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MFA #24: With All Due Respect - Newer methods can save more and injure less

Good manners can be deadly, as in taking the time to excuse yourself before grabbing someone as they are about to step off a curb into the path of a moving car.  In the ongoing debates regarding firefighting tactics, there is a tendency to avoid offending and alienating fellow firefighters by describing those based on the recent research as “another tool in the toolbox”, and “something to think about”.  While not inaccurate descriptions, these new “tools” render many of the others obsolete, and refusing to put them to use might lead to avoidable injuries and damages.  In Los Angeles County, for example, these tactics lead to a 44% reduction in firefighter burn injuries and a 7% reduction in property loss.  They are moving to become, for all intents and purposes, and like it or not, the new standard (See MFA #20; The New Standard? at http://community.fireengineering.com/profiles/blog/show?xg_source=activity&id=1219672%3ABlogPost%3A624581).  Such significant change does not come easily, nor without potentially divisive rhetoric.

Bobby Halton, Fire Engineering’s Editor-in-Chief and the Educational Director for FDIC, has a weekly video posting leading up to this year’s conference that includes excerpts from George Washington’s “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior” (http://www.fdic.com/articles/2016/03/fdic-countdown-7.html).  Rather than being merely an exercise in historical trivia, Bobby explains how these centuries-old etiquette lessons remain pertinent in our actions as emergency responders, as well as our everyday lives.  Anyone who has read Bobby’s editorials or heard him speak knows this topic is not just a gimmick, but a reflection of his personal and professional values.  His ability to weave history into many of his lessons also demonstrates a passion beyond, but complementary of, the fire service.  

More than anyone else, Bobby has set the tone for the debates regarding the modifications to fire attack methods that are being fueled by ongoing fire behavior research.  As the editor of the pre-eminent fire service publication and de facto host of our largest educational and trade conference, he is basically the referee for tens of thousands of passionate firefighters looking for and offering answers to a wide variety of issues affecting our profession.  When I first approached him with my idea for a series of columns exploring and illuminating the controversies and contradictions being raised by fire dynamics research and those attempting to implement the new knowledge, recognizing as I did the potential volatility of the discussion, he voiced his confidence that my good manners and professionalism would ensure the dialogue remains respectful.  (For someone prone to the use of sarcasm and one-liners, that statement set the bar high, indeed!).  More recently, he talked me away from the edge when my frustration over persistent misinformation almost lead me to post a blog that I would have later regretted.

In response to his guidance and example, I have endeavored to display my best manners in this forum.  Still, despite what has been a concerted effort, on my part, to “be nice”, I have also succeeded in agitating many who disagree with my views.  I have managed to become agitated as well by what I see as a deadly inertia, manifested by a refusal of many to consider alternative views or approaches.  Have no doubt: I understand the push back.  How “nice” can I sound to someone who only hears me say that the techniques they have worked so hard to master are misguided, especially if they view the MFA approach as significantly less effective?  Since many misinterpret the new methods as disregarding our basic missions of protecting life and property, in that context their responses are understandable, if misguided.  Therefore, I continue my attempts to correct those misconceptions. 

From my perspective, the refusal by many to consider the new tactics is not only frustrating, but frightening.  For instance, despite the best efforts of myself and others to communicate the benefits of something as potentially simple as early water application, many in the fire service instead continue to advocate as the default approach to structural firefighting the immediate entry by firefighters.  They consider the technique of first applying water to the fire compartment as one suitable only for situations that rule out their preferred tactic, such as inadequate staffing or a structure fully-involved with fire.  While they don’t refer to their so-called "Aggressive Interior Attack (AIA)" as a “one size fits all” approach, it’s the first one they try to fit to every situation.  Certainly, their stated goals of quickly locating the fire and living victims are admirable, but the “interior first” approach ignores the fact that the rapid application of water can immediately reduce temperatures throughout the structure, improving the ease of finding both, and can often, though not always, be more rapidly and effectively performed from the exterior.  

Similarly dismissed are other experimental findings, often on the grounds that they “can’t control all of the variables”.  On the contrary, the ability to control variables - fuel, air flow, fire location, construction, etc. - is what makes the results of experiments meaningful, and our collective experiences at “real” fires much less so.  Since pretty much any fire extinguishment method is effective at some point, and we don't have the luxury of re-igniting real-world fires in order to try several different approaches, it is only in the laboratory that these observations and comparisons can be obtained (See MFA #12: Research vs. Real World at http://community.fireengineering.com/profiles/blog/show?xg_source=a...).  Repeatedly burning the same combustibles in the same compartments with the same instrumentation, and then modifying just one variable - such as hose stream direction, ventilation, or timing of an intervention - is the only reliable method for obtaining information on the comparative effects of different firefighting actions. 

We interpret our world through our understanding.  If we perform vertical ventilation because we believe it is beneficial, and the fire goes out, we have thereby reinforced in our mind the value of vertical ventilation, even if, as research has repeatedly demonstrated, such actions actually increased the burning, and we were successful despite that maneuver.  Still, the purpose of fire behavior research is to explain phenomena, not refute it, and any contradictions between our reality and that demonstrated in a controlled burn needs to be reconciled, often by further research.  To their credit, in the Governors Island experiments, some of these inconsistencies between street experience and laboratory findings were addressed.  Specifically, attempts were made to demonstrate the reported occurrences of “pushing fire”, or having it wrap around to the rear of advancing hose teams, neither of which could be reproduced, at least not with a straight water stream.  The ongoing UL “Study of the Impact of Fire Attack Utilizing Interior and Exterior Streams on Firefighter Safety and Occupant Survival” is also designed to investigate many of these reported lab/street disconnects, and we all await its findings with anticipation.

While we can, and likely will, argue for a long time about experimental findings and resulting fire control tactical changes, what is unarguable is that significant changes have occurred in the burning environment - that is, our battleground and our enemy.  Out textbook tactics were developed while we were fighting fires involving legacy construction and contents, the former providing much more time before collapse, and the latter much less energy release.  Executing an  “aggressive” attack was a lot easier before fires themselves got so much more aggressive, and buildings so much less resistant to such aggression.  Nowadays, even the most dedicated firefighters in the latest PPE will often be unable to penetrate far into a burning structure without first performing water application.  Not preparing for such a maneuver, through planning and training, is, in my opinion, nothing short of reckless.

MFA methods offer the promise of improved speed, safety, and effectiveness.  Such considerations motivate its advocates to continue spreading this information.  On the other hand, I know that those who oppose the new approaches believe that AIA (which I had been referring to as “traditional” until I recalled that it had only been introduced over the past generation or so) better accomplishes our missions of life safety and property conservation.  I would respectfully disagree, and suggest that immediate water application, for one, is an elegantly efficient tactic for improving interior conditions and facilitating entry for search, rescue, and fire control.

With the improvements in temperature demonstrated by ventilation control and water application in the labs now manifesting as reduced firefighter injuries and property loss at real-world fires, the resistance to change by many in this profession is beginning to look like mere stubbornness (to use a polite term).  Though I don't want to offend fellow firefighters who are striving for the same goals of saving lives and property, I also hope you understand my reasons for being persistent, maybe even annoying.  Read the research data and conclusions with an open mind.  If you are not convinced to let go of tactics that are based on disproven concepts (ventilation before water application, attacking from the unburned side), at least consider the adoption of the new tactics that have demonstrated value (door control, cooling from a safe location).    

We cannot be hesitant to advocate for the benefit of fellow firefighters and the people we serve.  Otherwise, our good manners are going to continue to get people killed.

MJC

The author can be reached at markjcotter@comcast.net

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