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The Greatest Risk, Taking No Risk At All on Backstep Firefighter


There is a debate that rages, on a daily basis; aggressive versus safe – interior versus exterior – searching versus waiting.  Depending on where you work and what your experience is, you no doubt have an opinion about these topics.  Some hold a very strong opinion, that the safety sallies (you know, those that advocate safety above everything) are ruining the fire service and that there is no room for their thinking.  There are others that feel the nomex hoods and bunker gear are the equivalent of standing outside on the front lawn and think transitional attacks are two steps below selling Mary Kay Cosmetics.

There is a whole section on Backstep Firefighter dedicated to “Why We Search.”  In this section there is example after example of good firefighters making rescues from buildings.  Many of these rescues are from buildings that are vacant, or would otherwise be assuming to be vacant.  How can that be?  You ask.  The book says that boarded up buildings are unoccupied and unsafe.  Unfortunately, these people that were rescued didn’t read the book.  That is how this happens.

The UL and NIST studies have created a whirlwind of discussion.  Flow paths, ventilation controlled fires, attacking from the outside.  Steve Kerber and Dan Madrzykowski have suddenly become firehouse-hold names, although I think everyone just calls Dan, “Dan”.  Everywhere firefighters are talking about wholesale changes in tactics.  Others are trying to understand exactly what is different.  And then there are those that still think nothing has changed.

There is a re-focus on the basics, especially hose handling.  We all know that GPM kills BTUs, so our goal has to be getting as much water at the seat of the fire as fast as possible.  How we do this is where the discussion comes from.  Big fire gets big water has a much different meaning depending on where you work.

To be an effective fireman, or firefighter, you must be a student of the game.  It is critical that you understand what we used to do and why, what we still do and why and what we might need to do and why.  Change is inevitable.  To sit here and argue that today’s fires are the same as your father's fires is a failure to grasp the current fire problem.  That being said, an old Tom Brennan quote still fits, “there are very few new ideas in the fire service, and many new ideas are soon discovered to have not worked in the first place.”  Notice this isn’t an all or none 

"He weighed the risks, and they seemed reasonable. Besides, he thought at the time, this is not how we work, reducing risk to zero – otherwise, send accountants up there."
'Slab' US Navy SEAL; Task Force 11 – 'MAKO 30': Operation Anaconda from "Roberts Ridge"

Calculated risks are the bread and butter of the fire service. Knowing when you can do what, that's what sets you apart.

So what are you going to do when you get there?  That’s right, I am asking you?  Suppose it is your fire, you are in charge, what is going to happen? First things first, like any good recipe, what are your ingredients?  What is your manpower?  Your resources?  Their Training?  How do you operate? 

It doesn’t do any good to say your truck company is going to search for victims, if your truck company is one firefighter.  It doesn’t do any good to say your truck will VES if they have never been trained to.  It doesn’t do any good to plan for a direct attack with a smoothbore nozzle, if the engine only carries combination nozzles and your people are trained to use the modified combination attack.

It is your fire.  You are the only one that has been in Command of this particular fire.  Sure many others may have had a similar fire, but no two fires are the same.  What is important is that you are prepared to operate as your Department operates.  Spending all you waking time advocating for searching ahead of the hoseline is pointless if you arrive on scene with only three firefighters.

Another huge factor in your recipe is what the fire.  What is burning?  How much is burning?  What is the building like?  What type of construction?  What type of condition?

You can only fight your fires, your way, with what you have been given. Some guy across the country might have a better way, but is he on the line backing you up? FITHP/Mark Filippelli photoYou can only fight your fires, your way, with what you have been given. Some guy across the country might have a better way, but is he on the line backing you up?   FITHP/Mark Filippelli photo

When you plug all the variables into the equation, or ingredients into the recipe, you get your fire. You can only do what you can do, based on your manpower and resources and the conditions you face. Somewhere, long before you ever got on a piece to respond, someone needed to decide what your basic plan of attack would be. This SOP would give you the framework of a plan to operate from.  Now something may happen that makes you deviate from the plan, but the SOP should have been written to cover most situations you will face.

So armed with you basic plan, you arrive on scene and now what?  This is where the blankets statements always seem to come into play.  “We don’t search vacant buildings?” or “we go inside on every fire.”

