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MFA #15: Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda - Re-assessing past performance using current knowledge

My first test as an incident commander, occurring some 30 years ago, was a room-and-contents fire in a two-story dwelling situated on a corner.  Adding to the pressure was that this was the first structure fire our department had fought since the retirement of our prior Chief of 25 years.  Flames were showing out of a picture window in the rear of the home upon our arrival, and firefighters stretched a hoseline to the location of the flames as I did my walk-around.  I ordered them to not flow water, and instead directed two firefighters to enter from the front of the home with another hoseline to “push the fire out”.  The operation went as planned, with rapid extinguishment, and I earned a reputation as a gutsy, “new age” fireground commander.  

I now know my decision to delay water application, while correct in the context of firefighting dogma of the time, was incorrect in light of the findings of the fire dynamics research that has occurred in this decade.  Advances in the understanding of fire behavior are not only changing the way we should be controlling blazes, but are also offering a new point of reference from which to view past incidents.  If we knew then what we know now, what would we have done differently?  For myself, these new revelations have caused me to review many of the extinguishment activities in which I have participated, often changing my previous opinions regarding my, and my team’s, efforts.

Reviewing our performance at actual incidents is probably the best method for ensuring continuous quality improvement, which should be every firefighter’s goal.  Certainly, a good basic training program and orientation are prerequisites for this process.  Having a strong foundation of knowledge and skills, and a caring officer and senior firefighters demonstrating and reinforcing their implementation on a day-to-day basis, forms the basis for lifelong learning.  Once graduated from the role of rookie, critiques can provide an ongoing mechanism for improving performance (See From the Jumpseat: Talking it Out at    

Having a career that spans four decades and six departments, my memory contains a vast array of incidents, large and small, that form a mental reference library.  Most of these I’ve reviewed in my mind many times in order to determine if I could have performed better, or if a different combination of tactics might have been more effective.  I became most active with this process of self-critique when I took on the role of incident commander.  Serving as the person who is the recipient of all known (or at least reported) fireground intelligence, being tasked with processing that information and formulating a plan, then revising it continuously and repeatedly, can be overwhelming, to say the least.  I found that reviewing actual calls, sometimes even modifying some of the characteristics (e.g., size of the first-in company, presence of victims, location of water supply), made for valuable training and improved self-confidence.

The rules I once applied for incident analysis were probably the same as every other fire officer: crew integrity was maintained, accepted procedures were followed, proper operational mode was chosen, etc.  For a structure fire, the tactical checklist included such points as ventilation being performed before entry, and fire attack from the unburned side of the structure, usually stretching a hoseline into the building before flowing water.  As we now know, what we believed to be the effects of these tactics on a structure fire were incorrect, with ventilation having no benefit, and often harm, when performed before water is applied to the fire; and the inability to “push fire” with a hose stream, as well as the absolute improvement that results from proper water application.  Limiting ventilation and flowing water as soon as possible are the new guidelines (see The New Rules at  In light of this new knowledge, I can now see that the results of many of my past performances were not due to the tactics I performed, or occurred despite those actions.

Surprisingly, at least for me, the results of this re-calibration of my hindsight were not as painful as expected.  Sometimes it explains a particular phenomena at a particular incident in response to a particular tactic (e.g., a building completely lighting off after vertical ventilation was performed), but mostly I just see how much easier we could have made a firefight.  Roofs would not have needed to be opened if we instead focused on getting water on the fire; entry would have been much less punishing if the fire was initially knocked down from the exterior; and there would have been less fire overhead if we had kept the front door mostly closed upon our entry.  Generally, things would have been easier, faster, and safer.  

Applying the “New Rules” to prior incidents is a great teaching and learning method, and allows practicing the application of the SLICE-RS method, at least mentally, at incidents about which you already have an intimate knowledge of details and outcome.  The result will be a deeper understanding of whatever fire attack method is utilized, as well as improved ability to adapt to a variety of situations.


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