Periodically, the fire service blogosphere will feature a rant from one of us about such topics as the need to keep rescue as our primary function, face risks bravely, and/or generally uphold the traditional values of our calling. These essays are usually wide-ranging, passionate, and very popular. I also typically find myself agreeing with much of the sentiments that the writers are conveying, as I suspect most other readers do, even those messages that begin with some version of the statement “I know this is going to make some people mad, but…”. This brings me to the topic of this posting: We firefighters are of one mind regarding our overall mission and its importance. Unfortunately, disagreements arise almost immediately when we begin to analyze priorities, interpret them in relation to the incident at hand, and develop plans for their management.
Unlike my prior blog submissions discussing the pros and cons of modern and traditional fire control approaches, the dissension I refer to goes way beyond those two-sided arguments. The controversies regarding how to best achieve success on the fireground transcend those two camps, sometimes involving members who agree on overall strategic themes, and would cheer or jeer together regarding one of my MFA postings, but who have significant disagreements amongst themselves regarding anything more specific. They are also multifaceted, nuanced, and situation-dependent. The current battle about traditional vs. modern fire suppression approaches is only the latest in a long line, one of many now ongoing, and certain to not be the last!
Look, for example, at just those two goals that are the foundation of the fire service: Life Safety and Property Conservation. Saving lives, our “prime directive”, is the accepted and unassailable priority during any emergency activity. Saving property, while unquestionably secondary, is also the only other justification for the existence of emergency services. We protect lives and property, and any of our actions that do not carry out or support those ends are mere fluff. With such elegant and straightforward goals, where could there be controversy? Only anywhere and everywhere.
To start, both are merely themes. As such, they are easy to stand behind, claim as rationalizations for our actions (prudent or otherwise), or expound on in blogs. Except, they do not exist in a vacuum, and instead need to be applied anew to each situation and interpreted in context. Certainly, no one would argue with the need to save people threatened by fire, but how sure must we be that persons are in a particular burning building before risking entry? Is extinguishment or search more likely to be successful? Has the fire progressed sufficiently that any occupants are beyond saving or interior operations are too hazardous? Each of these questions can unleash a host of differing interpretations, opinions, and recommendations, whether posed in the theoretical or in response to a specific incident.
Another confounding issue is the fact that the lives of firefighters and civilians are equals in any Life Safety assessment. While we are certainly better able, with our skills and equipment, to tolerate insults posed by the incident at hand, and are therefore routinely and appropriately deployed into situations no unprotected occupant could survive, we are by no means invincible. “Risk a lot to save a life” doesn’t mean “Give your life to save a life”, especially since the task we are usually referring to is just checking to see if there are any lives in peril, other than our own. Plus, ascertaining the level of risk is usually easier said than done, and often affected by circumstances out of our control or view. For one, we all know that structural components can fail suddenly, unpredictably, and catastrophically. Even the Property Conservation guidelines of “Risk a little to save a little, but risk nothing to save nothing” is a complex calculation as it requires defining what constitutes “a little” or “nothing”. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” takes on a whole new level of significance at a fire. Pets, pictures, pills, and photos can can be priceless to their owners, though that does not mean they expect us to die for their protection.
Now, firefighters choose to operate in a perilous and exciting environment that exists beyond the routine, controlled, and safe; where the limits of survival are ill-defined and constantly shifting; and where unique skills and knowledge are required to avoid failure, be that an inability to carry out our mission or the loss of one of our own. While we must accept that assuring safety in this arena is impossible, it remains a worthy and necessary pursuit. In fact, my belief is that the key to our success is through research to better understand the challenges we face, innovations to better overcome them, and constant training to maintain proficiency (See Negotiating Hazards at
Throughout this series on Modern Fire Attack, I have attempted to emphasize the motivations and methods we have in common, rather than the relatively few issues we have yet to reconcile (See MFA #12: SLICE-RS and Flow Paths and Change, Oh My! at
While there are vastly differing perspectives and approaches that coexist in this universe we call firefighting, we all have the same goals: to protect lives and property, and to do so as efficiently as possible. Our collective challenge is to keep foremost our shared priorities as we engage in the necessary debate regarding the relative benefits of different tactics and approaches.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org