Fire Commentary: The Fire Service Warrior

By Christopher Brennan

According to Webster’s Dictionary, a “warrior” is “a man engaged in or experienced in warfare.” I disagree with that definition. Throughout history. wars have been fought by peasants or conscripts for the most part–men, and sometimes women, who were forced to go and fight for, or over, someone else’s land. To me, the term “warrior” bears a connotation of the legendary 300 Spartans, the Knights of the Middle Ages, Rodger’s Rangers of the French and Indian War, or the elite men of the Special Operations Command today. In my mind, a warrior is a dedicated professional who selflessly volunteers to place himself between his neighbor and a threat. That threat could come from a foreign nation, a terrorist cell, a criminal, or even the effects of unrestrained fire. There are warriors in the military, law enforcement, and in the fire service. Having a warrior’s mindset, however, is not something that just happens. It is not issued to you when you get your uniform; it is a conscious choice. You must view your life and your responsibilities through the prism of the fire service warrior.

This article is about a philosophy, a mindset that allows you to measure your experience against a set of guideposts every fireman should follow. I am using the word “fireman” here rather than “firefighter.” For my purposes a firefighter is someone who has a job working for the fire department but may not have a love for the job that inspires him to be the best. We all have met people who are just in this job for the badge, the pension, or the time off. A fireman, on the other hand, is anyone, male or female, who has chosen to embrace the ideals of the Fire Service Warrior, who has raised their hands to say: “When this primal energy called fire endangers you, your family, your home, or your community, call on me.”

To accept that there is, and should be, a warrior culture in the fire service, you must first accept that firefighting is a form of warfare. Firefighting is combat. A fireman places himself in a position where he must risk his life to protect his community. That calling, that selfless willingness to place one’s neighbors ahead of one’s self is rooted in the same noble drive as the warriors who defend our nation on foreign shores. The risk is the same. You are risking all that you and your family hold dear. You are risking your life to protect those who cannot protect themselves. At times in our history, the relative degree of risk has varied; during times of war our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines have borne a much greater share of the risk; in times of tranquility, public servants shoulder the burden of securing our homeland.

Some may not have looked at the fire department from the perspective of being engaged in combat before. Others may philosophically disagree with the idea that firefighting is combat. Yes, the fire service has assumed many roles beyond “just” fighting fires. Most fire departments around the country provide emergency medical services; respond to hazardous materials and technical rescue incidents; and provide other services to aid their “customers,” their neighbors whom they have sworn to protect. These neighbors see us first and foremost as being there to crawl down a dark, hot, dangerous hallway being ravaged by the effects of unrestrained fire to save their loved ones, to protect their property, and to salvage their possessions.

If we look at the statistics, I believe that the analogy to a warrior is appropriate. In 2007, 118 iine-of-duty deaths (LODD) were reported to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA). Additionally, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has estimated that 83,400 firefighters were injured in the line of duty in 2006–more than half of those injuries, 53 percent, occurred on the fireground.

Firefighting is a dangerous profession. We take a young man and send him into a building where he won’t be able to see most of the time; he cannot breath the air, which is filled with toxic gases; the temperatures he is working in can reach 1,200° F at the ceiling; he is wrapped in a coat, pants, boots, gloves, hood, helmet, and self -contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) that hinder his dexterity, mobility, verbal communication, and his ability to maintain an awareness of the environment around him. Oh, and as an added element, that most pervasive of physical forces, gravity, is constantly exerting its pull on the structure in which our warrior is doing battle so that if the building has been sufficiently weakened by the effects of the fire, it would likely collapse on him. If that is not combat, what is?

Why is it important to acknowledge the correlation between the fireground and the realm of combat? Simply put, if you do not see yourself as being engaged in battle, you are unprepared for the serious and challenging path to becoming a Fire Service warrior.

