So once again a short video clip of a fire has created a great stir in the world of the Internet. The latest video came from California and shows crews operating on a working fire in what appears to be an auto repair shop. Immediately the Internet safety zealots started posting “They should NEVER be on that roof” or “We would NEVER do that at a fire, it’s dangerous!” Many of the posts were, well, more colorful in their critique of the operation. These posts immediately brought out the other camp, who tend to be on the other extreme of the debate, those who are staunch supporters of what I would categorize as the traditional urban offensive strategy. Many in this camp would preach that to do anything less at this type of fire is cowardly.
Once again, I think both opinions are partially right and partially wrong. As I wrote earlier in the year, there are a few items that are missing from the conversation that are CRITICAL for us to understand and learn from these events. That includes all other posts/videos on the Internet that anyone can view, critique, or Monday Morning Quarterback. Here are a few things I think are missing from the discussion and are vitally important for each of us to understand:
1. UL, NIST, ISFSI, or any of the other groups who are doing fire dynamics research or delivering training to firefighters based on the studies are not saying “Never do….” The slide below is frequently used in UL’s presentations and is also used as part of the introduction of the Principles of Modern Fire Attack / SLICE RS program taught nationally by the ISFSI. If you hear “NEVER,” it was someone else interpreting this information. It is NOT the message those of us involved in this research and training are trying to convey.
2. As I said earlier this year, the critical missing link in many of these conversations is STAFFING. How can I or anyone else comment on another department’s tactics when our staffing (and equipment) is often so different? Staffing is the key component to a lot of these tactical discussions, but staffing seems to be forgotten or not considered when we view incidents on the Internet. Instead, we assume that departments that have 2-person engines can/should do the same thing as departments with 4-person engines. This is not true and a critical error in many of these conversations and debates.
3. Resources. I am talking engines, trucks, tenders, and chiefs here, but also how many there area and how quickly they will arrive. If your normal response to a structure fire is 4 engines, 2 ladders, and a chief but it takes 15 minutes to get all those resources to the scene and another department with the same resources can assemble those units in 5-6 minutes, the strategy and tactics implemented on the scene probably should be different. The success of those activities will probably be different, as well. This is more than just the difference between Urban and Rural. There are many very well-staffed volunteer fire departments going to a lot of fires just as there are a lot of understaffed Urban departments that have suffered from layoffs and fire station closures and are not seeing a lot of fire. The response, strategy, and tactics should be different and based on resources rather than what you read on the latest blog (and that includes this one).
4. There has been a lot of talk lately about credibility of authors/bloggers. Experience is a relative thing. You may be the most experienced person in a department that runs 2-3 fires a year, or you may be someone who is going to 100 fires a year. Again, your experience and the size/type/demographics of your department should be considered when your write or post. Recently a program I was involved in developing came under attack in a blog post. As I read the post, I found a lot of the inferences that the author was drawing were incorrect.
I followed my friend Nick Martin’s recent advice on this topic and “checked the resume” of the blogger. The first thing I learned after viewing our class rosters is that this person had never taken the class he was blogging negatively about. He was commenting on what he had heard or read other people say. You can’t become an expert on anything without having BOTH training and experience. In my opinion, this particular blogger was missing the training aspect, so I went on to read their bio…4 years as a firefighter. Now he may run on the busiest engine in the nation, but those of us who have been around awhile have learned that it takes more than a few years to truly grasp the size and scope of the fire service. I am not saying people with 4 years on the job have nothing to contribute, but a 4-year person should be careful throwing mud at a 1/2 dozen 30+ year instructors/company officers and chiefs. At the least the critic should pause and realize that everyone, depending on our department and where we work, is going to have different perspectives. That doesn't make either of us right or wrong, just different.
Back to the video, as I watched the video from LA I too said to myself that I wouldn't operate that way. However, this is different than posting and saying they shouldn't operate that way or telling people they should never do that! My thought process is based on a couple very important things missing from most of the Internet rants I read:
In Goshen, we have predominantly one-story homes and businesses. The newer hosing stock is 2-story truss construction and then we have a few garden apartments, townhouses, and some larger commercial structures. Our typical fire is either a mobile home or an 1,800-sq. foot ranch. Because of our housing stock and the fires we have experienced, we have focused our attention on the initial engine company arriving, sizing up the fire, establishing a water supply and getting water on the fire quickly!
