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MFA #11: SLICE-RS and Flow Paths and Change, Oh My! - MFA principles aren't so scary or different

It's certainly an interesting time for the American fire service as we continue to learn more about our ancient enemy and adjust our tactics to best accomplish its control.  "Revolutionary" is not an inaccurate term for the degree of changes that are being proposed for the fire suppression aspect of our mission.  Depending upon which side of this revolution you currently stand, you may find yourself pushing for those innovations, or having them pushed upon you.  Some even push back.  Despite our personal convictions and passion, none of us can be certain to have the "correct" position on what is an evolving situation.  Keeping in mind that we all share the same fireground goals of Life Safety, Property Conservation, and Incident Stabilization, instead of staking out rigid positions and trying to "out-shout" the competition, we need to be working together to determine what may be the best use of this new knowledge.

For sure, there are plenty of fanatics on both sides of this debate, and even more in between who use a handful of facts or factoids as justification for their viewpoint.  Somewhat ironically, I have seen SLICE-RS mis-interpreted as a defensive-only approach by both critics and supporters.  While I disagree with one writer’s description of it being “a means to killing the civilian”, I know of a few departments that have implemented its trademark tactic - flowing water from the exterior - without also investing in the planning and training needed to facilitate the immediate transition to the interior to finish the job, giving some credence to the charge that they are ignoring the life safety imperative.  And, don't get me started on the varying and contradictory interpretations I have read about ventilation, each claiming to be based on "the latest fire dynamics research”!  For my part, I have been inspired to blog about this subject not just because of the tactics already developed, of which I am an admitted fan, but because of the many as yet unexplored applications of this new understanding of fire behavior and control.  My occasional extrapolation of this recently-acquired knowledge to the limits of its potential effects, I admit, pushes the envelope and therefore, I am afraid, also a few persons' buttons.  So, let's dial things back a bit and try to find our common ground in the fight against our common foe.

As with many “new” ideas, further examination of SLICE-RS demonstrates that there is a lot of the “old” included, and much of the novelty is in the form of “repackaging”.  Regarding that “package”, many have decried the acronym because of the relative order of the components, worried that it creates “non-thinking” firefighters who apply the same “cookbook” approach to every fire, and criticized the utilization of the internet for its dissemination.  In fact, the fire service has long used initials to assist with memorizing and recalling complex lists, with the sequence of letters often a secondary consideration, if any.  Recall that the venerable “RECEO-VS” listed Ventilation next-to-last at a time when it was often performed first, and the letters in the “COAL WAS WEALTH” size-up memory aid were obviously so arranged to create an easily-recalled phrase, not a priority ranking.  The situation dictates the order in which tasks are performed, not the acronym, which instead just serves to prevent vital steps from being overlooked.

Checklists are successfully used in many critical endeavors (e.g., neurosurgery, military flight), and, rather than forcing behavior, they assist and support decision making by helping to ensure a comprehensive assessment of situations.  Recipes and checklists both may specify what to do and when to do it, but the former requires action, and the latter merely consideration.  Using our competing fire strategies as examples, stating that we should almost always initiate an immediate interior attack is a recipe, while SLICE-RS offers a checklist.  Admittedly, it is possible to lose sight of the big picture while focusing on completing a checklist, just as it can occur while filling out a tactical worksheet or rushing to enter a burning building.  Maintaining situational awareness remains a challenging concept to teach and accomplish, regardless of our tactics.

Videos, such as those posted on YouTube and other sites, have become valuable additions to our training armamentarium, offering robust content, availability to a widespread audience, and repeat viewings.  They have also been used extensively to teach firefighters since the 1970s.  Just like magazine articles, conference presentations, and kitchen table conversations that have been employed by the fire service in sharing knowledge for over a century, they too must be assessed in the context of the recipient’s department and community.  The old axiom that “Not everything you see or hear is true" remains valid in the internet age, if not more so.  Again, videos are merely a tool for disseminating information, and their utility is limited by the interpretive skills of both the poster and the viewer.  Advocates of the Principles of Modern Fire Attack are wisely utilizing the latest methods for spreading their message and teaching their methods, just like every other good fire service instructor has done since the beginning of our profession.  They are also not suggesting SLICE-RS be learned via YouTube, but instead in an 8-hour classroom setting, which is provided free-of-charge.  (Our tax dollars at work.)

Regarding the steps behind the initials: Size-up (S), the continuous assessment of the incident and its ramifications, which has been taught to firefighters forever, and should begin as soon as the call is received, is a natural to put first on any list.  The next two - Locate (L) the fire and Identify (I) the flow path - are actually just two of the almost infinite components of Size-up.  They were separated out by Eddie Buchanan and his associates as they provide information to support tactics specific to the Modern Fire Attack approach - that being the early application of water and the limiting of air flow (See MFA #4: The New Rules at http://community.fireengineering.com/profiles/blog/show?xg_source=a...).  Those controversial methods aside, we should agree that fire location and flow paths are vital information for firefighters.  We have long been taught to determine "where the fire is going", and now we have also been made aware of the importance of figuring out "where the air is going".  

Cooling as soon as possible (C) is the point that many in the fire service see as the reversal of decades of “progress” in promoting interior firefighting, as it goes contrary to the well-intentioned, but now disproven, notions of not applying water from the exterior or into smoke.  But is even this “radical” change new?  The late Tom Brennan wrote: “Once the fire is out, everything gets better”, and he even criticized the "rescue" of occupants standing on balconies of a burning building in relative safety while others within the structure were allowed to perish from uncontrolled fire growth.  (While he also advocated the rapid placement of an interior hoseline to accomplish extinguishment, and was a vocal proponent of tactical ventilation to "make the building behave", he did not have the benefit of the recent fire dynamics research that showed the value and safety of early water application.  Truth is, all of us once preached the same message as that was what we were taught, and believed, to be best.)  My point: water on the fire has always been our early goal, and now that we have been freed of the self-imposed fears of “pushing fire” or “steaming victims”, we can accomplish it even more quickly.

Lastly, Extinguishment (E), Rescue (R) and Salvage (S) address each of the three standard fireground goals listed above, and require no further explanation or justification as components of a fire attack strategy.  Again, they have always been carried out as the need arises, regardless of their position in the tactical acronym.  Like Tommy’s example noted above, depending upon the situation, sometimes Rescue and/or Salvage are best accomplished by Extinguishment, and other times one or the other needs to be performed while the fire is left to burn.  Choosing which needs to come first is often out of our hands. 

A final plea: “aggression” is an attitude, not a tactic, and one not necessarily associated with bravery, skill, effectiveness, or any particular fire control strategy (See MFA #6 - Words That Convey Nothing at http://community.fireengineering.com/profiles/blog/show?xg_source=a...).  It is my studied opinion that all firefighters share the same motivations and desires, despite differences in our techniques.  We need to put aside the inflammatory and heroic rhetoric to be able to clearly see, and then assess, the attributes of our various methods.  The SLICE-RS approach represents an attempt at a practical translation of the fire dynamics research findings into effective action, and is actually a hybrid of traditional and modern methods.  Many of its components, training aids, and principles should be familiar to any firefighter who looks beyond the shiny new packaging.  The relative effectiveness of our older and newer strategies remain an issue for debate and discussion, but we should at least do so from a position of mutual respect for each other’s intentions and sincerity.

I'll close with a quote from one of my mentors:  “Forget all of the romantic notions you have about firefighting; it’s all about water.” Alan Brunacini

MJC

The author can be reached at markjcotter@comcast.net.

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