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MFA #6: Words that Convey Nothing - “Aggressive Interior Attack”

I borrowed the title of this blog from the late Tom Brennan, FDNY Captain, Waterbury (CT) Fire Chief, Fire Engineering Editor, and firefighting sage extraordinaire, but I take full responsibility for the example.  Tommy’s “Random Thoughts” column in the March 1996 issue of Fire Engineering railed against the use of phrases such as "Be Advised", because of uselessness; and “Heavy Fire Condition”, because of imprecision.  He related his frustration with persons who would describe a a building as “Fully Involved” and then, in the very next breath, report crews were performing an interior attack.  He was a guy who could cut through the emotion and romance that sometimes plagues the fire service, and instead focus on the vital and practical.  I don’t pretend to know if he would have agreed with my subject, but I had to give him credit for inspiring me.

There is a lot of discussion in the fire service lately about the value and importance of remaining “aggressive” with our tactics, while I would suggest that this term has enough elements of uselessness, imprecision, emotion and romance to argue against its continued use to describe anything related to fire control.  (It might remain appropriate for use in a personnel evaluation regarding an unusually confrontational employee.)  “Aggressive Interior Attack (AIA)”, promoted by some as the ideal approach for controlling fires and saving occupants, inspires images of unwavering bravery and devotion to duty, despite hazards and hardships.  It's how “Real firefighters” (another term that conveys nothing) are said to fight fires.  On the other hand, its meaning can also be distorted in order to justify such poor practices as making immediate entry the default approach to structure fires, or performing incomplete size-ups (the "270 degree walk-around”). 

One definition of aggressive is "having or showing determination and energetic pursuit of your ends", which are certainly fine attributes for firefighters to exhibit.  Unfortunately, since it really doesn't describe a particular set of actions, but instead an attitude, its application is widely variable.  Someone who uses the term might have a clear idea of what it means to him or her, but it doesn't necessarily follow that anyone else shares that same concept, nor that others who utilize it agree amongst themselves.  Of course, firefighters should show determination and be energetic, as well as trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful and thrifty (at least with taxpayer's money).  We need to be a lot of things, but we also need to know and do a lot of things.  The “being” category can be very subjective (vague), while “knowing” and “doing” are much more amenable to objective (precise) descriptions and measurement.

Truth be told, aggression is a concept I have often used in my writing, sometimes to warn of its dangers (From the Jumpseat: The Hazards of Aggression, and other times to promote its benefits (From the Jumpseat: The Efficiency of Aggression  It’s a great word for writers, allowing, as it does, for a wide range of interpretations and uses.  That same malleability should give us pause before applying it to settings requiring more specificity, like directing a fire suppression effort.

My town’s former police chief once provided a memorable example of the importance of avoiding the use of this word for self-description.  I was treating a police officer who had been involved in a foot chase when the fleeing suspect scaled a fence, while the officer took a shortcut through said fence.  The young patrolman suffered a cut to this forehead, but made the bust (no pun intended).  The chief was bragging that the wounded officer was one of his best, and described him as being “enthusiastic”.  He then explained that he used that term as a conscious alternative to “aggressive”, a word he found could be manipulated by a defense attorney or misinterpreted by a jury, while his preferred descriptor was nothing but complimentary.  (And this was uttered a quarter century prior to the recent police/civilian strife in such cities as Ferguson and Baltimore!)

Despite the apparent attempt by some to co-opt the term “aggressive” to denote an alternative to the Modern Fire Attack (MFA) principles, those progressive fire departments who have embraced SLICE-RS (See MFA #2: Structural Firefighting for Dummies - also rightly assert that they, too, are aggressive.  Since the external cooling promoted by that technique only temporarily improves interior conditions, entry still must be rapidly performed to effect complete extinguishment, a coordinated tactic that requires preparation, training, and intention (as well as determination and energy) for its success.  

While SLICE-RS describes and promotes a methodical approach, it doesn't necessarily follow that it is slower.  Since the application of water to the fire compartment or the exhaust flow path has been shown to immediately and extensively improve conditions within a burning structure, thereby increasing the survivability of occupants, and can typically be accomplished more quickly than any tactic that first requires entry into the structure, that method is actually faster.  The fact that it is also, on the whole, easier and safer, is a bonus, and nothing to be ashamed of.  The reality is that most proponents of AIA do not suggest skimping on size-up, or ignoring the fire’s location or flow paths, before entering the interior (the S, L, and I steps), so there is little admitted difference between these approaches during the initial moments at a structure fire, the period during which being “aggressive” would seem to matter.  

The MFA tactic of flowing water as soon as possible (i.e., through a window, or into the exiting smoke), or its focus on fire control over search, may be what some consider evidence of not being "aggressive".  This bias against rapid cooling of a fire is, of course, nonsense.  In my opinion, ignoring the scientific data demonstrating the benefits, and lack of harm, of early water application, and then refusing to perform that tactic, unnecessarily endangers both firefighters and potential victims by delaying fire control.  Keep in mind, too, that the SLICE-RS approach does not prohibit the simultaneous performance of a search.  It merely recognizes that cooling the fire compartment provides the quickest improvement in conditions to the greatest portion of the involved building, and therefor to any occupants thereof.  In fact, in certain circumstances (e.g., inability to reach the involved compartment due to such obstacles as limited staffing, building configuration, or fortified access points) search, often in the form of Vent-Enter-Isolate-Search (VEIS), may be the first tactic performed.

Since the use of the label “aggressive” is, essentially, “in the eye of the beholder”, almost any firefighter or department could claim that attribute, so there is really no end point to a debate about its appropriate usage.  Many among us will, no doubt, continue to utilize the phrase “Aggressive Interior Attack” to describe their approach as it accurately represents their impression of their actions.  As professionals, though, we need to be able to describe our tactics with clarity and precision.  Lessons, instructions, procedures, and orders, the formats in which we communicate about the actual process of firefighting, require terms that have little danger of misinterpretation.  Leave the inspiring and flowery words for speeches and poems.



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