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The Wrong Side of History

Lt. Brad French


                In an industry so deeply engrained in tradition, a shift in the way we conduct our business is inherently bound to be wrought with resistance, emotional reaction, and hesitation.  The American fire service has a tremendous history of saving lives, protecting property, and acting as a safety net for the community when virtually any emergency arises.  That role will never cease, and the fire service will always attract the best and the brightest that are willing and able to selflessly serve our communities.  However, like any organization or group with a history dating back hundreds of years, firefighters often find themselves pushing back when what they know and what they have come to believe is questioned.  The studies and research experiments conducted by Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have in a sense done just that.  They have made us all pause for a moment and think about what we do and what we have been doing.  We compare the research results with the many incidents that bounce around in our heads that we have responded to, and we study Line-of-Duty-Death reports for any clues and links to the scientific data.  As a fire service, we owe it to ourselves to do exactly that:  question and learn.  Over the past several years, there has been a staggering amount of nearly constant conflict and sparring in trade magazines, at conferences, and particularly on the internet and social media about the implications of the UL/NIST research on our tactical operations on the fire ground.  Some of the dialogue is productive, although most is emotional, sometimes even hurtful, and often completely uninformed and ridiculous.  But in a period of dramatic change, that is to be expected; maybe even welcomed.

                What young firefighters need to realize as they enter the fire service during this transitional (no pun intended!) and tumultuous time period in our business is that they are coming into a fire service steeped in worthy and important traditions, but one that is also undergoing somewhat of a paradigm shift in tactical operations.  As a fire service, we’re simply becoming more educated and more analytical.  We’re questioning whether or not the methods we’ve always used to control fire and protect citizens are still the best way to do them today.  And how can we not?  Few in the fire service today would argue against the widely accepted principle that the residential fuel packages of today are significantly different than they were a couple of decades ago.  Few in the fire service would argue that houses constructed with lightweight wood trusses and connected together with gusset plates or even glue are inherently more susceptible to collapse than houses built a couple of decades ago.  Few in the fire service would argue about staffing and available resources being widespread issues across the country, and that fire department efficiency is almost entirely manpower-dependent.  Yet as firefighters, we immediately circle the wagons and pull out our sharpest weapons as soon as someone questions the way operate on the fire ground.

                Rest assured, the purpose of this writing is not to push any specific tactical guide like SLICE-RS.  The purpose is not to tell you to consider a quick shot of water to “re-set” a heavy fire condition prior to entry.  The purpose is not to encourage you to study ventilation so you don’t break every window you come to and single-handedly burn down an entire house all by yourself.  The scope is a little large than that.  Instead, the idea is to simply consider if you currently find yourself on the wrong side of history. 

                When motorized fire apparatus were introduced in the early 1900s, resistance to the transition away from horses was widespread, intense and emotional.  Horses were very reliable, and the new motorized vehicles were sometimes difficult to start and often broke down.  Many fire companies across the United States argued that their horse-drawn crews could beat the motorized apparatus to scenes, and some even held contests that became community events.  In the end, of course, they had little choice but to progress with the changing world around them and eventually (albeit begrudgingly) move the fire service forward.   Today, a fire engine being pulled by a horse would seem quite odd to say the least.  The horsemen of a hundred years ago were devoted, skilled and passionate about their craft.  They simply found themselves on the wrong side of history.  Later, when SCBA were introduced to the fire service, many found the devices to be cumbersome and not necessary.  In those times, the measure of a firefighter was often related to their ability to “eat smoke”, and the thought of younger, newer firefighters beginning to use these units as a matter of standard operation certainly led to many questions of manhood, toughness, and dedication to our craft (thank goodness there was no Facebook in the mid-1900s).  And yet again, in today’s fire service the thought of interior firefighting without an SCBA would be considered completely absurd.  Those fighting against the evolution of the fire service toward more adequate respiratory protection as it was researched and developed were simply sitting on the wrong side of history.

                And now here we are.  Again.  The study of today’s interior fire environment involving the tremendous amounts of heat energy release, the dramatically changing building construction practices now becoming standard, and the importance of fully and completely understanding ventilation are not simply a flash in the pan.  This moment of scientific research and tactical application in the fire service isn’t something that will simply pass if given enough time.  We can’t bully and harass our way past this information on social media in the name of temporary manliness and imaginary expertise.  Like it or not, we are now at another one of those major crossroads in the history of the American fire service.  There is little doubt about which direction we’re heading.  And there’s also little doubt that there will be resistance along the way.  Water puts out fire; apply it quickly.  Period.  Air makes fire worse; apply it in a limited fashion.  Period.  Rescue victims as quickly as we possibly can, remembering that often our best tactical move for rescue is to make the fire go away.  Period.  Why those concepts spark such tremendous emotion and debate is often confusing and frustrating.  It’s not about new acronyms or catchy phrases about from where to hit the fire.  Getting emotionally and emphatically stuck on that stuff is just getting too far down in the weeds.  It’s about keeping our heads on a constant swivel in the fire service, remaining in a never-ending mode of learning and questioning, and not being too hard-headed to evaluate and adapt important information when it comes along.  Stay aggressive, keep training, and strive for excellence in this business that we all love so dearly.  Just don’t find yourself on the wrong side of history on this one.

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