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Cowards and Morons - Seeing past labels

Sticks and Stones/Axes and Halligans. Firefighters have the means to put a serious hurt on somebody, but we use our tools instead for good. Our words, on the other hand, are wielded, at least by some, with much less regard for the human damage they can inflict. The internet has proven itself fertile ground for zingers and put-downs, allowing a well-timed and -phrased comment to create a virtual worldwide chain-reaction of effects, which can be amusing and/or hurtful, depending upon the perspective of viewers. Whether caused by pain or laughter, the resulting tears can serve to cloud our vision regarding the subject at hand. This installment of our collective examination of fire service "hot button" topics will focus on the importance of looking beyond the joke or insult to consider for ourselves the content that inspired the comment.

The title of this post lists merely two of the more common barbs sent and/or received by members of the fire service community regarding the MFA topics. As you are considering for yourselves to whom these terms may apply, I would suggest that they - or versions thereof - can, and have been, attached to persons on both sides of the debate. "Cowards" is a label given to those who promote the use of exterior streams, indicating their obvious fear of entering burning buildings; and to those who refuse to utilize exterior streams, demonstrating their obvious fear of change. "Morons" are firefighters who cling to debunked ideas because they cannot understand the clear science; and researchers who recommend impractical techniques as they cannot understand the realities of the fireground. Such dismissiveness certainly simplifies arguments - by immediately ending them - but so definitively categorizing opponents leads to a cessation of efforts toward real understanding.

As one embracing the new techniques, and sensitive about my motives being misstated and demeaned, I would point out that I promote the use of external streams because live-fire demonstrations showed that they are effective and, when kept straight/solid, do not worsen interior conditions, both of which are reversals of my (and almost every other firefighters') prior beliefs. The fact that, when compared to interior streams, they can often be put into service more quickly and are inherently safer are merely bonuses. Taking advantage of these benefits is not a manifestation of laziness or fear, but an appreciation of the values of increased efficiency and decreased risk. Also, the speed and safety features have always been well-known, so any firefighters thus motivated have likely been fighting fires from the outdoors their entire career, and are now considered to be following MFA techniques only because they have been "lapped" by the continuous fire tactics revision cycle. If, in fact, there exists a fire department that has stopped performing interior operations and is fighting fire solely from the exterior based on their understanding of MFA methods, then they have ignored, misinterpreted, or otherwise perverted the findings and recommendations of fire dynamics researchers. Even for them, though, "Wrong" would be the term that applies.

To the opposing side, I could spout the pat “change is hard” and leave it at that, offering no sympathy for those anxious about the difficulties and uncertainty of evolution and adaptation. But, firefighting itself is hard, and there is no need to make it harder by imposing change unless doing so also makes it better. That is where I believe that the MFA movement has failed in its message thus far: those opposed are not afraid of new ideas and techniques (anymore than anyone else, that is), but are instead just not convinced of the value of making the effort. In order to persuade them that alternative methods are better, enough evidence, examples, and education is required. We can go back and forth about which side should bear the burden of proof in this debate, but this blog demonstrates my commitment to the importance of continuing to spread the word and develop support for these tactical modifications. Also, the path to firefighting enlightenment takes different routes and durations for everyone, with some reaching their “Aha!” moment, whatever that might involve, sooner than others, and some likely destined to retire from the fire service before ever doing so. Therefore, we will likely never reach the point that we can stop repeating the MFA message (or those regarding safety, competency, fire prevention, physical fitness, etc.) because enough have heeded the call.

The tendency to refer to those who are leading the scientific inquiry of firefighting as outsiders with a lack of “real world” experience in the topic - that is, low in “practical” intelligence - serves as a great example of how uninformed opinions can fuel bias and obstruct the spread of information. Why would anyone with hard-earned, hands-on skills and experience care about a theory some scientist dreamed up in a laboratory? The fact is, veteran firefighters are utilized as advisors throughout the research process, often even leading the projects, and draw on their experience to reproduce realistic settings and situations for analysis. For instance, Steve Kerber, the Director of the UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute, was a volunteer, live-in member of the College Park Fire Department in Prince Georges County, Maryland, and rose to the rank of Deputy Chief. For those of you unfamiliar with that agency, in my opinion, videos of them at work should pop up when you do an internet search for “aggressive fire operations”, and you would be hard-pressed to find a more active volunteer fire service anywhere in this country. And, he is just one of many on the research team with substantial practical firefighting experience. Not that everyone involved is a member of the fire service, but it is noteworthy that those who are “merely” engineers and technicians are the first to admit their shortcomings in that category.

Those resisting the adoption of MFA concepts, on the other hand, may not have the academic credentials of the researchers, but often have a wealth of “street cred”, and include firefighters with much more experience and skill than this writer. John Salka, one of the most outspoken critics of the MFA movement, has fought more fires than I could have attended even if I repeated my career ten times over. Closer to home, the most experienced, skilled, and dedicated firefighter I know would probably take a bullet to the head before first aiming a hose stream into a burning building that he was intending to enter. While I sometimes disagree with their positions, I respect, and even seek out, the knowledge of expert skeptics, and understand the powerful process of real-world trial and error that lead to their perspectives and convictions. I also regularly mine their thoughtful and surprising rebuttals to the MFA movement when deciding where my attention needs to be focused, whether in performing more study or addressing lingering doubts. I may consider them to be stubborn to a fault, but not stupid.

There are, of course, innumerable examples of deceivingly clever, partially valid, consistently incomplete, and inherently inaccurate characterizations of those on either side of the MFA debate, all equally effective at stifling dialogue. Though I appreciate the witty quip as much as anyone, I am suggesting we all take the time to look beyond the anger and/or amusement to determine, for ourselves, if there is anything of value emanating from someone deemed unworthy by someone else. It is only through careful consideration of other ideas that we can grow our understanding, and thereby better our skills and abilities in this vital endeavor.

So, here’s where you add something I missed, correct something I misstated, or congratulate me on an inspiring rant. Feedback is encouraged!


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