WHAT DISTINGUISHES THE FIRE SERVICE WARRIOR?/b>

The experience of the Fire Service Warrior is different from the commonly understood warrior of the military or law enforcement communities. Both the solider and the police officer have their fellow man as opponents; as such, they have a very personal context to their conflicts. The enemy of the Fire Service Warrior is unrestrained fire. That enemy is personified by firemen and by poets as being a thinking thing. We give fire the anthropomorphic qualities one might find in an Orwellian novel. To quote Robert De Niro’s character in Backdraft, “It’s a living thing, Brian. It breathes, it eats, and it hates. The only way to beat it is to think like it, to know that this flame will spread this way across the door and up across the ceiling, not because of the physics of flammable liquids, but because it wants to.” It is a catchy turn of a phrase, but there is not a fireman who, when battling to quench a stubborn fire, has not felt as though he were fighting a living beast. Fire isn’t a thinking thing; it doesn’t have an intellect, but it does have a drive. It has potential. The very nature of the chemical chain reaction that allows fire to spring into existence also drives it to consume all it can. As long as physics and chemistry come together in a way that will cause organic material to decompose and release fuel into a properly balanced environment of oxygen and heat, the fire will continue until we kill it or it consumes everything it can.

As a fireman, a Fire Service Warrior, you have a responsibility to yourself and to society. The relationship between warriors and the society they protect can be described in many ways, but the most appropriate I have heard is the way Lt. Col. Dave Grossman describes it. He refers to the relationship as similar to that of sheep dogs to the sheep. The warrior is the sheep-dog, there to manage the herd and to protect the sheep from the wolves. For us, the “wolves” are the dangers our neighbors, the sheep, face every day. It may be the danger that comes from not being able to treat a life-threatening illness or injury, the threat posed by a spilled toxic chemical, or the danger of a building being consumed by fire. Regardless of the nature of the threat, we must approach the situation with seriousness and focus.

FOCUS

To be a Fire Service Warrior, we must approach each day with a focus. Whether we are cleaning tools, presenting a public education class, treating an asthma attack, or fighting a structure fire, we owe it to ourselves and to our neighbors, our customers if you prefer, to be 100 percent present in the moment. Why? We, as firemen, have a sacred duty to protect society. We need to break that duty down to understand how the Fire Service Warrior deals with the two responsibilities.

First, we have our duty to ourselves–you as an individual and the collective whole of the fire service. If you are not focusing 100 percent on the job you are performing, you are placing your life in danger and endangering your brothers and sisters. When you place your life in harm’s way, you must be fully immersed in the intense and vital experience of the moment. The Fire Service Warrior must embrace the emotional, psychological, and physical elements that he will confront at each and every fire. If you have not dedicated yourself to mastering your responses to these three elements, you are increasing your chances of being hurt or killed. By ignoring, or downplaying, the threats you may face you will not have suitably prepared yourself for them.

EMOTIONS

Emotionally, we all experience the stress of confronting some of the horrors that are the day-to-day realities of our profession. This doesn’t mean that we all break down because we confront emotionally challenging moments. Some of us are very empathetic; we literally feel the emotions of the people affected by the incident, the patient or their loved ones. Others are sympathetic–they can relate their pain to ourselves but do not have the visceral experience of feeling it. It is important for each of us to understand how we react. We will all face an incident that pushes the buttons of our emotional stress. The worst thing we can do is think that it will not happen. If we ignore our humanity and pretend to be some kind of emotionless robot, we are depriving ourselves of the ability to cope. We learn how to confront challenging emotional situations by thinking about them before they occur, just as mentally rehearsing the steps you will take if you have an SCBA emergency prepares you for such an eventuality. Once the emotionally stressful moment occurs, you have to live with it and hopefully deal with it in a healthful way. None of us is big on acknowledging our emotions. It isn’t “manly” to say that something scared you or made you sad.

Acknowledging the emotional pain of a situation puts a nick in the armor we all wear to hold it together when things are difficult.

The reality is that we need to open up to one another. When people meet me and find out I am a fireman, inevitably they ask, “What was the worst thing you’ve ever seen?” I am unwilling to answer that question. To me it is inconceivable that someone who has never had the experience of having someone dies in their arms, carrying a dead child, or having to pull a mangled body from a car wreck can fathom the totality of any experience I might relate. The only people I am willing to share these stories with are my brother and sister warriors. That “family” knows what it feels like, smells like, and looks like. Lt. Col. Grossman in On Combat says: “Pain shared is pain divided.” This is why it is important to sit around the kitchen table after one of “those” calls and talk. A well-timed tailboard talk or kitchen table conversation may do more good in the long run than a “debriefing” at a latter date. In Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) circles, our tailboard talk serves the purpose of “defusing” the incident. It may prevent negative thoughts and emotions from taking hold. It gives the crew a chance to review what happened, what went well and what can be learned. Hopefully, our firemen operated according to their training, their standard operating guidelines (SOGs) and made appropriate tactical decisions. If this occurred and a life was still lost, then the guys and gals can take reassurance in that they did their jobs as they were expected to. The leader must reinforce that no matter how much we wish it were so, we will not save everyone.

