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The Bastardization of Fire Service Maxims

The “Fire Service”.  “Fire Service” is composed of two words. “Fire” and “Service”.  According to Webster’s, “Fire” is defined as “a destructive burning (as of a building)”.  Webster’s defines “service” as “the occupation or function of serving;  the work performed by one that serves; contribution to the welfare of others”.  So it’s easy to extrapolate a definition for “Fire Service”.  “Fire Service” as defined by me is “A group committed to serving the citizens, whom we are sworn to protect, putting their welfare above our own as needed to protect their life and property”.  That simple definition defines my expectations of the fire service. 

There’s been lots of debate lately, especially in the internet world, about citizen expectations.  These debates were everywhere in social media shortly after the news came out about the Broward County Sheriff’s Office response to the recent Parkland school shooting.  During these debates I saw so many of the age old fire service maxims used as points in arguments.  Truth be told, I’ve not really been a fan of all these maxims for some time.  However, the more heated debates I’ve been in and seen, the more I’ve come to dislike them.  I know that they all were brought around in good taste from smart people who cared about the job and wanted to make it better, Chief Brunacini being a great example.  However, I feel like they have been adopted by the timid in our profession to make their case for their timid beliefs and their timid tactics and frankly as an all-around excuse to not perform their job to the level of expectations that our citizens expect.  I started to think that surely I’m not the only one who has ever felt this way enough to blog about it, so I took to google.  To my pleasant surprise, the second thing that popped up was a blog entitled “’Risk a lot to save a lot’ is B.S.”.  I felt encouraged and the anonymous writer did an excellent job summarizing my thoughts as well.  Something else I noticed with the blog was that it was written in 2011, reinforcing that this argument in the fire service is nothing new.  So my goal is to tackle some of the most popular maxims used these days.  Many of the arguments I’ll make, I can’t take credit for.  They come from several different conversations and discussions I’ve been a part of or watched on social media.


“Life Safety, Incident Stabilization, and Property Conservation”


I wish I knew where this came from.  I’m sure I’ll probably be told pretty quick once this gets posted.  It’s all over the place.  Its listed in ICS classes as the “overall incident priorities” to “Duties and responsibilities of the incident commander” in articles.  Either way, it’s nothing more than a book answer or check box list for a promotional test.  Common sense will tell you that our goals on the fire ground or any emergency scene are to conserve life, property, and make sure the incident is mitigated by our arrival and actions.  Like many of the maxims used, this saying has been bastardized into a “me first” argument.  I see it quoted as a truism with things like “LIP. If you follow it, you can’t go wrong.”  Followed by elaborations that “Life Safety” is “Me, Us, Them”.  Where did this come from?  Why are we using this tactical worksheet or test study point to promote that me, the individual, is the number one priority on the fire ground?  Gutting this statement to the point that it is an excuse to blatantly disregard the safety of those who you are sworn to protect goes against everything the fire service stands for.  The term “life safety” has been misconstrued to mean “my life” when in fact it is “ALL life”.  If you want to use a “Me, Us, Them” the only way that that order is acceptable is if you mean something along the lines of: Me – I will do everything I can to keep myself healthy, strong, physically fit, learn my job, read and study, and train, train, train.  Us – Hold each other accountable to the expectations of Me.  Them – do everything I can to protect the citizen by applying all of said things above. 


The argument moves forward that if I say the citizen is first then I’m acting reckless.  That without putting myself first, I cannot adequately serve the citizens because I will become the problem.  If I put the citizen first always, I must be on a suicide mission.  One brother put it this way, that if you put yourself first, that is selfish.  We are the fire service and the fire service was founded in selflessness.  Putting the citizen first is not a suicide mission.  I am not advocating running in with no regard to your safety or your crew’s safety.  I am advocating a logical approach to thinking.  We must think and say and preach from day one in the academy that we put our citizens first.  This helps develop the mindset that I am at service to the citizens and my job, the oath I took, is to serve the citizens.  When we teach Life Safety, Incident Stabilization, and Property Conservation we must teach it in the manner that our students understand that we are talking about ALL life but that the citizen is our mission.  We must make it clear that we are at service to THEM.  That is our job.  We are to take calculated risk.  The problem is that many people have skewed what is acceptable risk.  We will talk about this further down.


“Aggression and Intelligence must both be present.  One should not exist without the other.”

The word aggression has brought a bad rep lately.  In the fire service, when the word aggressive is used to describe a fireman, to some it brings up thoughts such as respect and admiration.  To others, words like Cowboy or Rogue come to mind.  Why is being aggressive considered a bad thing these days?  Aggression is defined with words like “offense” or “assault”.  Isn’t that what our job is? Are we not supposed to assault the building to bring the incident under control?  I throw around terms like aggressive engine ops and aggressive truck ops all the time.  Think of aggressive engine ops like military combat. Small unit tactics in special operations relies on a concept called “violence of action”.  When they come in contact, the respond with an overwhelmingly violent reaction.  They are aggressive because they have a mission to perform.  I’ve become a big fan of Jocko lately and his podcast.  For those of you who don’t know, Jocko was a Navy SEAL for 20 years, serving as an enlisted SEAL and a SEAL officer.  Jocko once said that being aggressive overcomes fear.  I think that’s spot on.  Whatever fear you have, if you concede that your primary default is aggression, you won’t have room for that fear.  This is where intelligence through education and training and experience applies.  Intelligence makes sure that your aggression doesn’t get you in trouble.


