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Defining Aggressive, Part I: Tasks and Identity

Understanding the word within its culture


Preposition: If a certain word defines our identity and self-worth it is vital to know how we alter such word from its true definition. Fleshing out some thoughts on whether or not we're changing what the word really means.


“Aggressive firefighting” has become the staple description of the U.S. fireground ever since narratives in trade magazines and websites first delivered it. Since then it has become the identity for good and bad of fire departments across the country. As time moves on “aggressive firefighting” has been used to describe the most insignificant of fireground operations, presenting rubbish fires, vehicle fires and even shed fires. Having lost the ability to truly define “aggressive” alone, without any comparison to previous acts, other departments or service standards, the fire service should consider if the self interpretation lends itself to influencing the behavior of members on the fireground. The pedantic fireground has forever more ceased to exist.

Definition of Aggressive

The origin and definition show action and a description of deliberate action that involves a form of premeditation, possibly subconscious or unconscious . In civilian use aggressive is usually interpreted as an offending act, or and act done in relation to assertion or defense. Further definitions of the origin itself point towards a physical act, an attack literally based on the Latin stem of aggredi for “to approach; attack”. They also imply momentum or movement as with gradi, meaning “to step”. The very roots of the word deny any idea of passivity. In the fire service aggressive is very loosely used to describe the most mundane or routine fire suppression operations; for example, “after an aggressive interior knockdown” or “the fire was extinguished using an aggressive interior attack.” Note that aggressive is almost always linked to interior firefighting descriptions. It is hardly used to describe equally important actions such as cutting off extension to exposures or saving exposures from large fire spread or venting above the fire for that matter.

Aggressive is also used in some general news reports regarding brush and woods fires and threatened exposures. Aside from detailed research in wildland firefighting , aggressive seems to only be applied to the fire attack. There is no formally or universally identified aggressive accountability, aggressive air time management or aggressive ventilation, at least not in the United States. In the past twenty years or so the word aggressive has also has also been interpreted as a positive cultural label for fire departments. In forum discussions, training events, classroom lectures and even some author bios, a department is usually described as or questioned about being an “aggressive fire department.” The term is also used when describing or critiquing the behavior of departments that have experienced line of duty deaths. For example with some past Houston line of duty deaths aggressive “style” or tactics had been the reason for closer inspection into firefighter fatalities [1,2] .

Task-based Identity

The very nature of the job, from start of work to preparation for the next alarm, is void of any passive attitude towards performance. (FITHP/David Coleman photo)

The reason why aggressive has become our default identity is that every firefighter is instructed, evaluated and judged on the task-based level, throughout his or her entire career. As a firefighter our direction for nearly everything that is job related comes out of the goal of completing a certain task. You report to work, check your rig, tools and start on chores. These basics imply that each is a “must do” for the novice firefighter. The firefighter’s vocational and personal value is based on completing a number of small goals both privately and corporately accepted as norms in typical firehouse culture. The firefighter who is late in relieving a coworker, amiss in checking his tools or approaches training with a lazy attitude is considered by peers as quite the opposite of an aggressive firefighter.

The aggressive firefighting identity also comes with task expectations at the receipt of the alarm. The alarm comes in and you are faced with understood tasks. The lineman on the first-due engine knows that at the private dwelling he is responding to he has to size up the structure for the stretch. The ladders firefighter of the second-due truck knows that he has to get ladders to the rear. The barman on the rescue squad fully understands that he must remove the bars from the basement windows or begin searching on the floor above the fire. This is not to say that having an aggressive attitude towards completing assigned fireground tasks is wrong, but that the attitude is generously applied at full speed in some settings to all tasks, instead of teaching which situations require greater consideration.

Each of these tasks is individually assigned to result in collective tasks assigned to each company, and in turn tasks to extinguish the fire, save lives and provide safer (than compared to conditions prior to arrival) operating conditions. An aggressive engine company can make a knockdown before the backup line is stretched to its position. An aggressive truck company can have the ladders raised; the structure opened up and begins working on the primary search as the fire is being knocked down. An aggressive squad company can have bars off windows, paths of egress identified and opened as the engine and truck are completing their tasks. With the timely successful completion of individual firefighter tasks and in turn the collective company tasks, the identity of an aggressive fire company is reinforced and the successful outcome is labeled as an aggressive fire attack.

Company pride is heavily influenced by past behavior and in turn influences future behavior - of both the individual and the company (author photo)

Aggressiveness also comes from simple human nature and response to these assigned tasks or stimuli. Once training creates the foundation confidence and pride, as well as experience, come from completing the tasks. Failure and embarrassment are the opposite. This also helps define aggression. If for whatever reason, another firefighter or company has to do the tasks originally assigned to us, we easily rationalize failure. There is no room for philosophy when the first-due engine has stretched short and has to let the second due engine take the fire. Our reaction is embarrassment and then an intense, or aggressive, effort to identify and fix the problem. This is done in a myriad of ways predominately influenced by the culture in the firehouse. Early in my own firefighting experience I was with a busy company in a department that prided itself on being fast. It was continually encouraged that your training and in-house training will prepare you to operate quickly on the fireground and thus better than other companies. If another company moved slowly the cultural norm was that you took advantage of this and robbed them, if you will, of their assignment. This was experienced not only on the scene but during response as well. As time went on and department operations changed much of this style of aggressiveness went away, except in the subcultures of the department. Still moving fast on the fireground, each company has specific positions to take and actions to complete. If a company is slow to act or misses a task, the peer review is extremely critical and unforgiving. A slow company may still be “robbed”, but it is often done in structured manner. The incident commander may be alerted by the second due engine company that the first due stretched short and thus will be taking that company’s position. A third due engine company may arrive first and announce a change in due assignments. A rescue squad company arriving ahead of the first due truck may be put to work as the first due truck by the incident commander. Either way mistakes or perceived disadvantages are made known and the spoils go to the victor, so to speak [3, 4].

Our culture rationalizes that because we make glaring mistakes (stretch short, miss a hydrant or address, are slow to advance the hoseline) we are not training, we are not making ourselves better, and we are not aggressive. By these example problems and weaknesses we have defined aggressive within our culture. In order to successfully complete the tasks assigned to you and your company you need to be aggressive in your training and in your fire attack. Human nature leads you to perceive others to be weak, if they need help or cannot complete simple tasks. This isn’t strictly limited to extreme interpretation, but is also defined in subtle acts. Companies that prefer to spend time out of the firehouse training, or fill time inside the firehouse with various drills are seen as being “on top of their game”, “combat ready”, “expecting fire” and other characteristics that are attributed to being aggressive.

NEXT: Traditions Training’s “Combat Ready” and Actual Combat


1. "Giving ‘Fast Attack’ a Bad Name? Houston LODD Similarities" Carey
2. "Giving ‘Fast Attack’ A Bad Name? Houston LODD Differences" Carey
3. "Nothing New Under The Sun" Carey
4. "PERI Symposium on Firefighter Deaths and Injuries" Carey

"Good Job" LeBlanc
"Safety in the Abstract" LeBlanc


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