PSYCHOLOGICAL FITNESS

Psychologically, we must understand the effects of fear on our abilities. In my article,”You Want Me To Do What?” I address the psychology of fear and the effect it has on our breathing, our heart rate, and our performance. Fear is a distraction. It is that part of your psyche that is like a crying child; it pulls your focus. Allowing yourself to be distracted by fear, to be afraid, is the first step in losing control. When you surrender to fear. you lose control of your heart rate, your breathing, and your ability to reason in the moment. You may literally become paralyzed by fear. A Fire Service Warrior must approach life-threatening situations that would cause fear in “normal” people, in a “Zen”-like way. Firefighting should be an altered state of consciousness. The alert of the station alarm or the pager on your belt should mentally trigger your understanding that something outside of your normal existence is about to occur. In religious rituals, the sound of the organ music, the lighting of candles, and the invocations of the celebrant are subconscious triggers that tell your midbrain that something “special” is going on. Those triggers are supposed to have sacred meaning which causes your mind to focus and set aside the “unimportant” thoughts. That initial dispatch should be the same thing. That should be the trigger that shuts off your thoughts about the fight you had with your spouse, how your kid is doing in school, and even of your parent who is dying in a hospital bed. You can come back to those thoughts later. They are important, but they are completely irrelevant right now. The initial dispatch should trigger your mind to focus on the task at hand. Learning to do this can be challenging, though. We all get consumed in our thoughts. Learning to flip a switch to shut out those other concerns will come only with practice. I teach the process this way:

1. Don’t move for a second or two. Picture the address in your head. Remind yourself what kind of buildings you have over there. Try and picture the block.

2. Slowly get up and walk to the apparatus. If you jump up and run to the rig, you will get your heart rate up and allow that dump of adrenaline to engage your fight-or-flight response.

3. While walking to the apparatus, begin using the following Tactical Breathing Exercise: Inhale for a four-second count, hold it for four seconds, exhale for a four-second count, and hold it for four seconds. Get your breathing and heart rate under control. Don’t panic.

4. Don your personal protective clothing. This should be a ritual itself. You should do it the same way every single time. I put my feet into my boots, one at a time, and pull up my bunker pants. Then I fasten my pants and pull the “postman” tabs tight to cinch the waist of the pants. I put on my truckman’s belt; my Vulcan light hangs on my right side. I don my hood and leave it up. I don my radio strap and snap the sway strap to the ring on the right side of my pants. I don my coat, snap the closures so that my radio microphone is outside my collar, and then close the storm flap. I pull my hood off the top of my head so it is around my neck. I step up into the rig and slip into my SCBA.

5. En route I make sure my portable radio is switched to the primary fireground radio. I ensure that the straps of my SCBA are snug and free of twists. I think about my riding assignment, my tool assignment, and what my job will be. Then I just continue with the tactical breathing exercise and try to shut my brain down until I am on-scene or hear the size-up of the first-arriving company.

If you are the driver/operator, you will have a different process. You will be thinking about your route to the fire, where the other responding companies are coming from, and where you are likely going to have to position your apparatus. The officer has a different process; he will be considering which SOGs affect his “short-list” of tactical decisions, how the time of day and the weather will affect the fire, and what Box number to call if he needs additional personnel. By giving yourself a ritual to follow, you keep control over how your brain responds.

