THE DWELLING FIRE MINDSET
AN AGGRESSIVE, INTERIOR ATTACK MENTALITY FOR EVERY FIRE SITUATION COULD COMPROMISE FIREFIGHTER SAFETY
The National Fire Protection Association reports that in the United States during 1989, 4,335 fire deaths occurred in the home—3,545 of which occurred in oneand twofamily dwellings. Certainly this highlights the severity of the residential fire problem in our country.
To many firefighters, the above statistics reinforce the importance of the quick, aggressive fire attack that supports the primary search as it is extended to all areas of an occupied dwelling. In most residential fire situations, and particularly in the oneand two-family dwelling, this is the preferred method of fire attack because it offers an immediate solution to the most serious problem at hand: occupant life safety.
However, there is another side—our side—of the problem. Our concern for residence fires and the emphasis we place on aggressive tactics sometimes carry over into the way we approach other fire situations whether fire conditions warrant it or not— we develop a “dwelling fire mindset.” Firefighters and officers sometimes unthinkingly commit themselves to tactical alternatives that are inappropriate to the situation, and that’s really dangerous. We’re taking an already high-risk operation such as an industrial, mercantile, or other commercial structure without an occupant life hazard—say, a working fire in an auto parts store at four o’clock in the morning—and compounding the danger to ourselves by automatically mounting an aggressive interior attack. It becomes a reflex action. And it’s up to the company officers or incident commander to recognize the problem and redirect the firefighters’ enthusiasm, determination, and courage.
NO, NOT US!
Before you say, “No, that’s not true! We don’t have the dwelling fire mindset!” take a look at how the problem manifests itself. Then judge for yourself if it has been exhibited by the firefighters of your department.
Think back to your last fire that did not involve a bedroom, a kitchen, or a family room of a oneor two-family dwelling. Although it may be a while back, try to remember. Maybe it was that commercial fire downtown or the storefront in the shopping mall, or perhaps it was an old apartment building or hotel.
When you critiqued the fire control operation, did you notice that your own firefighters “charged into” the structure to get at the “red devil” without considering the specifics of the fire problem? When you looked around the fire scene as the companies were picking up, did you notice that your water supply consisted of unpumped hydrant lines utilized for dwelling fires? Although you may have had “quick” water from these unpumped lines, did you have sufficient water to attack this nondwelling structure fire and cover all exposures? Did you notice that the initial attack or perhaps the primary attack was made by 1 1/2-inch or 1 3/4-inch handlines, which are convenient and adequate for the dwelling fire in terms of their flow and mobility but which may be inadequate for the fire flow a nondwelling fire requires?
If you can answer “yes” to any or all of the above questions, your firefighters have exhibited the dwelling fire mindset. Despite the specifics of the fire problem at hand, your firefighters operated in the same manner as they would have at a bedroom or kitchen fire in a oneor two-family dwelling. They used tactics inappropriate for the commercial, mercantile, or multiple-residence fire. Therefore, your firefighters operated in a higher-risk environment than was necessary to control the fire.
Photo by Bob MacDonald.
True, such dwelling tactics do get the fire attack underway quickly and, after all, at fires everybody wants to “do something.” Furthermore, when the fire problem proves to be too much for the dwelling fire tactics, the supply and attack lines can always be restretched and the tactical alternatives rethought. But although we can always rethink the fire problem and start the attack over, we can never undo the injuries that could result when we mismatch dwelling fire tactics with a fire in a building other than the oneand two-family dwelling.
Of course, concern over the dwelling fire mindset should not be limited to attack and water supply line selection; that is only symptomatic of the problem. Fire loading, building construction and size, ventilation opportunities, and available means of egress are vital strategic and tactical considerations that can be overlooked when you’re in the dwelling fire frame of mind. Again, think about your decisions and actions at your last structure fire that did not involve a oneor twofamily dwelling. As you made fire attack decisions, did you keep telling yourself, “This is not a dwelling fire. This is not a ‘routine’ fire problem”? Were your operational decisions characteristic of the dwelling fire, with the emphasis on the “quick attack,” the need to get water on the fire the fastest way possible, the need to “get in there”? Does your fire department’s standard operating procedures differentiate between the dwelling and the nondwelling fire? If not, why not? Aren’t they two different fire problems that in the interests of firefighter safety and effectiveness demand different solutions?
