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New school firefighters, old school firefighting

When I began my career in the fire service there were still fire departments that were using ¾ boots and long coats, belt mounted “elephant trunk” SCBAs and had firefighters standing up in the back of an open cab rig while going to calls. Most of these things have faded into fire service history but there are still departments that operate the “Old School” way.

I recently spoke to a long time friend whom I started my career with and after a while the discussion turned to new firefighters coming out of schools and training programs. One specific thing we discussed was the fact that new firefighters are coming out of their schooling with great fundamental knowledge of firefighting equipment, tactics, and safety, but lack the knowledge of where the fire service came from and how firefighting truly is.

The first live burn training exercise I was involved in as a firefighter consisted of a burn tower, more pieces of furniture than your local furniture store show room, and a few gallons of co-op diesel fuel. Needless to say, a few hours later my tan gear had turned black and I was praying that we could just put the fire out. But what we took away from that training was valuable and still stays with me today.

Being exposed to thick black turbulent smoke down to the floor, no thermal imager, and heat that made you want to crawl into your helmet gave me the understanding of what I was getting myself into. At another live fire exercise in an acquired structure, we were midway through the training when we heard a crackled voice over the radio stating “all firefighters evacuate the structure” and with that the sound of repetitive air horn blasts shook us to the bone. After exiting the building I remember looking back and seeing the roof bowing inwards and collapsing not long after.

Now before the safety buffs start freaking out…I will be the first to admit that there were a few times that we got into situations that we had no business being in during training. On a positive note, these experiences gave me the ability to understand not only the limitations of myself, but my PPE, crew members, and equipment. Most importantly it reinforced how to make sure we were able to complete our mission successfully and safely.

Several years ago a new firefighter right out of school joined a department that I was on. He had all of his firefighting credentials, EMT, and countless other administrative courses that ended up getting him a bachelor’s degree from a very reputable university. After a room and contents fire which was his first fire ever, he said to me in a suprised tone, that he wasn’t able to see a few feet in front of his face. Out of amazement I asked him what he was expecting and he jokingly replied that the propane and theatrical smoke trailer they had trained in during school was nothing like the real thing. I wasn’t laughing.

Now I’m not saying that there aren’t great programs out there that provide quality training to our new firefighters because there are, but where does training leave us when it is only “as close” to real as possible. How are firefighters going to know that a room is about to flashover if they have never seen a room that is about to flashover? (And no I’m not talking about putting firefighters in a room and letting it flash, you can search the internet for flashover simulator blueprints!)

With all of the EPA and NFPA standards out there governing what we can and cannot do for training, it makes it difficult for us to make sure that every firefighter coming into the fire service has a good understanding of the dangers and risks that they will face while fighting fires. The last time I checked law enforcement doesn’t issue their trainees pea shooters for training and then give them real guns out on the street.

There is an old adage that I have heard throughout my career that says "train like you work, and work like you train". I couldn't agree more with this saying but unfortunately I don't see people following it. During a recent training using theatrical smoke a group of firefighters ran low on air, rather than following air management and acting like they would in a real situation, they chose to shut off their cylinders and continue on with the training. How does this help us learn our limitations and make sure we are prepared to accomplish our mission? It doesn't.

While today’s firefighters have taken great strides to further their education, don’t forget that book knowledge is far different from practical knowledge. If we tip the scale too far one way or the other, we are setting ourselves up for problems.

Hundreds of years of fire service history teach us to learn from our mistakes, improve our skills, and keep the traditions of the fire service near and dear to our hearts. Maybe it’s not so bad to be a little Old School.

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Comment by Wayne Benner Jr on November 16, 2010 at 9:31am
Mike you are dead on and your Captian said it best "There is nothing wrong with old technology; it obviously worked."As its true..
However lets not stop the progression of the new as long as we Never forget about the old.

