Is Courage in Conflict with Safety?


Firefighting is the best job on earth, but it is also one of the most dangerous! I am privileged to have experienced and survived a 31-year fire service career. When I reported to the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) Fire Academy as a probationary firefighter, an instructor told us probies to look around, because “one of you may very well be killed in the line of duty!” Wow! I had served in Vietnam and wondered whether this was just a ploy to turn civilians into fire warriors. The military would use psychological tactics to get your head in the game because your life or your colleague’s life depended on your actions and performance. I was now beginning to understand the fire service was no different.

In the 1970s, training was condensed into six weeks to quickly rotate “new blood” into the field to battle the decline of the city. The FDNY was overburdened. On my first day with an engine company, I received my baptism by fire at a “job” in the West Farms section of the Bronx. The fire was in a commercial building, an occupancy for which the 2½-inch hoseline was mandated. It was an exhilarating experience, and I was somewhat apprehensive following these more senior members into the obscurity of thick, hot, gray, nasty smoke. Their presence encouraged me to surmount my anxiety. This was not the controlled atmosphere of the academy smokehouse; I was entering with fear and trepidation into the unknown. Even so, it gave me a greater understanding of some of what I learned in probie school.

As my career progressed, each fire increased my confidence, and I had more courage to engage the unknown. Fire duty bolsters the culture of courage. Our engine companies’ competence and proficiency gave everyone on the fireground the confidence and courage to perform their individual tasks. As truckies, we were confident to initiate a search for life in the fire area or above without a hoseline at our side because we were accustomed to our engine companies’ efficiency. Also, FDNY at the time had sufficient units and staffing so that more than 30 firefighters could be on the fireground within five minutes to support and perform the functions required to search, extinguish fire, and remove victims from most fire situations.

But we also became complacent, and some would relax their safety disciplines. Members who operated on roofs or performed outside ventilation would commonly wear work shoes, not the three-quarter boots. Truckies would often shorten their turnout coats to the waist, thus eliminating the protection for their upper legs above the three-quarter boots. Self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) at one time was left on the apparatus because the members were not accustomed to using it or didn’t appreciate its protection against carcinogens. Our apparatus did not have seat belts then, and engine company members rode on the back step responding to alarms! That experience was merely exciting until the rig hit a large bump in the road and you became airborne. “Hold on tight!” was not a cliché! Also exhilarating was jumping up onto the hosebed to get away from large, aggressive stray mongrels.

The Slow Trickle of Safety

As the department introduced new safety methods and equipment, members were slow to adopt them or change their flawed habits. Many changes were considered cumbersome because wearing the equipment was uncomfortable while operating. Our personal protective equipment (PPE) has evolved to include bunker gear, hoods, and gloves rated for fire protection; SCBA with positive pressure; and helmets with chin straps. You would think that as “adults” we would have understood that our individual departments were responsible for our health and safety and we also had a responsibility to ourselves, to our colleagues, and to our families at home to wear our PPE properly. Regardless of rank, each member should have the respect and professionalism to use the accessories that enhance safety.

Wearing a seat belt, a practice I was also slow to adopt but did, is still an issue today. The helmet chin strap was uncomfortable, awkward, and time consuming to don with the SCBA face piece; but I couldn’t ask my firefighters to adopt safety practices that I did not practice.

Discipline includes following our standard operating procedures (SOPs), which are intended to enhance our safety. For example, in the FDNY, the first-arriving engine company will establish a positive water supply (hydrant); if that is not possible, members inform the dispatcher, the incident commander (IC), and the incoming units. The second-arriving engine establishes a second positive water supply. This safety redundancy ensures a water supply should there be a problem or malfunction with the first hydrant or pumper.

If one hoseline is stretched and operated, the second line is stretched as the backup line. Should a floor give way during the advance of a fire team entering a structure and these members are now confined in an area involved in fire, a rapid intervention team (RIT) can do little with its complement of tools, but the backup line may save lives!