ANOTHER CASE OF TUNNEL VISION
The dwelling fire mindset represents another case of tunnel vision. Instead of seeing each fire as a unique problem, we fail to make the mental link between the physical differences that characterize each fire structure. If we do not change our thinking we will be fighting the fire that we want to fight instead of the fire that is really confronting us.
It’s not too difficult to understand why we develop the dwelling fire frame of mind. In terms of sheer numbers, the dwelling fire represents a large portion of our total structural fire experience. That, combined with the fact that the bulk of our human fire losses nationwide occur in oneand two-family homes, justifies a large percentage of our training time being devoted to the dwelling fire. Our training efforts have consistently emphasized the need for quick, aggressive entry to complete the primary search. That’s correct training for occupied dwelling fires but it shouldn’t be used for all fire situations. We have emphasized dwelling tactics at the expense of nondwelling fire tactics.
The dwelling fire mindset is ingrained in our subconscious. Look at your apparatus. What do you see? Readily accessible SCBAs and preconnected, highly mobile, but limitedflow attack hoselines—both intended to make it so that our firefighters can “get in there” as soon as the apparatus comes to a stop, because there’s life at stake. Well, in the majority of nondwelling fire situations the only life at stake is that of the firefighter. What is the hurry in those situations?
Consider, too, the simplicity of the dwelling fire attack. It is generally less of a test of our fire suppression resources and abilities than the nondwelling structure fire. First, the oneor two-family residence is considerably smaller in size than a commercial, mercantile, or industrial occupancy. Second, the dwelling generally has smaller and less volatile fire loads. Third, the dwelling has a number of windows and doors that firefighters can use for avenues of attack, means of access, ventilation, and, most important, means of emergency egress. Fourth, the dwelling’s structural support system is usually isolated from the fire by sheetrock, gypsum board, plaster, or some other material that for a considerable period of time will restrict the fire to the contents and keep it from extending to the structural support system.
The same is not true for nondwelling fire situations, as firefighter injury and death statistics indicate. Simply stated, the strategic and tactical realities of the dwelling fire situation are less challenging than those of the commercial or nondwelling fire. The result is that we’re lulled into complacency by the simplicity of the dwelling fire problem that is illustrated by the quick knockdown of the overwhelming majority of our oneand two-family dwelling fires.
Given these factors, it is no wonder that our firefighters feel most comfortable attacking the dwelling fire and therefore tend to develop the dwelling fire mindset when it is not appropriate.
RESHAPE YOUR THINKING
In the effort to increase firefighter safety and effectiveness we must recognize the dangers inherent in each individual fire situation, just as we’ve realigned our thinking in our approach to haz-mat incidents. Think of the structure fire as a fire in a box. It is the box that makes each fire different. As we change the box’s shape, size, construction materials, compartmentation, contents, and ventilation opportunities, we change the fire problem. Our fire control actions must be in tune with the characteristics of the box in which the fire occurs. The dwelling fire mindset prevents firefighters from seeing the real box and employing the tactics that are in tune with the characteristics of the box. Therefore, we are not achieving maximum operational safety levels.
The firefighter, the company officer, and the incident commander each have a responsibility for firefighter safety. The firefighter is responsible for his or her own acts of commission and omission. As such, the firefighter must execute a “thinking attack,” being constantly aware of the dangers of each fire situation and weighing the risks and benefits of each action undertaken. He must analyze the fire situation with respect to the relevancy of his actions to the fire problem at hand.
(Photo by author.)
The same holds true for the company officer and the incident commander. However, their responsibilities within the command structure of the local fire department are extended beyond their own personal safety to include the effective yet safe deployment of firefighters in their charge. Accordingly, they must identify and initiate tactics that are appropriate for the fire situation at hand, but they also may have to “rein in” overly aggressive or unthinking firefighters who may have developed a serious case of the dwelling fire mindset. They must be the voice of reason and safety on the fireground, the means through which the fire attack effort matches the fire problem at hand, and therefore the means through which firefighters are given every available edge in their fight against fire.