When we enter the fire service we attend a lesson on fire behavior. This lesson may be taught many different ways, but the concepts are generally the same. Traditionally, this lesson is scheduled as a mere four block of the Firefighter I curriculum.
The lesson invariably covers the fire tetrahedron and basic fire behavior terminology (flashover, backdraft, rollover etc.), along with some warning signs of these phenomenas. While the terminology may vary by publisher and edition, the definitions and explanations have remained largely unchanged for the last fifty years or more – despite the continual changes to the fireground. Instead, the greatest emphasis is placed on what will be required to pass the written certification exam.
After this lesson was complete the course would progress onto fire attack, search, ventilation and other critical fireground tasks. These topics would span countless hours of classroom and hands-on training. We would practice stretching lines and throwing ladders until we could recite the commands and procedures in our sleep.
We would continue to work our way through the curriculum until we completed our live burns. During these live burns all the skills come together. We would force the door, flow a minimal amount of water and vent the building. The best part is, every tactic we performed would improve the environment. Regardless of our performance, when we opened up everything immediately became better. When we applied water, the fire would darken right down; prompting the instructor to yell "shut it down, we don’t want to put it out all the way." When was the last fire you went to where a stack of palettes and some straw was the only fuel package?
This process, and the majority of similar training carried out everyday day across the US, is a major problem in the fire service. In the real world things aren’t so controlled and things don’t always get better right away! Many fire departments don't train to fight the fire they see! We place firefighters into a Class A burn building that does not prepare them for the hostile environment they will face. Granted, we are handcuffed by the National Fire Protection Association standards. While I am not advocating the abandonment of the standards, I am suggesting we find a way to more appropriately train our nation’s firefighters.
Amplifying this chronic issue is the lack of fire behavior training, specifically regarding the tactics we utilize. Why aren’t we incorporating fire behavior into each and every lesson – it’s all connected? When we force doors, open up and flow water, it all affects the fire’s behavior. These tactics can impact fire behavior both positively and negatively. For the most part, however, we fail to explain the connection between fire behavior and our operations. Until we start showing these correlations, we are failing to prepare our students.
When we allow the fire to burn unchecked for longer than necessary. When we force the door, don't control it and the room flashes. When we cut the h*** before water application and the attic lights off, we are not helping the situation; we are creating more damage and increasing the fireground hazards. More importantly, we are not adequately fulfilling our mission – protecting life and property.
It's time we begin to truly look at fire behavior, the fireground and our tactics to ensure we are employing best practices. That does not mean open every roof or flow water in the windows every time! It means we evaluate the situation at hand and select the appropriate tactics to most effectively and efficiently impact both the fire and potential victims. It's time to Stop Believing everything you hear and Start Knowing your job.