PHYSICAL FITNESS

Physically, we have to be prepared to confront the strength, stamina, and agility challenges that firefighting presents. Firefighting is a full-contact sport. Firefighters, as opposed to firemen, tend to downplay this. Why? There are some out-of-shape firefighters. If they were to acknowledge the physical nature of the job, they would have to do something about it. If we examine the actual workload of firefighting, we might approach things in a different way. Firefighters expend metabolic energy, measured in Metabolic Equivalent Levels (METS), at the same level as Navy SEALs do. How many people in your firehouse would cut it as Navy SEALs? I probably wouldn’t. I hate running and can’t swim too well, but I recognize the level of effort and physical strain that I will have to expend and try to hit the gym to make sure I am prepared. You need to find a resource for developing a fitness program that can improve your ability on the fireground. I cannot say enough about the work of Coach Greg Glassman and the folks at www.Crossfit.com. They provide, free of charge, a Workout of the Day (WOD) on their Web site and an immeasurable amount of free information about fitness training. If you want to have a fitness model suited to a warrior lifestyle, check the site out.

Being prepared emotionally, psychologically, and physically to do our job is a critical aspect of fulfilling our duty. The elements we have addressed so far lay a foundation to help us meet the responsibility we have to ourself and our brother and sister Fire Service Warriors. We must now take up the duty we have to our neighbors, the people we have a sworn duty to protect.

RISK ASSESSMENT

The standard fire service risk assessment criterion heard over and over again is a variation on “Risk a lot to save a lot; risk a little to save little; risk nothing to save nothing.” Who decides what is “a lot”? Obviously, if you have a good working fire and, as you pull up, mom is on the front lawn saying that her five-year-old is trapped in his bedroom, most of us would say that is “a lot.” A life is on the line, and as long as the building seems even moderately tenable, we are going to try and make the grab and get the kid out. In the same vein, we can all find some agreement that a building that is obviously vacant, with no squatters, homeless people, or “security” to worry about, removed from any exposure, is a situation in which we are going to try and “risk nothing.” There is no reason for us to be committing our people to fighting this fire from the inside. There is no reason to put anyone’s life on the line for a building that should get bulldozed anyway. These two examples are pretty clear cut cases of making those risk-assessment decisions. Life does not often present us with a ton of clear-cut choices, though. Let’s consider a more likely scenario.

It is three o’clock in the afternoon, and you arrive on the scene of a two-story, wood-frame building with heavy fire volume on the first floor and turbulent brown/black smoke venting from the second-floor windows. You can see from the front lawn that the fire has involved the rear half of the building and is beginning to compromise the interior stairs. Neighbors are screaming from across the street that “the kids are home from school!” What do you do? Offensive Interior Attack? Vent Enter Search? Exposure Protection? There is no right answer. It depends on your department’s capabilities, first-in personnel, and SOGs.

If we use our “normal” risk-management criteria, the real question is “what is the value?” Is this a “risk a lot” moment to you? Is this a “risk a little” moment? We all have to make this decision. It does not matter if you are the probie with six months on the job or the 20-year battalion chief, you need to decide what the worth is. Is it worth your life? Is it worth the lives of your firefighters? How you make that decision is going to be based on your values, your experience, and your view of what an acceptable risk is.

I can tell you this, though: those people standing across the street expect us to go in there and attack the fire. They expect us to be willing to try even though it seems kind of “iffy.” That is the reason they pay our salaries, the public looks up to us, and we have a reputation that politicians, corporations, and our local cops all would die for. We are the guys who make those selfless choices and do everything we can to save those things that are near and dear to our community. People love firemen because we do things no one else will. They love us because we rush into the very building they are rushing out of. We have to remember, though, that we did not earn that reputation. Not one little kid who comes up to a fireman on the street knows that you are a good nozzleman. No one knows if you are a good fireman or a total mutt. The reputation we enjoy was earned by the firefighters who came before us. They earned it with their blood, sweat, tears, and many lives. We owe it to the legacy of those who have given everything. We owe it to our citizens to live up to their expectations or tell them exactly what we will and will not do.

I am going to go out on a limb here by saying that we are supposed to risk our lives. Taking risks is part of the job. You wouldn’t join the Marine Corps and then say, “Hey, what do you mean you’re sending me to Iraq? I didn’t sign up for that!” Yes, in fact, you did. No one put a gun to your head and said, “You will be a fireman.” You picked this job. You stood up, raised your hand, and said “Pick me!” If you are a career fireman ,you probably studied very hard to get certified as a firefighter or a paramedic or earn a degree and took a half dozen hiring tests and did everything you could to get hired. You did not just wake up one morning and find out that you were in a job where someone expected you to risk your life. The Fire Service Warrior has a moral obligation to his neighbors and to his community. It is not enough to say that you want to help people.