Now I’ll concede, intelligence is great.  As I mentioned earlier, we should be studying and learning everything we can about this job, about tactics, and about fire behavior.  An intelligent and aggressive fireman is a sight to behold.  However, if my house is on fire and my two little girls are trapped and there’s not an aggressive and intelligent firefighter on scene, I’ll take the aggressive firefighter over the intelligent, educated, timid firefighter any day of the week.  There’s a job to do and we swore an oath to do it.  No one wants to die or get hurt in a fire but you took an oath to protect citizen lives.  One might think that an intelligent, smart firefighter would look at a house with 85% involvement, perform their “survivability profile’ and determine that no one can survive that.  However, the aggressive intelligent firefighter looks at the same house with 85% involvement, performs his “tenability profile” (where can I survive with my equipment and training) and finds that one place where he can get in and get out to perform a quick search and gets lucky and makes the grab.  True story by the way, within the last week.  See, aggression is not a bad thing.  We need to be aggressive.  We need to live up to the oath we took and put our citizens first. While this maxim most certainly started out as an education statement to say that we need to be aggressive and educated so that our aggression is best put to use, I feel like this maxim is one used by the timid to justify not being aggressive.  They feel like if they are “smart” and have a “valid” excuse for not getting inside when they could, then no one will question their choices or tactics.  We should be teaching and advocating that aggression is our jobs default.  We should be teaching recruits and even firefighters that have lost the way to be as educated and learned as possible so that our aggression is put to good use.


“Risk a lot to save a lot”


You know the rest of it.  God bless Chief.  What was surely a way to help quantify risk, has turned into one of the most misquoted maxims out there.  It’s even be said that Chief Brunacini himself has said something along the lines of “When Mrs. Smith is trapped inside her house, she expects us to show up and trade places with her.”  People often throw this one out there, to justify their stance on no need for initial offensive operations unless there is confirmed or a high index of suspicion that someone is trapped.  To them “a lot” is their life and should only be subjected to risk if someone else is at risk.  Even then, those people will start arguing educated aggressiveness and survivability profiles at you so they can quote “Risk little to save little” or even write them off all together to the final part of the saying.  The truth is, you risk a lot every time you go to work.  I would argue that whatever causes are our most common injuries and deaths would be our greatest risk.  If that’s the case, we are risking our lives constantly by our obesity epidemic.  We risk our lives every time we roll out those doors on an emergency response for a lift assist or dumpster fire.  Not only are we risking our lives, we put the citizens at risk.  That’s more risk you take on a daily basis at work than the risk you put forth in an effort to save a life at a fire.  We get paid to take risk or you volunteer to take risk.  We all raised our right hand.  If you didn’t or your department doesn’t have that tradition, I suggest you implement it to bring some of the pride and reality back into the job that we took a solemn oath to serve others.  The citizen, the public, expects risks to be taken.  That became very evident with the backlash that is facing the Broward County Sheriff’s Office. 


When we teach Chief Brunacini’s wise words we do not need to quote them arbitrarily with no attempt to provide a measurable guideline on what risk is.  It’s important for people to realize that risk is very acceptable.  A great example I can think of is a car fire/garage fire that has a bedroom over the garage. This is a very common set up in my area of the country.  Usually the garage is nothing more than some concrete block walls and then framed out without being finished with sheetrock.  Because of this construction design I know firefighters that believe it is too risky to commit firefighters to a search of the bedroom directly over a garage fire while suppression efforts are underway and the fire has yet to be controlled.  This goes back to putting the citizen first and knowing what is an acceptable amount of risk.  This is a time when we need to be “aggressive” and we need to take that risk to get the priority area searched.  Bedrooms, especially at night have a high degree of success for targeted searches.  So the risk is considered a lot by many but the reward can also be great.  It’s worth the risk to search this bedroom.  So the question becomes how do we reduce our risk?  This questioned has already been answered. Through education and training.  Focusing on search training will make sure the firefighter(s) are prepared for this search.  They will be quick, sound the floor before they enter and as they go and get out.  That’s how you reduce the risk.  We reduce our risk for most of our operations on the fire ground by being trained and educated beforehand.  We go through the reps training and we sit around and talk about these fires before they happen.


The maxims listed above, along with all the others out there, will be around forever.  They aren’t going away.  While it may not sound like it, I truly believe they have a place in the fire service and in our education of firefighters.  What ultimately makes the difference is the interpretation of them.  Make every effort when you use them to advocate for the citizen and for aggressive firefighting.  Make sure when they are used in recruit school or in a class that our firefighters know what they truly mean.  When they are said without an explanation of what they truly mean, that’s when we see the distortion come forth and the “me first” attitude began to prevail.  We are being told from day one that our safety is the most important thing.  As Lt. Ray McCormack said, “Attempting to make the job safer by teaching you to place yourself above those in need is wrong and goes against everything the fire service has ever stood for.”  Our safety is important but it’s only important if it is being put to good use for our citizens.  Safety comes from competency and knowledge, not through fear and timid firefighting tactics.

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