Throughout FDNY’s policies and procedures, you can see that the systems and operational approach include built-in disciplines of safety that demand adherence because they are derived from lessons learned throughout our history. Our firefighters did not perceive these changes as a surrender to a “culture of safety.” Rather, they saw that these procedures would reduce the time needed to intervene or recover from an unforeseen occurrence when seconds count in life safety.

Courage on Display

In addition to the horrific tragedy of 9/11, our department has suffered more line-of-duty deaths than I care to count during my career. Until the department undertook formal fatal fire reviews, the facts of these events were not readily available to the members in the field. We would be lucky to overhear bits and pieces of an incident secondhand at best and often lacked accurate and complete details. Now, FDNY investigates and reviews not only fatal fires but also major and significant events.

One report on a January 5, 1996, fatal fire in Far Rockaway, Queens, galvanized my attention, even though it had only one page entitled “Conclusions.” It concluded that because department procedures were not followed, a firefighter fatality resulted, implying that procedures will prevail in any fire situation. Fire behavior was apparently not judged to be a factor. First Deputy Fire Commissioner William M. Feehan was quoted in The New York Times: “For reasons we have yet to determine – a reverse of wind currents, whatever – that flame came back at them like a blowtorch. They didn’t have time to escape.”1

This fire began as a routine fire involving a mattress in an apartment bedroom on the third floor of a fire resistive (Type I) multiple dwelling. The truck company gained entry to locate the fire, search for life, and inform the engine company and IC of the conditions and the fire’s location. The engine would be hooking up to the standpipe and stretching into the apartment for final extinguishment.

The policy and procedures had not yet been amended to include procedures that focused on safety and operational efficiency. Formerly, the procedures did not suggest alternate attack strategies if the direct frontal attack failed, offer any clues for sizing up the fire or what to expect in fire behavior, or account for weather and environmental factors such as wind.

The department then did not have wind-control devices (curtains, blankets, or door blockers) to control the fire environment or a nozzle that could be placed into operation from a safe vantage point. The procedures at the time did not suggest designating an area of refuge before entering the fire apartment or advise on which side of the hall/building that should be. There was no mention of door control to reduce or alleviate the flow path (containing the hot, expanded high-pressure fire gases entrained within the smoke) a fire would take in its development, seeking an area of lower pressure than that of the fire space.

Within the first few minutes after the truck (the inside team) made entry, as the engine was connecting hose to the standpipe, the window of the bedroom with the burning mattress failed and a strong wind blew in from Jamaica Bay. The fire conditions changed in an instant – the heat was so extreme that seeking escape was the firefighters’ only option! They exited to the public hall to find their way to the stairwell. In the T-shaped hall, these three members passed by the intersection of the T and found themselves in a dead-end hallway. They attempted to force an apartment door to obtain an area of refuge, but the heat was becoming intense. They returned to where two of the three would find the hall leading to the stairs and one would not. That member was found facedown in the hall, not far from the fire apartment. We still remember and recognize his service and commitment to this city, may he rest in peace.2

Ten years later in that same building, FDNY members responded to a fire on the sixth floor.3 While they were making entry into the fire apartment, a window failed, and more than 10 members were subjected to intense heat from another wind-driven fire. One member, a probie, lay prostrate in the public hall calling for help. A member who had acquired the adjoining apartment as an area of refuge came out and assisted that firefighter to safety. An aerial ladder was positioned, and members stretched a handline up the aerial to knock down the main body of fire so interior crews could perform final extinguishment. That tactic is called “hitting it hard from the yard” in today’s fire service. I do not remember a single comment from the membership that we were cowards to enact that tactic.4

A few weeks later at a Bronx fire with similar circumstances well above the reach of ladder equipment, firefighters were chased off the floor by a wind-driven fire. The fire extended to the floors above by autoexposure, and the members used the building’s two stairwells for attack. Fortunately, the civilians in and above the fire did not require rescue or attempt to escape. Although our units deployed a fire blanket to keep the wind from stoking the flames, they had not been fully trained on how to use it and why. The blanket was not deployed on the building’s windward side and was deployed over an outside balcony railing (downwind), which was some four feet away from the open sliding glass doors (the open flow path) of the fire apartment! It would never have succeeded in blocking any wind!5

