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MFA #9: From a Different Perspective - The new methods make more sense to non-firefighters

Sometimes we need to seek out opinions from others in order to ensure the validity of our own, and that is not a natural or even comfortable process.  In fact, it seems someone is always trying to tell us how to live our lives or do our jobs, providing advice we didn’t seek out, or explaining their view of our world.  Still, it is often only with the assistance of outside eyes that we can truly see ourselves. 

How many times have you been asked by a non-firefighter why we cut a h*** in the roof of a burning building?  It happened to me a lot.  As patiently as possible, I would explain the importance of removing the smoke and heat that had collected in the top of the structure in order to direct the fire out of the home, improve our ability to operate in the building, and protect victims.  Similarly, if we were at a structure with flames showing from a window or door, yet did not apply water from the exterior and took a different route to enter the building, the importance of confining the fire, and not pushing the smoke and heat further into the building with the hose streams, would serve as the basis for my impromptu lecture on fire extinguishment.  Unfortunately, as the fire dynamics research has shown, my stock answers, though sincere and well-reasoned at the time, were wrong.  

We now know that ventilation of a fire merely increases its intensity and lethality, without significant improvement in interior conditions, while the application of water via a minimally-air-entraining (straight) hose stream into flames or hot smoke cools the interior environment, quickly and extensively, without significant worsening.  Limiting ventilation until after the fire is controlled, and flowing water as soon as the stream can reach into an area that needs to be cooled, is the new game plan.  With that, our collective understanding, and with it the basis of our teachings, actions, and explanations, has thereby been dramatically revised, and we need to admit that the skeptical civilians were onto something.

There is an older you tube video that serves to illustrate the public’s perspective on firefighting strategy:  Like many firefighters, when I first viewed this routine some years ago, my amusement was from not just the comedian’s delivery, but that anyone could believe that the complex process of fire suppression was so straightforward.  Now, after digesting the fire dynamics research, and learning about the revised tactical approach that integrates those findings, my amusement has been replaced somewhat by embarrassment.  While this monologue over-simplifies the new approach, it also captures its essence:  Get water on the fire as soon as possible.

Additional examples of the logic of the Modern Fire Attack methods are provided to me every time I tell a non-firefighter about my current project to explain and discuss these principles.  The conversation usually goes something like this: 

Them: “What’s new with you?”

Me: “I’m blogging about a controversial new method to control structure fires.”

Them: “Oh? How is it different?” 

Me: “Well, for one thing, it calls for spraying water onto the fire as soon as possible; sometimes even from outside the building!” 

Them: “Seems like common sense. How did you fight fires before?” 

Me: “We would usually not start water flow until we entered the building and could reach the seat of the fire, and sometimes we even entered the opposite side of the structure from where the fire was burning.”

Them: “Why would you do it that way?”

Me: “Because we were concerned about pushing the fire further into the building or causing injuries to trapped victims from steam, and we were taught we had to apply water directly to the burning material in order to cool the interior, though recent research showed that none of those beliefs were true.”

Them: “Is anything else different?”  

Me: “Yes. We also don’t break windows or cut holes in roofs until we need to.”  

Them: “And these ‘new’ methods are ‘controversial’ how?” 

Bottom line, the SLICE-RS approach is a whole lot easier to explain to persons who don’t know how to fight fires than to those who do, and, conversely, our prior tactics are much harder to justify to such an unbiased observer.

While the difficulties involved in re-training the entire fire service regarding these concepts and techniques are substantial, and one of the purposes of this blog, they are part of the natural and necessary process of change, and will someday be but a faded memory of “the good old days”.  New firefighters will have the distinct advantage of having a blank slate on which these principles can be recorded, unsmudged by the vestiges of partially erased memories.  Plus, we’ll all benefit from a reduction in questions from bewildered bystanders who wonder why we are focussing so much effort on back doors and roofs.  All in all, the realization that our job need not be as difficult as we have made it for ourselves can, once accepted, lead us to even greater efficiency.


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