No educational value when one of the "sides" of fire service debates screws up
"You're doing it all wrong. Let me tell you how to do it."
Debate and the fire service are no strangers. As we grow and evolve in our thinking we find ourselves faced with some topics that may have never been thought of by our predecessors in the 30s, 40s and 50s. Our training and education is built upon the processes of those who have gone before us and as new generations come into the fire service they too begin adding to those processes. This is not without difficulty and challenges. Some of these come from the material itself. Others unfortunately come from us and tend to distract others from the matter at hand. Two posts occurred on Facebook that while they added fuel to the debate centering on the subject of fire's flow path, they added little substance to the effort from which they were intended to support. This is not a bash of the source of the posts but more of a caution towards all of us, you the reader and you the instructor, to make sure we stay properly focused on the subject in presentation and discussion.
Flow Path Management is one of many pages and groups springing up these days joining the crusade to tell you in their own interpretation how you and your department should be fighting structure fires these days. I say “in their own interpretation” because the majority of the ones that I read do very little in directing others to the sources of the research they cite or of concrete examples. Some of these various groups, open and closed, public and private, may talk about UL and NIST but very few actually throw in the links or other factual information from the sources to direct you to those who have done the hard work in looking at the questions and variables in today’s fire behavior and fire attack. Surely some might write about Governor’s Island this and that or what their understanding of what Steve Kerber said or what the statement from ISFSI means , but I’ve seen only a small handful of proponents use the actual material as support in their online discussions.
Different Generations, Different Meanings - Choose and Define Your Words, Examples Carefully
This is where the problematic posts begin. The first is a video post of an apartment fire in St. Louis in 2009. The video, without any pretext of information to go with it, was posted as an example of “resetting the fire” in which viewers are expected to believe that the actions witnessed are a deployment of the tactic (loosely translated from UL research) that returns the fireground to a state of being that, if one understands the definition of “reset” correctly, would be the stage of burning that was encountered on arrival. Or at least before flames came out the window.
“Transitional Attack Resets the fire during a Mayday event. If you have details on this fire please share!”
I may have missed it five years ago, but I only recall the idea of resetting the fire as coming from the UL research in the most recent years. That was the issue I took up with the Facebook group; not the implied tactic itself but the example used. Is this video, from five years ago, supposed to show us the use of a tactic only recently promoted? Or, is this video supposed to be an example in the past of where the tactic could be used today? The answer I received confirmed the former, the video predated the research.
A bit of background on the fire came from Mark Emert,
"This fire was started by blankets falling onto a space heater. An interior attack was made by the initial arriving company but went the wrong way do to hearing civilians screaming for help down the hallway. A second line was pulled but became entangled with the first line preventing water from being placed on the fire in a timely manner. The mayday was called because a chief officer reported he lost contact with an the location of his crew on the interior. The firefighter shown exiting through the window became separated from his crew while searching, ran out of air and was removed via the ladder. He was fine. This video is actually quite cut up and doesn't show that many civilians were removed via ladders and that two 2 1/2's were placed into operation. The neat part of this video is it does show the rapid growth and extension of the fire."
Additional comments lend to the question, was this specifically resetting the fire by transitional attack or things going to hell in a hand-basket quickly?
"Appeared to be done out of desperation when plan A didn't work out and things were going downhill fast. Imagine how much nicer the whole thing would have gone had that line been an initial action. Of course that was generally regarded as poor practice in 2009." Lane Woolery "Compounding the issues at the fire were multiple departments that don't work together often, St. Louis City and many small suburban munies. No radio integration, very different command tactics and very different personnel mentality added to the issue." Adam "Slim" Solomon "What Adam is said is accurate. There was a lot of fireground confusion and interagency communication trouble at this fire." Matt Buckley "Based off of what I'm seeing at the start of the video I'm not seeing anything that wound sway my decision to stretch interior. There may very well be something going on that I don't see on the video. If the interior crews were taking a beating and couldn't make the hallway or room, or we're delayed in getting that line into place then yeah you change your tactics. This idea of just "hitting it with the deck gun on arrival" I think is reckless. Would you do that if you had guys in there doing a search? Then why would you do it with the people you swore in to protect possibly in there. And before we start with the "survivability profiling" b******* it is obvious by the smoke conditions in the building that this is not a compartmentalized fire. So when you flow from the outside you take a HUGE risk of making survivable space no longer tenable. The may not be tenable, but the rooms or hallways outside that room very well could be. I do agree with the decision in the end to hit it through the window. It was the best choice given the delay of the first line getting into place. We really have to be careful with the information that is coming out and make sure that we are framing the conversation with "them" at the center. If out reason for choosing a tactic is rooted in what's safer for "us" first and not "them", then we need to take a step back and really evaluate some things. Great video. Thanks for sharing." Dustin Miller
One window going good and others in different locations and floors showing indication of fire as well. What does that say about the conditions developing inside? I may be resetting the pyrolysis happening in that one window but is something more pressing growing inside that I'm not taking time to address?