PROFICIENCY AND TRAINING

Honoring the commitment we made to our communities means that we must be proficient in our jobs and capable of tackling the difficult tasks for which we are responsible. The Fire Service Warrior must approach the study of his craft with a passion. He must strive to know all he can about his trade. When we train recruits entering the fire service, we do so in an incremental way: safety, SCBA, fire behavior, building construction, forcible entry, and ventilation are all taught as separate skills. To an extent, it has to be this way. There is so much information for the new firefighter who aspires to become a fireman to master that it needs to be broken down. The challenge is that you have to put it all together once you graduate from the recruit academy. The fireground is a dangerous, dynamic placewhere multiple tasks must take place in a coordinated manner.

The world of the fireman has many factors that will effect his survival. One of our primary concerns must be the building in which we are fighting fire: its construction, general state of repair, and the contents inside. In the classic text The Art of War, Sun Tzu, a warrior philosopher who lived more than 2,000 years ago in China, tells us: “Therefore those who do not know the plans of competitors cannot prepare alliances. Those who do not know the lay of the land cannot maneuver their forces.” We must master building construction. The manner in which a building has been constructed has the single greatest effect on how fire will travel. It sets the stage for everything that we are going to do and yet is one thing that we have the least amount of control over. We often conduct our battle in a building that we have never been in before. We have no control over the intentional or accidental acts of the builder, owner, occupant, or arsonist, that changed the intended use of the structure or reduced its natural ability to resist the spread of fire. We must have an understanding of how the homes, taxpayers, and commercial buildings in our district have been constructed if we are going to try to reduce the threat the building itself poses.

We must also have a clear understanding of fire behavior. We have our strategy and tactics, and we need to approach the fire as though it does, too. The “strategy” of fire is simple: to keep burning as long as the chemical chain reaction can continue. Understanding fire behavior allows us to understand the “tactics” of the fire. We cannot effectively match our tactics to the fire if we don’t understand the tactic the fire will take. There are many factors we must take into consideration when evaluating fire behavior. On a basic level, we must be able to recognize what stage of development the fire is in. Most of us were “raised” with incipient, free-burning, and smoldering as the stages of fire progression. Now, we are teaching our recruits about the ignition, growth, fully developed, and decay stages. Knowing what stage the fire is in, whether you refer to it as free-burning or fully developed, provides a critical understanding of what might possibly happen on the fireground. If we are in the growth stage of fire development, we should be prepared for conditions that could lead to a flashover. If we have entered the decay stage, we need to recognize that there is the potential for a backdraft. Beyond understanding the stage of fire development, we must understand how to read smoke conditions. Dave Dodson has done an amazing job of teaching the fire service about the “Art of Reading Smoke.” The three key factors in reading smoke are the volume, velocity, and density of smoke issuing from a structure. Understanding the relationship of these factors to fire behavior can help us stay out of situations that may rapidly deteriorate, or help us to instinctively know where to find the fire and how to extinguish it.

We must be proficient in the skills we use on the fireground. You have to know all there is to know about your SCBA: how it works, what to do if you have an emergency, how to take care of it. Our SCBA is the greatest tool we have for protecting ourselves and being able to take the risks that we have to in a calculated manner. In addition, we have to know how to use our tools. What is the best way to pull ceiling if I have a plaster hook? How can I use my halligan bar to remove a security door or the bars from windows? How do I decide what ladder to take if I need to make a rescue from the third floor? The only way to develop these skills is through training. With our recruit firefighters, we conduct repetitive skills drills. They swing the ax a hundred times. They chock the door open every time they go through. They start the saw. We are building muscle memory–training in a skill until it becomes automatic. You repeat a particular skill hundreds, if not thousands, of times until you have so ingrained the steps that you don’t have to think. Our skills drills during the academy give us this foundation, but we must continue to practice once we are on the job. However, confining our training to skills drills would make us far from proficient on the fireground.