Good Job Dave..
Comment by Michael Bricault (ret) on November 15, 2010 at 11:33am
-The reason the old school mentality hangs on and can still be encountered from time to time is because the thinking is sound and grounded in credible, tested and proven theory.
-Like all things, the fire service is not immune from time marching on and new ideas coming in; nor should we be. With stagnation we will become unable to properly and safely operate in todays world.
-But we should never forget where we come from, otherwise we will not know where we are going. That's where the old school mentality comes in to play.
-Someone told me, "there is nothing wrong with being a dinosaur as long as you understand that there is no future in it". The other quote I like is one often used by my captain. "There is nothing wrong with old technology; it obviously worked."
-Hang on to the good things from the old school mentality; many of the ideas are still applicable.
Comment by David Mellen on November 14, 2010 at 3:11pm

Thank you as well for your comment! It's a pleasure to see both sides and I'm glad that people are viewing my blog and giving feedback.

As I told Eddie, I agree with his disagreement in the fact that firefighting is inherently dangerous (the NFPA doesn't want us to forget so they put a label saying so on every piece of PPE we get!) and it is difficult to recreate what we face in real life but at the same time, going back to police department trainees, they are shot at, and shoot back with simulated rounds that I can say personally are quite painful to be shot with :-) During their training there are consequences for their actions.

On another note I wear a leather fire helmet from a very reputable leather helmet maker who has been doing so for a very long time, I also wear leather fire boots. While the boots are extremely comfortable as compared to rubber boots the fire helmet is substantially heavier than a plastic one. I don't mind because to me, I carry the extra weight of those who came before me on my shoulders.

Some think that explanation is cliche but I have always believed that and will continue that tradition as long as I am a firefighter.

As you said in your comment, 3/4 boots and fireball gloves are where we came from and I find it saddening that the new firefighters coming into the fire service don't get that experience but we can carry on the traditions in discussion at kitchen tables, vintage viral videos, and antique equipment displays.

Keep up the traditions,

David Mellen
Comment by Jeff Schwering on November 13, 2010 at 9:53pm
Guys, I can say I agree with you both. We must teach our upcoming folks our traditions and let them know the sacrifices those who have come before them have given. If you are a boss and let guys run out of air and continue a drill, I hear Walmart is hiring. My thoughts, some of which are old school, are fairly simple. We go to school everyday we put our gear on the engine. Some days I wish we could give these folks 3/4 boots, long coats, crappy helmets, and fireball gloves, for 6 mos. That is not possible, but, getting these folks taught about our history and keeping them engaged is our responsibility as Firemen! see old school.

Stay Safe,
Comment by David Mellen on November 12, 2010 at 9:33pm

First let me thank you for your comment! I agree with you that our training is nearly impossible to recreate and our job is one that requires us to do dangerous things. The point that I was attempting to make is that by providing training that is unrealistic or lacking "consequences" for your actions, or inactions, we aren't doing ourselves any favors.

Take for example the training in which members ran out of air, came off air, and continued their search. The action should have been to call a mayday and find an alternate air source if possible. The consequence in training should have been that they are now a "down" firefighter and just became part of the problem.

I whole heartedly agree with EPA and NFPA standards, they are there for a reason and reading a NIOSH report about a firefighter killed in a training exercise is disheartening but on the same note reading the next NIOSH report about a firefighter killed because they failed to recognize the warning signs to a situation that was preventable is equally as frustrating.

Stay safe too brother,

David Mellen
Comment by Eddie Crombie on November 12, 2010 at 7:01pm
Dave ,

I see where you are coming from. However, I disagree with you in some aspects. Training is a learning environment. It is there to teach you the fundamental skills needed to effectively and efficiently do our jobs. This training also needs to be safe and controlled. We have seen numerous times in the recent past where our brothers and sisters are hurt or killed during training evolutions. You mentioned that at a live fire drill the acquired structure needed to be evacuated and collapsed shortly after. This exercise was not controlled or safe and luckily you had someone with knowledge enough to pull everyone out before a tragic incident occurred.

With regards to your point that "law enforcement doesn’t issue their trainees pea shooters for training". They also do not shoot at each-other with live rounds. I am sure the first time an officer is shot at or has to shoot someone they also have the comment "well that was nothing like training".

There is not a safe way to recreate what we do in real life simply because what we do is not safe. All those NFPA and EPA standards are there due to one reason; People have been hurt or killed in the past.

I all for training at realistic as possible as long as it is safe. The only way to get a real experience is to really do it.

As always,

Stay Safe Brother

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