As firefighters spend more time in the fire service and grow as professionals, they inevitably gain new interests and take on new knowledge to meet the challenges of an ever-growing industry. They can develop many different, often specialized skill sets along the way. Advanced rescue skills such as urban search and rescue, collapse, high-angle, trench, and swift water, to name just a few, are picked up along the way. This goes without mentioning a given departments required EMS and HazMat certifications. The acquisition of these skills takes many hours of dedication, study, and practice. Certifications in such skills are justly earned and the ability to perform these skills when needed can mean the difference between a happy or tragic outcome to an incident. There is, without a doubt, a place in every organization for firefighters interested, dedicated, and able to perform in these specializations, because in its current state, the American firefighter is expected to be on the front lines of all of these incidents. What about the basis of all these skills? The set of skills learned, drilled into, and sharpened by bright-eyed, bushy-tailed recruits in Firefighter I. The skills often dismissively referred to as “the basics.”
We all know that certain individual or group of individuals in our organizations that have “been doing this for years” or “don’t need to worry about that because it is below my level” or “not my job.” The truth of the matter is that these individuals could not be more wrong. A Lieutenant should be able to pull ceiling or force a door just as readily as a Recruit. Currently, firefighting is in a sort of renaissance. Whether you see it or not, many fire departments are starting to fight fires using science. Data gathered by organizations like Underwriters Laboratories and the National Institute of Standards and Technology on things like flow paths of heat and fire, growth of fire, effects of water streams and ventilation, and many other aspects of firefighting are being incorporated into current tactics and strategies. If you haven’t looked into any of this, and have any interest in understanding fire behavior under the stress of suppression activities, I highly recommend you do so. In short, even old firefighters haven’t been “doing this for years” anymore, because the basics are changing.
With the general industry-wide decline in fires, how often do we stretch lines, force doors, throw ladders, or perform search and rescue in a real world situation? You know, use all the skills that initially certified you as a firefighter. The truth is, much to the credit of all those Pub Ed specialists out there, that for most of us, fires are a relatively uncommon occurrence. That is what makes training on the basics so important. Fighting fire is still at the core of any firefighter’s job description, no matter how many fires you go into in a year, and a firefighter is expected to know the basic skills get to it, put it out, and overhaul it so it stays out. Unfortunately, with the publicity of other highly specialized, high-risk, and low-frequency incidents, training on basic skills often takes a back seat to learning more specialized skills.
To be clear, in no way am I advocating the discontinuation of specialized training. I am, however, advocating constantly revisiting the basics, so that firefighters are ready when the time comes to use them. A structure fire, for most jurisdictions, is the same type of high-risk, low-frequency incident as a high-angle or trench rescue. It just requires a different set of skills to mitigate. It is unfortunate that many times in today’s industry, a dedicated practitioner of the basics is a specialized asset altogether. Firefighters who practice basic skills like forcing doors, stretching lines, and advancing water streams effectively should be the norm. Fire department officers of all ranks, responsible for any type of training, should be pushing basic firefighting skills on their crews at every opportunity, and should be leaning on the “been there, done that’s” and “I’m too good for this’s” to perform, as they are the members usually in the most need of remediation. Just be prepared when you do push them, because the unfortunate reality is that some egos may be bruised and some feelings may be hurt. Know as well though, that a bruised ego is far more preferable to a line of duty death.
The light at the end of the tunnel is the aforementioned renaissance that we are currently enjoying in the fire service. More and more of today’s leaders are realizing the need to step up training on basic skills and adjust tactics as needed, especially to make up for the decline in fires in recent years. Information gathered by UL and NIST is crucial to today’s firefighters who don’t see as much “real world” fire as was seen twenty or even ten years ago. What’s most important is that dedicated trainers and officers continue to put this data to use in today’s basic training, and continue to push frequent basic skills training so that firefighters are getting skills needed to perform, even with less real world experience. When a fire occurs, we often tell ourselves and our crews that “this is what we train for.” Let’s make sure we’re getting out there and training for it.