That demonstrated that neither our units nor the chief officers on scene understood the concept. Much had to be done to educate this large department. The FDNY has more than 11,000 members, most of whom could enjoy a full career without ever experiencing this type of fire event. Every member should know that these low-frequency/high-risk events can happen, so they should be prepared handle them. As former Pittsburgh Pirate Vernon Law said, “Experience is a tough teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterward.” To learn that lesson, you have to be paying attention.

Does Technology Change Culture?

How would you go about educating the masses? How much influence would you have to convince an entire department to revise its procedures? Science and facts were needed to support the case. FDNY reached out to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which had studied fire behavior and also had researched PPE, portable radios, thermal imaging cameras (TICs), and SCBA face pieces. NIST had studied fire behavior in the laboratory and documented the results. Many of these tests could be repeated and achieve the same outcome because they were conducted in a controlled environment. Yet, each individual test in research is intended to collect specific data to determine an element of behavior or test an expectation.

The fire service is well aware of the research NIST conducted in collaboration with the fire departments of New York; Chicago; Toledo; and Ottawa, Canada. The research labs were acquired structures. With regard to fire behavior in Type I structures, the fire floor’s configuration (an office area or an apartment), its access avenues (public hallways and stairwells), and the presence of elevator and utility shafts were vital factors. The Toledo, Ohio, study6 validated the means to pressurize stairwells with portable equipment. The Chicago study7 was to validate that stairwell pressurization would enhance operational efficiency in live fire situations in an actual high-rise multiple dwelling. The research was to encompass 18 individual fires in furnished apartments. The Chicago department, in consultation with NIST and FDNY, proposed changing the dynamics and considerations of the last two live fire scenarios to replicate a wind-driven event. The Chicago project obtained exceptional data, and the added facts and captured video discoveries of the wind-driven fires were extraordinary.

The wind-driven fire results and data replicated the tragic 1998 event in Brooklyn, New York.8 Three firefighters were killed in the line of duty in the public hall as they approached a fire apartment, the door of which had been left open. As a result, the FDNY administration conducted further research into fire behavior with wind as a factor. That project developed with the financial assistance of the Department of Homeland Security in partnership with the New York University Polytechnic Institute. This project was comprised of 12 wind-driven fires,9 in which the data to be collected included many aspects of the fire environment: the temperature readings at intervals from ceiling to floor in just about every space of the building that would be subject to fire and where it would travel, its flow path, the velocity of air currents, and the pressure differentials, to name a few. Although it was a controlled environment, this was not an amateur lab study.

We can be most proud that no injuries occurred during the three live fire research projects held in Toledo, Chicago, and New York. Daily planning and briefing sessions were held with every member of the project, civilians, engineers, firefighters, approved visitors from media, and other interested organizations. They were briefed on what would transpire during each burn, what to expect, what their function entailed, and where they would be physically during the experiment. That same analogy can be correlated to the fires we respond to in Type I construction and how we would expect a fire to progress, how it would extend beyond its space, and how we would and should approach each fire with all the variables of purposeful and uncontrolled ventilation. We still expect to approach our fires aggressively and from the interior. When the fire is above the reach of ladder equipment, we have no other choice! Our culture remains the same.


Let’s assume that the size-up and the fire attack below were conducted with professionalism.