The skills we learn must lead to scenario-based training. We assign our people a riding position and a tool assignment and then give them a scenario they must accomplish. This learning tool allows them to understand where a particular skill may be used on the fireground. It follows the natural flow of learning. Once the recruit has mastered the skills of donning and doffing his SCBA, his emergency procedures, and ways of reducing his profile through shifting or dumping his pack, then we can introduce him to the SCBA Confidence Maze. We send our recruit and his partner into the maze. They must negotiate the obstacles they encounter: reduced profiles such as a stud space in a wall, wire entanglements, and simulated SCBA emergencies such as an instructor’s turning off their cylinder valve. The point of these scenarios is to build confidence in the SCBA and the individual firefighter’s skills. This should not be an easy evolution. When we introduce the scenario, it is kept “tame,” allowing the recruit to go through the maze with a few obstacles, the natural reduced profiles, and simple wire traps. Once a basic understanding of the requirements is met, we make them do it with a blackout cover on their mask. As they become more proficient, we increase the challenges of the obstacles. As your members’ skills develop, you can make the evolution more challenging by adding heat or smoke conditions. Each time you increase the difficulty, your people will become more proficient in a skill.

Building on the individual skills and scenario training, we need to develop full-scale exercises (FSEs) that allow our people to “put it all together.” The FSE is where our people play for keeps; there are no time-outs except for a real emergency or injury. We give out assignments for the day and then let them handle whatever incidents we throw at them. The FSE could be a scenario where our firemen arrive on the scene of a building with fire or simulated fire conditions, people are hanging out of windows waiting to be rescued, there are access problems, and all of the challenges of the real fireground. They have to figure it out. They must make tactical decisions; they must use their skills to solve the problems. The chiefs have to give the strategic goals, the company officers must make the tactical decisions and direct their people, and the firemen must perform. These exercises should not be easy. They should allow your people to experience the challenges of the fireground in a realistic way. It is important, though, that the people who design the exercises never think of it as a chance to show how smart they are. The exercises should be challenging, but they must be winnable.

We are best prepared to fulfill our duty to our neighbors by being prepared and proficient. The only way to develop that proficiency is by constantly challenging yourself as a fireman. You must train your mind and your body to be prepared for the challenges that you will face.

***

The role of the Fire Service Warrior is a noble one. It is volunteering to stand between your neighbors and the threat of unrestrained fire. It is not an easy calling. It requires a disciplined mind, focus, and thoughtful action It requires an awareness of self and of your commitment to the society you live in. The Fire Service Warrior immerses himself in the history, the tradition, the skills, and the knowledge of his profession so that he may fulfill the duty he has assumed. It requires a mastery of your emotional, psychological, and physical states. In striving to live the life of a Fire Service Warrior, you set an example for those who come after you and honor the memory of those who came before. This is a never-ending process. There is always another book to read, another class to take, or some other way to improve yourself and your ability. I hope these ideas serve as guideposts for you as you find your way along the path of the Fire Service Warrior.

REFERENCES

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Warrior
Fire Fighter Fatalities in the United States in 2007, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Fire Administration, June 2008
U.S. FIREFIGHTER INJURIES – 2006, Michael J. Karter, Jr., Joseph L. Molis, Fire Analysis and Research Division,
National Fire Protection Association, November 2007
Grossman Lt. Col., Dave, and Loren Christensen. “On Sheep, Wolves, and Sheep Dogs.” In Warriors, by Loren Christensen, 2-10. Boulder: Paladin Press, 2004.
Grossman, Dave, and Loren W. Christensen. On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace. PPCT Research Publications, 2004.
Ainsworth BE. (2002, January) The Compendium of Physical Activities Tracking Guide, Prevention Research Center, Norman J. Arnold School of Public Health, University of South Carolina. Retrieved 28 May 2008 from http://prevention.sph.sc.edu/tools/docs/documents_compendium.pdf
The Art of War, Sun Tzu, Translated by Thomas Cleary, Shambhala Publishing, 1991
Firefighter’s Handbook 3rd Edition, Delmar, Cengage Learning, 2008

Christopher Brennan is a 12-year veteran of the fire service. He is a firefighter with the Harvey (IL) Fire Department and an Instructor with the Illinois Fire Service Institute.

Subjects: Fire service commentary, firefighting psychology

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