So what does that say for you, students, when someone tells you about a method to use and uses an outdated piece of media as the example that doesn’t quite fit the method? UL has provided us with plenty of multimedia material and thanks to YouTube we should be able to find recent video (at least within one or two years) of fire attack that fits the subject matter lesson better. What does it say about the quality of your own content, instructors, if you have to make a square peg fit in a round h***, to provide an example of what you are promoting? Additionally, what does that do for the image of the people, like UL, NIST and others, who have done the hard work to obtain the results? It leads to doubt in the validity of the material itself. If I can sell you that a video from five years ago is an example of a tactic used that wasn’t public before then I can sell you other outdated examples to fit my agenda.
For example, is this “resetting the fire”?
We're resetting this for the guy coming tomorrow with the front-end loader to haul away the debris.
This fire occurred decades before some who promote the new research and tactics were even born. Is it proper, or a good example, to use something old to support new data? The UL shares current examples of the new lessons tested and placed into practice so should we not expect the same of others on the same mission? It would certainly help EACH SIDE to understand and learn. (See end of article for current examples of departments testing the new research on their own.)
I used to believe that, as far as here in the continental states, “penciling” was a stupid term. Then I saw “resetting the fire.” Penciling, if you take the time to read about it and ask those who use it about it, makes sense. But you have to understand the whole context as well as the difference in tools and environment. Depending upon who you speak with or read, resetting the fire is a new action, a decades old action, or just a word some are using to help their cause.
We can drift into the other discussion about words that also comes up, but the take away from this first example is that as instructors and students we need to pay particular attention to those actual words. If 'resetting the fire' is brand new, then what were we doing in the decades before this research? Knocking it down? Beating it back? Darkening the visible fire? Does it matter? Not really but the problem begins with the students' interpretations. Some in the fire service are promoting resetting the fire as making conditions inside better. The science may support that in the actual experimental conditions, but we truly cannot say with certainty that we are doing that in the practical world. We may make it better for that fire room, but we don't know what lies beyond that window so we have to caution students to avoid a false sense of security. Steve Kerber said it at FDIC 2014 that our very own burn buildings are setting up our new firefighters for failure because they lure them into a false sense of actual heat and actual fire knockdown. We teach them to hit the fire in training but not extinguish it all the way and short of actual 'time operating the nozzle' experience they expect the house or apartment fire knockdown to be like their burn building knockdown. This sets them up for failure (see Top 20 Tactical Considerations from Firefighter Research).
Reset means to return something to a previous position or condition. We truly are not doing that when we stop the pyrolysis occurring just inside a doorway or window. As Steve Kerber also said at FDIC, if your engine company is going to stretch the initial handline to a a side other than Side Alpha to knock down the visible fire, they need to also be able to quickly move that hoseline back around and inside to finish the attack. Until we actually get inside, we don't know what we will find. We can assume via through our size-up, but we have to caution firefighters that 'resetting' the fire does not mean everything inside will be equally clear. This is extremely important when teaching the new generations of firefighters. We are in a technically social and mobile delivery age where readers skim more and digest less. The knowledge you are sharing must be tailored to them and carry with it all the facts. Relying on flashy words to do the work is like relying on the burn building fire to teach recruits what actual fire conditions are like - it sets them up for failure.
Avoid the Self-Promotion Flashover - Build Your Credibility
This leads to the second problem, relying on key words and catchphrases to help sell the agenda. I’ve been in this “business of firefighting” for a long time and have been very fortunate to have quality, well-rounded and experienced leaders and mentors. If there is only one thing I would tell you about firefighters it is that when it comes to educational material, firefighters hate catchphrases. “Transitional attack” when it first came should have been a heads up to everyone involved after John Salka gave his views on the subject [3, 4]. It’s not your (firefighters) fault but that of the people behind the material and those of us in the business that we should have understood the ways and cultural contexts in which firefighters learn. But it came out and quickly transitioned into a negative context.
The problem with this as a whole is that, unlike the coordinated attack being discussed, the delivery lacked coordination. Research was done, lessons learned and substantial work and results that should have held back to develop its delivery was pushed home like a kid’s blue ribbon science fair project. And so, while transitional attack could have been ripened a little on the vine, it was taken off the shelf by the masses, largely not knowing how to use it and mixed with a dash of fame and a sprinkle of fear, it stewed and stewed to the distaste of many others. So we add a pinch of “reset.”