You are a line officer assigned to an engine company and are dispatched at 9:00 a.m. to a phone alarm for a reported fire with people trapped on the 10th floor of a 12-story Type I high-rise apartment building. The structure is 200 feet (60.96 meters) wide from the front of the building (A side) by 50 feet (15.24 meters) deep to the rear. In the center hallway are two elevators (two cars in one bank) in the middle of the building, and separate enclosed stairwells are at the ends of the hallway on the B and D sides. A hydrant is directly in front of the building, and the fire department connection (FDC) to the standpipe system is adjacent to the front access door (less than 20 feet, or six meters, away) to the lobby, the elevators and the hallways leading to each stairwell. The building does not have sprinklers except for those protecting the trash compactor unit and shaft. The stairwells are designated as the East Stair (B side) and West Stair (D side) of the building, each with a standpipe riser. The assignment responding is three engines, two trucks, one rescue (two firefighter/paramedics), and a chief officer.

You arrive first due and on assuming command provide a radio report on what you see (nothing showing) and what you intend to do (enter and investigate). You and two members of your crew proceed to the lobby with your high-rise hose packs and equipment. The engineer will be connecting to the hydrant and hand stretching one length of supply hose to the FDC.

On entering the lobby, you note that the alarm annunciator panel indicates a smoke alarm on the 10th floor in apartment 10E. Concurrently, your crew members were recalling the elevators in Phase I and checking the apartment lettering system for the location of the “E” line of apartments. It was discerned that the E line was three doors away from the East Stairwell facing the rear of the building (C side). Both elevator cars return to the lobby, one is empty; the other has a young woman claiming there is a fire in apartment 10E with a baby in the back bedroom. You communicate your updated information to those still responding and to the chief.

Before you enter the elevator, you look up the shaft for conditions and place the car in phase II. Your target floor is the eighth floor; you and your crew proceed to the East Stairwell, confirming the location of the E line of apartments. Following your department protocols, you arrive at the 10th floor landing and notice smoke emanating from the jamb of the door to the hallway. You communicate that fact to the chief, who has just announced his arrival. Your crew members are preparing to connect and stretch their hose from the standpipe outlet. You open the door leading to the public hall and observe dense smoke, dark and churning. With the TIC, you observe a heat current flowing from what would be apartment 10E, three doors away.

Time for Decision

While you were ascending in the elevator, the second engine and rescue unit arrived with the chief, who has already transmitted a second alarm. The rescue and engine are exiting the elevator on the eighth floor. Your department’s protocols direct the rescue unit members to the apartment above for a report on conditions, including wind. Among their tools and equipment is a wind-control device (curtain) to drop over broken windows when wind is a factor.

You have decisions to make, and this is what you know: You have a working fire with the door open to the public hall; a baby is reported to be in a back bedroom; your attack team is almost ready with the hoseline to begin moving down the hall; and you will need the assistance of the second engine arriving now in ascending the stairs. What you don’t know: the apartment’s layout, the extent of the fire, and what conditions (wind) exist exterior to the building. Could this be a confrontation between the Culture of Courage and the Culture of Safety?

A situation such as this requires courage to make the right decision! Your thoughts are of that baby in the apartment, and your emotions could cloud your judgment. Your adrenaline could stimulate a flawed decision. Your mind is racing with thoughts and the rhetoric: “It’s worth the risk.” “We are here to save lives.” “Civilians first.” Yet you also know that if you were to proceed down that hall, conditions could change in an instant! A window could fail and even a slight wind condition would add pressure to a fire that is already creating its own pressure, and you are in a space with a pressure lower than that of the fire area. The fire could overwhelm you and your crew like that of the 1998 Vandalia Avenue incident in New York City. (8) You also know, because of live fire research, that that person behind the closed door of a room that is not involved in fire has a chance of survival.

You decide to take the moment to coordinate the fire attack effort and attempt the rescue of that baby. You contact the rescue unit members, who are proceeding to apartment 11E, and you request they report on conditions and the room layout ASAP. You communicate with the second engine to ensure assistance in advancing the hoseline into the fire apartment. The rescue members respond that on entering the apartment, they see the main living space straight ahead, the kitchen to the left, and bedrooms immediately to the right down a hall. They further state they see smoke pushing from the frame of the living room window below, which is still intact, and there is a slight wind. They will predeploy the fire curtain for safety. Rescue has communicated that the curtain is being placed in position. You advance toward the apartment with the assistance of the second engine to extinguish this fire and rescue that baby.

