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MFA #30: Tactical Disorder - The root of our disagreement

In the ongoing debate over structural firefighting tactics in the era of fire dynamics enlightenment, the topic inspiring particularly passionate sentiment does not so much regard tactics themselves, but the sequence in which they are performed.  Regardless if your belief is that almost all firefighting should be performed indoors and that the only valuable exterior action is ventilation, or if you have embraced all or some of the fire behavior research findings that demonstrated the benefits of performing water application from the exterior and the dangers of early ventilation, the fact remains that each of these approaches requires the performance of essentially the same activities.  In my view, all of the controversy boils down to determining the ideal relative timing of just these three actions: building entry, ventilation and water application. 

Previously, the recommended order was ventilation coincident with, or just before, building entry, followed by water application (from within the structure).  This was based on the beliefs that opening the building would allow smoke and heat to clear ahead of the crews searching and stretching hoselines, while spraying water into a structure from outside would spread the products of combustion to as-yet-uninvolved areas and worsen interior conditions.  Basically, it called for a direct assault on the fire, “up close and personal”, in order to best accomplish fire extinguishment and facilitate search and rescue.  Since all of these objectives were addressed from within the structure, all actions were focused on getting inside to begin incident control, unless conditions were completely untenable (i.e., a Defensive situation).  Firefighters who were able to perform such difficult and dangerous operations developed a justified sense of pride, and some even cultivated an aura of fearlessness. 

Our new understanding of the effects of these interventions on combustion and interior tenability, for both occupants and firefighters, has lead to a revision in this pattern.  When possible, a more efficient (rapid and effective) approach begins with water application (from outside the structure), then building entry, with ventilation not only delayed, but maybe initially even decreased.  This correction is based on research findings that water application, regardless of the direction from which it is flowed, only improves interior conditions, while increased ventilation, prior to fire control, only worsens them.  The clearing of smoke and heat ahead of fire crews after performing passive ventilation, and the “pushing” of smoke and heat by hose streams, did not occur in the many carefully monitored experimental fires that were studied.  In fact, the opposite effects were seen (increased smoke, heat and fire with ventilation, and a reduction in heat and contraction of smoke after water application).  This new insight has inspired tactical changes that have rendered the process of structural firefighting a little easier, faster, and safer.

While I am quite obviously and proudly a member of the “Flow Water Early and Mind the Ventilation” school of thought, my point with this post is not to argue the relative merits of these approaches, but to remind us of how similar they are!  Whether you spray water into a window to knock down fire, or duck under the flames to enter through a door instead, the ability to quickly select, stretch, supply, and operate hoselines remains a necessary skill.  Managing ventilation is also universally required, the difference being its use to remove smoke and heat before or only after fire control.  Finally, even though fire extinguishment can safely begin from the exterior, the benefits of a short burst of water are only temporary, and the ability to accomplish rapid building entry, along with its many associated tactics (e.g., forcible entry, search, overhaul, salvage, rescue), will continue to be fundamental skills.  In other words, the hands-on work of firefighting remains essentially unchanged, and only the sequence has been modified, with the intent of improved effects.  

Not surprisingly, even just adjusting the timing and emphasis of standard fireground interventions is enough to incite spirited debate amongst firefighters, to the extent that it has divided parts of the fire service according to which is their preferred formula for success.  The competing camps in this battle have impressive participants on both sides, each including respected veterans and experts in our field.  Some exchanges have reached a level of hysteria, including accusations of cowardice and ignorance, which, curiously enough, have been leveled against participants on either side.  One criticism regards the accusation that those who refuse to change methods “ignore the evidence”.  I would suggest instead that some value evidence that is more experiential than experimental.  Many firefighters, after being trained and drilled for years on specific techniques, and having literally risked their lives in their performance, are going to need more than technical reports and videos to persuade them to change direction.  Unlearning is a difficult process to initiate, much less complete.  

Regardless of your preferred approach to firefighting, the actual tasks required, and inherent dangers and difficulties, remain essentially similar.  Continuing to seek out the most efficient and effective methods should be the goal of every firefighter, and not a reason for guilt or derision.  Some argue that a burning building must be entered as soon as possible in order to begin search, and others point out that cooling the fire provides immediate benefits throughout a structure.  They are both correct.  We need to first be competent at all of our tasks - no small feat, given the expansive list of potential interventions we may be called upon to perform at a burning building - while the work continues to determine the combination and sequence of each that is the best choice for a given situation.  Remaining a student of the craft is the only path to continuous improvement.

And, if we manage to reduce, by even a fraction, the level of fearlessness required, that’s not a bad thing.

MJC

The author can be reached at markjcotter@comcast.net

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