics, Halton explained, have evolved spontaneously from the bottom up. The places in which we do our work have provided us with the impetus to evolve our tactics to match our threats, capabilities, and responsibilities. We do not need to be forced to change because we are constantly evolving.

Prerequisites for Correctly Employing Tactics
To employ tactics correctly, Halton explained, we must have well-trained units in the best traditions of the fire service. These units must understand that the efforts of all of the members together are much more effective than what each individual could accomplish alone. There must be a cohesiveness of thought and action in which the importance of the unit’s goals and mission is more important than individual goals.  

Firefighters will be more likely to give to their company that necessary part of themselves that builds cohesion when they feel they will benefit from the rewards—which are hard to describe but which they will easily recognize–for example, brotherhood, comradeship, trust, security, safety, and a sense of pride in knowing what that company can do under pressure.

Unity and confidence cannot be improvised; only they can create the mutual trust, that feeling of force that gives courage and daring, Halton noted. To achieve these highly trained tactical units that can achieve goals against the odds and can overcome the context of the fireground where we have limited resources, conflicting goals, limited information, and tremendous time pressure, members at every level, especially commanders, must clearly define those unit goals and demand high standards in discipline and performance and develop firefighters’ skills to their highest ability.

To achieve tactical excellence when we go, as the modern soldiers say, “downrange” to meet the enemy and engage the fire, firefighters must be assured that their well-being is as much of a concern as completing the mission. We must prove in our training and behavior that we understand and respect the risks and threats firefighters face when they go downrange.

Halton asserted that there must be a profile, a mindset, and a demeanor reserved exclusively for when the firefighter goes downrange to fight fire. Going downrange, he stressed, is more than just a mindset, self- and situational awareness, or tactics and procedures. It is a way of life, a way of being in the moment together in a highly cohesive team, a way of protecting and saving lives, a way of honoring our code, Honor Ante Omnia, no one left behind.

Halton related how these concepts contributed to the success of the rescue of Marcus Luttrell, the “The Lone Survivor” of a four-person SEAL team whose mission was “Operation Red Wings” in 2005.

One of the parachute jumpers in that rescue crew, Staff Sgt. Chris Piercecchi, worked with Halton in the Albuquerque (NM) Fire Department after Piercecchi retired from the military. In a recent conversation, Piercecchi related to Halton that the difference between working in the Albuquerque Fire Department and in the military was that “I realized the entire time I was in the military that I could be killed at any moment.”

This conversation, Halton said, made him recognize that he had failed because a firefighter can be killed at any moment in the Albuquerque Fire Department just as assuredly as he can in the military. The fire service needs to do more to teach firefighters that every fire we fight is going downrange. The fireground is a kill zone, and that kill zone is not just inside the door of the building. It is wherever toxic smoke can travel whether 10 or 20 feet from the door.  The kill zone needs to be identified, by instruments, if possible, but always by common sense and reasonable judgment.

“We need to do more than to impart to one another that shortcuts and inattentiveness make us less effective at completing the mission and put us at much higher risk of failing because of personal incapacitation,” Halton said.  

He said he is convinced that the fire service is now evolving on several concurrent movements and evolving opportunities to re-engage its members with a new respect and focus for the kill zone. This, he added, will enhance our effectiveness, reduce our exposures, and improve our survivability.

Halton proposed that this tactical evolution should include the “wearing” of structural gear exclusively for structural firefighting or live fire training. Its use for all other responses–medical calls, rescue calls, motor vehicle accidents, and nonfire training–should cease immediately. He suggested that firefighter fatigues be worn for all responses and duties except structural firefighting or live fire training.

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