Before we continue a question?  For those that say they don’t search vacant buildings, will you fight the fire in a vacant building?  Putting aside the fact that many vacant buildings are in fact occupied, if you arrive on scene and a building is obviously vacant, will you wait until it burns to the ground to put out the fire?  This question is important, because if you can go in to put out the fire, then you can also go in to search for victims.   

Back to our discussion, as we said above, when you arrive you must make a decision and operate based on your manpower, resources and the conditions you find.  It really has to be just that simple.  If you arrive with a crew of three, and your second due is 5 minutes behind you with three more, you can’t expect to operate like an urban truck company and search ahead of the line.  You may not even be able to accomplish your stretch with your crew and therefore you have to wait for the 2nd engine to arrive.

All the debate about what to do doesn’t matter one bit at 2 a.m. in Yourtown, USA.  None of those professing to know what is right will be standing next to you.  None of them will be making your decisions.  This is why it is so important that your Department establishes solid procedures that work in Yourtown, and then trains with those procedures and on the basic skills so you can operate tactically as you are set up to.

If it sounds simple, don’t worry, there is a catch.  No matter how prepared you are, how thorough your SOPs are, how well you train; something can go sideways.  There has never been an SOP written to cover every circumstance.  It would be impossible, because every fire you face is different.  However, if you are well versed in your procedures and you train constantly, you will be better prepared when things go astray. 

If your mindset from the moment you hang your coat on the rig is to avoid risk, you are in the wrong profession.  Risk avoidance places someone else at a greater risk.  By be a smart firefighter, by reading, learning, training over and over again, you will learn to manage risk.  Your training needs to be about not just getting it right, but training until you can’t get it wrong.  Your training needs to be realistic, repetitive and relevant.  It must be based on your SOPs, your environment, your resources and equipment.  If you train like this, then you will know that the preconceived notions of todays Fire Service are no way to manage a fireground.  Taking the path of least resistance, because you think it is safer and because of a blanket statement, not based on fact is unacceptable.  It isn’t what you signed up for, it isn’t what your citizens expect and it creates a dangerous mindset that will eventually lead you to be ineffective as a firefighter/fire officer, and possible more dangerous than those ‘cowboys’ you call out.

Photos courtesy of FITHP/Mark Filippelli

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Comment by Dave LeBlanc on November 16, 2013 at 7:17am

Gents, thanks for the comments.  

Comment by P.J. Norwood on November 14, 2013 at 8:06am

Dave, great post! This statement "When you plug all the variables into the equation, or ingredients into the recipe, you get your fire. You can only do what you can do, based on your manpower and resources and the conditions you face" is missed too often. Not considering your manpower and your resources and trying to operate at an incident like a "big city" staffed department will always have bad results.

Keep the posts coming I enjoy your writing!

Comment by Bobby Halton on November 13, 2013 at 12:43pm


Absolutely love the post well said. Firefighting will always be a local issue, and the context that one finds oneself in will determine a lot of what one candidate cannot do. Tommy was often very clear to say "he did not have to be wrong for you to be right and you did not have to be wrong for him to be right" Tommy held great respect for individuals and their opinions. Tommy understood that needs are best met at the local level.

Tommy was also spot on when he identified the fact that very little is new, it might be packaged a little differently, contain a little new technology but often times it is very consistent with things we did in the past that we somehow drifted from over time. A case in point is Tommy reiterated over and over in his random thoughts column the need for synchronization on the fire ground. What he consistently stressed was the need for coordination between ventilation and hand line placement and movement. Controlling the door was always a critical part of firefighting until about the mid-80s now we re-understanding controlling the door should have always been a critical part of our firefighting.

Loved your post as always your friend Bobby

Comment by Nick Morgan on November 12, 2013 at 6:50pm
Great post Dave! I couldn't agree more. True fire ground safety comes from using sound and proven fire ground tactics grounded in up to date SOGs that are routinely trained on and reviewed as necessary. Also, fire officers having a sound knowledge of fire behavior and building construction, and enough experience to apply this knowledge to the situation they are confronted with are necessities, not luxuries. I often tell my crew that there are many things that we can't control on the fire scene, but we should control everything we can (tactics).

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