Are these decisions lacking the courage to face danger? Every fire situation is fraught with danger and the unknown. The variables of hazards and peril are too numerous to consider. This apartment’s contents could include any number of hazards that could react if exposed to fire. So, rather than “winging it,” you act to increase your chances of success to extinguish the fire and rescue the baby. That is professionalism, not negligent, reckless action and flawed decision making.

As a chief officer, I am responsible to ensure the readiness of the firefighters and officers under my command so that they have the knowledge and skills to make the most appropriate decisions in emergency mitigation and fire operations. I believe these firefighters must have for their recognition primed decision making the most relevant contemporary knowledge, skills, technology, and tools and equipment before they enter the arena to engage the dragon so that we become the conqueror and not the conquered.

I believe in an aggressive interior approach to firefighting. Our members must have the confidence and skills to engage that tactic that will give them the courage to act. Courage is a state of mind to confront danger without the anxiety. Firefighters who have been trained, are experienced with fire behavior, and are conversant with building construction will not be fearful but cautious. That attribute will inspire the analysis (size-up) of your proposed actions. The greater your database of recall, the better your judgment and your decisions, the quicker your action, and the better the outcome.

The mindset of how fires should be fought is focused on the applied tactics and not so much on how fires behave. When we critique our fires using after-action reviews and reviewing fatal fire reports, analyzing how the fire behaved and how it progressed, changed, or reacted on our arrival and with every action performed is critical to the investigation. How else can you determine if your procedures are appropriate, if training is deficient, or if history or science is being ignored?

Our culture of courage is not in conflict with a culture of safety. Safety is embedded in our policies and procedures. If you allege that the rules of safety are keeping you from doing your job, you are ignoring your inadequacies of performance. You are looking to justify your shortcuts, bad habits, and freelancing rather than following the guidelines. That can all be veiled with the mantra of “We are heros, not zeros.” I prefer this mantra, “We are professionals, not civilians.”


1. McFadden, Robert D. “Apartment Fire in Queens Kills 2d Firefighter in a Week.” (January 7, 1996) The New York Times.

2. United States Fire Administration. “Firefighter Fatalities in the United States in 1996.” (August 1997). https://www.usfa.fema.govdownloads/pdf/publications/ff_fat96.pdf.

3. Murphy, Jarrett. “This Building Killed 1 Firefighter but May Save Dozens.” (September 6, 2011).

4. Norwood, PJ and Ricci, F. “Ventilation Limited Fire: Keeping It Rich and Other Tactics Based Off Science.” (January 24, 2014).

5. Haddon, H. “Tracey Towers Blaze Leaves Tremendous Damage.” (March 9, 2006). Norwood

6. Kerber, S, Madrzykowski, D, and Stroup, D. “Evaluating Positive Pressure Ventilation in Large Structures: High-Rise Pressure Experiments.” (NISTIR 7412). (March 2007). National Institute of Standards and Technology.

7. Kerber, S and Madrzykowski, D. “Evaluating Positive Pressure Ventilation in Large Structures: High-Rise Fire Experiments.” (NISTIR 7468). (November 1, 2007). National Institute of Standards and Technology.

8. “Three Fire Fighters Die in a 10-Story High-Rise Apartment Building-New York.” (F99-01). (August 2, 1999). National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

9. National Institute of Standards and Technology. “NIST Evaluates Firefighting Tactics in NYC High-Rise Test.” (March 18, 2008)

GERALD TRACY, a retired battalion chief, served 31 years with the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). He developed numerous training programs for FDNY for all ranks, including chief officers. His articles have appeared in FDNY’s WNYF and in Fire Engineering. With the National Institute of Standards and Technology and New York University Polytechnic Institute, he conducted live fire research on smoke management in high-rise buildings and at wind-driven fires. He is a member of the National Fire Protection Association Project Technical Panel reviewing “Firefighting Tactics Under Wind-Driven Conditions.”

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