As this situation snowballed, many discussions and groups were created promoting the new research and attack methods. Some are done very well and are moderated equally well. Others exist for the main goal of promoting an instructor(s) and gaining Facebook 'Likes' and shares. As part of their virtual life some of the discussions focus on videos and photos and some photos are used to capture the readers' attention. It is easy to 'grab' a photo to help shape your beliefs or illustrate a point, but we have to be careful that the photo itself doesn't distract from the point. You, as the student have to make sure the photo and the message are in synch. You, as the instructor, have to make sure that the photo doesn't damage your credibility. In this speedy technology time, you also have to make sure that you have the rights to use that photo. It may seem as a harmless mistake but some photos out there are property of the photographer and/or the company or publication/website they are used in.
The photo on the left belongs to Fire Department Training Network and was used on their Facebook page as a promotion of one part of their training services, "A quick look inside today's training at FDTN's National Fireground Training Academy!" The photo on the right was used by a Facebook group promoting the new fire behavior research and related tactics. The post was taken down after FDTN notified them that their photo was being used without permission. The point here, as far as establishing credibility, is not if you agree with the statement on the photo but that it was done improperly. FDTN is one of the many blogs I help "manage" as one part of my many responsibilities with PennWell Public Safety Group (FirefighterNation/FireRescue Magazine, JEMS, LawOfficer), and partnership with Fire Engineering, and when I see a photo and/or content from one of our blogs, websites or magazine articles being used inappropriately I have to correct the situation, regardless of my own thoughts on the subject. It happens more often than you may think. I've found actual articles and blog posts copied word for word and subtly passed off as the work of somebody else. Sometimes it is an innocent (see "too lazy to ask") mistake. Other times it's out right plagiarism. I believe in this case it was the best of intentions that went wrong and that is what hurts all of us, no matter what side or opinion you carry. By building your own credibility, you increase the value of your reputation. Some may not see using another site's photo with their permission as a bad thing but if you don't and it creates an online mess of backpedaling and erasure, then your credibility is damaged.
So What Should We Do?
Regardless of what you think of the new research on fire behavior and the associated tactics, we should all be working towards and promoting quality discussions on the subject and lessons learned from those putting it into practice. We also need to understand that these discussions have the potential to influence others as well. Today's soundbite firefighter needs the meat and potatoes, not the fancy garnish. If you want to impart the valuable lessons you need to properly catch their attention, use facts and proper supporting evidence and lead them to the follow-up and steps for themselves. Finally, I believe everyone would agree that each side of the debates has the average firefighter in their best interest. When discussions go sideways we lose the purpose and begin run off at the mouth about our cultural identities. No one wins once we go down that road. We also need to keep open minds about others as well. I've read and heard the "old dinosaurs" statement so many times in these discussions that it's like being at a paleontologist convention. Some things will work in certain departments. Some will not. If it's not your department why are you so keyed up about it? Just like bad examples and photos can derail the lesson, so can labeling each other. "
I enjoy opera, especially Soprano Anna Netrebko (left) and Mezzo-Soprano Isabel Leonard (right) but does that mean I'm a musical snob and hate George Strait and Metallica? Hardly.
Do I agree with EVERYTHING from UL and these new tactics? No. Does that make me a cowboy? a dinosaur? Not at all, if you have any sense in your mind. I 'Like' Flowpath Management as well as I 'Like' other groups. Neither groups label me as well and they shouldn't label you either. Challenge yourself and others to stay factual and use material properly. Ask the other firefighter how it's done in his department before you think about slamming him for his views. Make sure your education is based on facts and that instructors rely more on them and less on flash. Everyone needs to remember that the more we drift towards debating the sideshows in these discussions, the more we lose the attention of the firefighters we are trying to educate.
1. "The ISFSI encourages all fire departments to incorporate the fire dynamics research into their tactical operations through any and all means necessary." Fire Dynamic Research in Tactical Operations, ISFSI May 2014. "any and all means necessary"? What does that mean actually? Whose means are right and whose are wrong? Who says?
2. "Eave Attack - Story from the Streets" ULFirefighterSafety.com, February 2014 3. "John Salka and the Transitional Attack" Carey, BackstepFirefighter.com, February 2012 4. "Reader Definitions of Transitional Attack" Carey, BackstepFirefighter.com, February 2012
Bill Carey is the online public safety news and blog manager with PennWell Public Safety, or more specifically FireRescue Magazine/FirefighterNation.com, JEMS.com, LawOfficer.com and FireEMSBlogs.com. Bill started in the fire service, as a third generation firefighter in 1986, on the eastern shore of Maryland and then continued after moving to Prince George’s County. He served as a volunteer sergeant and lieutenant at Hyattsville. Bill’s writing has been on Firehouse.com, Fire Engineering, FireRescue Magazine, FirefighterNation.com, the Jones and Bartlett 2010 edition of “Fire Officer: Principles and Practice”, The Secret List and Tinhelmet.com. His recent writing on firefighter behavioral health has been nominated for 2014 Neal Award for Best Subject-Related Series.