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MFA #21: ACRONYMITY: Tripping over letters

We in the fire service are fond of initials.  They are used both as abbreviated identifiers (e.g., BC, LT, EMS, FADO, AFA, MVC) and/or shortened versions of unwieldy terms (e.g., IDLH, BLEVE, SCBA), forming the type of private, insider language common of all professions.  They have also proven to be valuable memory aids, helping us to learn and recall the components and steps of complex processes.  For instance, the myriad and extensive considerations that should be included in Size-up were arranged in the phrases COAL WAS WEALTH (Construction, Occupancy, Area, Life Hazards, Weather, Apparatus/Manpower, Special Conditions, Water Supply, Exposures, Age/Access, Location, Time, and Height) and WALLACE WAS HOT (Water, Area, Life hazard, Location-extent, Apparatus-personnel, Construction-collapse, Exposures, Weather, Auxiliary appliances, Special matters, Height, Occupancy, and Time).  And, of course, attempts at "scripting" tactical approaches or methods are represented by VEIS, SLICE-RS, and RECEOVS.  It is this use - or, more accurately, misuse - of acronyms as cues and reminders that will be the subject of this posting.

Unfortunately, some in the fire service forget that these collections of letters are merely tools and instead elevate their meanings to the level of doctrine or dogma.  Still others argue that we shouldn't use such decision "crutches" at all, a sentiment often spawned by dislike of a particular concept, and one that ignores the long history of effectiveness of such cognitive supports.  The purpose of this discussion is not to advocate for one acronym over another, but to demonstrate the proper role of these mental devices, and, in turn, to discourage their misinterpretation and misapplication, which, in my opinion, are all too common. 

With their ability to condense lists of steps and concepts in an easier-to-remember word or sequence, acronyms' primary use is for training.  As such, once the concepts are learned and the skills mastered, they actually have limited utility on the fireground.  For example, the size-up mnemonics listed above, which have helped generations of fire officers to pass promotional exams, are far too ponderous to run through as we try to control the “runaway train” that an emergency incident represents.  Instead, practicing the analysis of a theoretical setting - its structures, geography, occupants, and circumstances - then comparing the results compiled to either or both of the lists represented by those phrases, provides value and validation to such training.  The skills thus acquired are then more readily brought to bear when confronted by the real thing, in real time. 

These tools for improving understanding need to be modified, in turn, as our understanding changes, and should not be considered to be sacrosanct or “set in stone”.  For instance, the initials “VES”, introduced decades ago to describe the tactic of accessing a bedroom via a window and rapidly sweeping for victims, represented the then-recommended process: “Vent” by opening the window and releasing smoke and heat, often by using the tips of the ladder as it was positioned; “Enter” the now ventilated room; and quickly “Search” for occupants.  Recent experimentation has shown us the profound and rapid effect that ventilation can have on the intensity of a structure fire, for better or worse, and the importance of delaying the opening of the window until ready to enter, minimizing the size of the opening created, and immediately shutting the door to the room, so the “Isolate” step was added.  Many of the original proponents of this practice did not approve of this addition, and some critics even argued that the need to close the door to the room had already been part of their training approaches, even if that step had not made it into the title.  What they overlooked was that the now-enhanced abbreviation, with its increased emphasis of a key step, had even greater value as a learning tool, its true purpose.  (Enter-Isolate-Search is probably a more accurate representation of the proper sequence, though I can’t say that EIS would be a better memory aid.  How about we just call it “Window Entry Search (WES)”?)

I believe the misapplication of a learning device as a field aid is represented by the idea of retaining RECEOVS - which stands for Rescue, Exposure protection, Containment, Extinguishment, Overhaul, Ventilation, and Salvage - as a tactical checklist.  This 1950s-era acronym lists many of the various tactics required for structure fire management, and, in fact, I have studied, taught, and referenced it throughout my fire service career.  My department even utilizes it as one of the foundations of the incident management skills assessment component of our promotional process.  Still, though well-designed checklists can provide vital assistance in the heat of battle, RECEOVS falls short for that purpose, especially on the modern fireground. 

For instance, it leaves out such important tactics/fireground components as Accountability, RIT, Forcible Entry, and Water Supply.  Also, water application is unnecessarily expanded into a three-step process - Exposures, Confinement, Extinguishment - which is actually only required when we are faced with a fire that is too big to extinguish with the means at hand.  While a well-involved building fire with radiant heat affecting nearby structures requires some triage to determine where the first lines should be deployed - to exposures or to the main body of fire - our typical one- or two-family dwelling fire does not.  When we can put the fire out directly, the Exposure and Containment steps are rendered moot.  I see keeping RECEOVS as an incident checklist as similar to giving a retired Chief a ceremonial job in the Department: respectful of the service provided, but with little expectation of valuable contributions.

Finally (and this is a fault of the users and not the tool), some interpret this collection of letters almost religiously.  Specifically, because it begins with “Rescue”, it is seen as irrefutable proof that entering a burning structure to search for victims should be our first action.  (Curiously, those same proponents never invoke it to justify performing Overhaul before Ventilation.)  Now, while Rescue certainly does address our first priority (Life Safety), it doesn’t mean that searching for victims is the best way to accomplish that objective.  In fact, since the fire dynamics research documented significant, immediate and widespread improvement to interior conditions when water was applied even briefly to a fire, a tactic that generally can be accomplished more quickly than searching the same area, Extinguishment would appear to be the ideal initial action on this list.  In other words, the best way to accomplish the Rescue tactic may be to first apply water to the fire area, and then search the building.

SLICE-RS, my new favorite acronym, is not immune to these considerations.  While we debate the relative effectiveness of the tactical approach it represents compared to traditional methods, its purpose, too, is chiefly for organizing the concepts in a way that makes them easier to remember.  Eddie Buchanan, its primary author, stated in a recent interview that even he does not routinely use this mnemonic on the fireground, as he has instead incorporated its components into his routine practice.  When serving as an incident commander, he performs size-up just like anyone else in that position, but he now has an enhanced awareness of the importance of flow paths, and the need to control them; and the benefits of rapid water application, even if from the exterior; and adjusts his tactics accordingly.  I fully expect even this latest and greatest tool to be improved upon, or even replaced, as we learn even more that we didn’t even know that we didn’t know.  Progress is like that.

Our acronyms have certainly proven themselves capable of inspiring passionate discussions, which is probably a good trait for an educational tool.  Still, once a skill or concept is mastered, no firefighter qualified to perform such a dangerous maneuver as VEIS, or manage such a complex setting as a fireground, should still be relying on the initials with which they were first taught.  Muscle memory, experience, and situational awareness should guide their actions.  Further, any incident commander, or even line firefighter, who needs to be reminded to perform anything on the RECEOVS list has way more problems than any memory aid can correct.  Continuing to use outdated learning tools out of nostalgia is like using your antique pumper because it’s put out a lot of fires in its time.  Not to be disrespectful, but it’s time to move on. 

RIP RECEOVS.  Vaya con Dios VES.


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