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MFA #20: The New Standard? - The risks of ignoring the science

So, now that the fire service has a synchronized approach to controlling structure fires (SLICE-RS), based on scientific research (e.g., UL, NIST, NYU), supported and promoted by respected fire service organizations (e.g., NFPA, IAFC, IAFF, ISFSI), and with the promise of improved efficiency and decreased risk (easier, faster, safer), are there now risks (e.g., charges of liability, malfeasance, or incompetence) associated with not adopting this strategy?  Probably not...yet.  Still, our improved understanding of fire dynamics should compel us all to seriously consider the tactical approach that it inspired (See MFA #2: Structural Firefighting for Dummies at http://community.fireengineering.com/profiles/blog/show?xg_source=a...). 

For my part, whenever I read a description of an incident's management or watch an emergency scene video, I view the operation through the “MFA lens”.  Determining the tactical objectives of the actions described or depicted provides repeated, real-world examples on which to practice the application of the new principles, whether, in each instance, that opportunity was taken or missed by those involved.  In the situations that involve a firefighter near-miss, injury, or fatality, you can be sure I am not the only reviewer who will be comparing the actual actions to the research recommendations, especially considering that much of the fire dynamics research that spawned this tactical revolution was initiated to investigate and prevent firefighter LODDs.

My take on tactical articles, too, now includes an assessment of whether of the latest science was  considered.  It had been my practice to readily accept the advice of the seasoned veterans who share their experience in print and digital media.  When I had the opportunity to meet some of those authors in person, I thanked them for the successes I was able to manage with their assistance.  Now, with so many of our tactics instead proven to be unnecessary (e.g., attacking from the burned side, vertical ventilation) or even deadly (e.g., ventilation before fire control, firefighters in flow paths), I find myself questioning even writers whose teachings I once viewed as gospel when they continue to promote outdated methods.  While there is still enough valid information about firefighting to keep us all busy for the rest of our careers just trying to keep up, the fact that material continues to be published that ignores or contradicts scientific fact is, frankly, both disappointing and alarming.

With textbooks, bloggers, and other “expert” sources continuing to advocate out-dated methods, the traditional, “aggressive interior attack”, open-the-roof-first firefighters have little to worry about from a liability standpoint, and plenty of support from their peers, so why change?  What should be their motivation to embrace the new tactics is their proven benefits, which hold the promise for reducing, even if only slightly, the possibility of fireground mishaps and disasters.  As a medical professional, it always bothered me that many assume we are careful in order to avoid being sued.  Truth is, we are careful because we don’t want to make a mistake and hurt someone.  A malpractice suit is just salt in the wound.  Such intention to prevent harm should be what drives all of us in the fire service to seek out the best methods possible, even if they contradict our previous training, beliefs, and identity.  The stakes are that high.

In virtually any endeavor, much less one with such a long history and established traditions as firefighting, universal acceptance of an innovation usually occurs only after many years, if ever.  Even while acknowledging this natural and unavoidable inertia, the considerable and increasing body of evidence supporting these methods can no longer be ignored or easily dismissed.  Like everybody else in the world, firefighters will likely never agree on everything anyway, and probably should not, as it is disagreement, and the processes surrounding attempts to either win the argument or produce agreement, that actually moves us forward.  It has become necessary, though, to objectively look at our current practices and determine if they are, in fact, supported by anything more than habit and anecdote.  

MJC

The author can be reached at markjcotter@comcast.net

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