We do use the SLICE RS acronym taught by ISFSI in our training and policies, but that does not mean that I am telling the American fire service that the Goshen way of fighting fire is the only way, or even the right way. I can only speak for Goshen, because that’s where I work, train, and, as fire chief, have the ability to influence and direct policy, training, and fireground operations. For me to tell other communities how to fight fire would be negligent. I can share what we do, but it is up to each department to decide for themselves based upon THIER experience, THEIR resources, THEIR staffing as well as the shared experience of others.
Another BIG reason we probably would have fought the auto shop fire differently in Goshen is our staffing. In the video it appears that multiple well-staffed companies are all arriving simultaneously. Multiple handlines are pulled, multiple crews are throwing ladders, etc. If I had that kind of staffing on a fire, I might operate in a very similar fashion, but I don’t and therefore we don’t.
In Goshen we are blessed to typically have 4-5 people on our first-due engine, but after that there are no guarantees. Our first-alarm assignment consists of a predetermined run card of resources that respond from Goshen and typically 2-3 other Automatic Mutual Aid Departments. As fire chief in Goshen, I have very little influence on how those departments staff, train, set up their apparatus, etc. We do work together as fire chiefs in our region to try and standardize operational policies, training, etc., but there are subtle differences in each of our organizations. One of the biggest is staffing.
My auto aid companies may bring me 2 people, 3 people, or as many as 5-6 and that is dependent on THIER staffing that day. Some are career, some are volunteer. Who shows up to work that day, how much OT they are allowed to have, or how many volunteers show up changes the staffing on every run. Because of this, we have to plan for and adapt our strategy and tactics for the always-changing staffing we receive on a fire. Because of this we typically wouldn't have the staffing to stretch multiple lines, ladder the building, and vent the roof AT THE SAME TIME like the video showed, so we wouldn't fight the fire the way LA did. That’s not because what they were doing was wrong or reckless, but because our staffing is different.
The last thing to consider is resources, specifically the arrival time of those resources. In the video you can see multiple apparatus pulling up at the same time. In Goshen, unless we were having a department-wide meeting or drill, this would never happen. In our community, it is typical that the first-due engine arrives and operates alone for the first 2- 3 minutes of the run in our suburban district and 5-7 minutes in our rural area. After that, additional resources arrive every minute or two. By the 10-12-minute mark, after the arrival of the first truck, all our first-alarm resources have typically arrived on scene.
Again, as fire chief in Goshen, I cannot control this. It is dictated by our area (36 sq. miles), where our neighboring stations are located, and how long it takes them to drive from their station to our fire. Because we know our companies may be operating alone for a little while, we have adjusted our response matrix, training, and SOPs, as well as the layout and design of our trucks, to ensure that we can operate as safely as possible while getting rapid water on the fire.
WATER ON FIRE is our key goal on the fireground. Yes, sometimes it is applied from the exterior, but most of the time it is not. Sometimes we do vent windows and even roofs (I know, we’re crazy), but most of the time we don’t. These decisions have very little to do with SLICE RS or any of the other “new” stuff being talked about. We use and study that information to make better decisions on our strategy and tactics based upon our staffing, resources, and our size-up of the fire when we arrive.
I think it’s time for us all to pause and take a deep breath before we post on any more videos. If and when we do, we should stop calling out other departments, especially the ones we don't work for or if we’re unfamiliar with their resources and staffing. If you feel it’s necessary to comment do so, but share with us the “why.” Rather than saying XYZ FD should never do that, change it to “we/I would never operate like that on the fireground because of my department’s staffing, training, resources, policy….”
By commenting and sharing information about YOUR department and why you operate a certain way, you will help us all become smarter firefighters. It will help us learn from each other and help us see and understand how differently we all operate. Hopefully this will reduce some of the useless debate and bickering that just further diminishes the “Brotherhood.”