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Why do we do what we do? What does it take to be a good firefighter? How can we do it better? Safer?

I was of the mindset that there were two things you needed to be a good firefighter. Number one is that you need to want to help people. Hopefully this goes without saying.  Most of our time is not spent “slaying the dragon”, it is spent providing EMS care, chasing alarms, cleaning up messes, and whatever else anybody and everybody asks of us. The second thing is that you must be a bit of a thrill seeker. You must want to go into burning buildings, hang from ropes, tear cars apart, work around moving traffic, crawl into tight spaces and jump into moving water. Most people do not want to do any of these things, much less all of them. 

I was having this discussion with a friend of mine right before I was going to teach a class. He agreed with those ideas, but he wanted to add that good firefighters must have the need to win. I immediately agreed. So, in my mind firefighters need the following traits: They want to help people; they are thrill seekers; and they have the need to win. Sounds pretty simple right? Maybe. Maybe not. 

After teaching the class I first introduced those three traits of a good firefighter, it seemed like a great thing. That class was a Fire Officer class, so it was a class on how to be the grown up in the firehouse. We weren’t discussing fireground operations and therefore I didn’t think too deeply about how those traits affected strategy and tactics, but more how they were traits that made officers and more importantly the people those officers managed likely to be competent at their job. People that have those three traits would be easy to manage. They would want to do their job simply from intrinsic motivation. So, from a management standpoint these would seem to make things simple. Firefighters who want to go out and help people, rush into burning buildings, and want to win will simply do their job and you don’t have to too much managing. 

After further thought, and applying these principles to a strategy and tactics course, things get less clear. These three traits are still a good basis to determine who will be a good firefighter. But as we look deeper into each one and apply it to the fireground, they may be part of the reason we still take risks we shouldn’t. 

The desire to help people is still pretty simple and shouldn’t be discouraged. If that is not the number one reason we do this job, we probably shouldn’t be doing it. We may have to temper it to keep from rushing into situations we are not equipped for, such as haz-mat and violent situations, but we should never discourage the desire to help. 

As we look into the thrill seeking, we are looking into a potential problem. The desire to run into a burning building is not something everyone wants to do. The thrill seeker that most firefighters are create a situation where we will run into an extremely dangerous situation just because it is dangerous. There is a thin line between thrill seekers and suicidal. There are positive thrill seekers and negative thrill seekers. A negative thrill seeker will often end up engaged in criminal activity or overly dangerous activities with no societal value. Positive thrill seekers will often pursue jobs in law enforcement, fire and rescue, military, or will compete in speed sports. While this trait allows us to do the job, it can also allow us to do things that will put not only our lives in unnecessary danger but the lives of our peers as well. 

Thrill seekers will go into dangerous situations without much thought for their own safety, which is the ideal many people think of when they envision the American fire service. Americans want their firefighters to be brave, to run into a building that is well involved in fire and potentially about to collapse. These expectations are set by movies and television that have given not only the average American the idea that we can get people out in the nick of time before the building falls down, but this is always in the back of our minds as well. In reality, a building would be less likely to fall down after we leave, as we have removed a load from it and therefore decreased the stresses on the remaining structure, but never let facts get in the way of a good story. These images in our minds and the minds of the public cannot be undone, and the thrill seeker in all of us wants to be able to rush out at the last second and save the day. 

Now to what is likely the most dangerous trait of the three we are exploring: the need to win. When we go to a fire, or any run for that matter, we will have a goal in mind and once that goal is set, many of us will stop at nothing to achieve it. If we are going to a fire, once we put a hose line in place we want our hose line to put the fire out. Once we know there might be a victim, we want to get them out as fast as possible. We look at completion of our specific tasks as winning, and we will stop at nothing to win. We train, we run through scenarios in our minds, we preplan, we hopefully exercise, all to the end of fixing the problem (winning against the fire). We have all said “just five more minutes chief”, because we think we are going to get the job done and win. But how many times have we spent too much trying to win in a house that is just going to be bulldozed the next week? How many resources have we thrown at a building where there is really nothing left to do but call the insurance adjuster. Are we really worried about a conflagration, or are we still trying to win long after the fire has become fuel controlled. 

I believe that we need to address the life safety issue. Our job is to do a search, the hose line protects that search, and the byproduct of protecting the search is the fire usually goes out. But what if the search is done, the lines are operating and we aren't winning? Our life is now the known life safety hazard and if we aren't winning, its time to get out of the building that is rapidly deteriorating due to fire and added dynamic load (water). Why are we staying inside if we aren't winning?

The “five more minutes, chief” can no longer be the mindset that we carry into battle. We are going to have to change our attitudes about winning. We can win by being good at our jobs, we can win by providing professional service, we can win by educating our communities, we can win by being effective in our suppression efforts. 

The only reason we enter a burning building is to search for life. I will never tell you not to search for life, but that search is the limit of what we need to risk our lives for. It is unacceptable to continue to risk our lives once we have determined that there is no other life hazard. Once we clear the search or make the rescues, it is time to rescue ourselves and our brothers from our pride and that need to win. We are now the life safety hazard that has to be abated. We have to consider an effective search a win, we have to consider risking our lives unnecessarily a loss. If we are having to spend 20 minutes trying to suppress a fire in a single family residence without “winning”, guess what- we are losing. Its time to get out and re-assess what we are doing. 

So how do we change the culture of what “winning” is? Do we tell firefighters that they can no longer do interior attacks unless very specific criteria are met? I really don't think that is the answer. That suggestion has been raised and I simply do not agree with it. We are in a profession where our lives are regularly risked in a very hostile environment to verify that the people we are sworn to protect are safe and that we mitigate the fire problems we are faced with. A not so simple, but I believe very effective step in changing the culture of what defines “winning” is to change the expectations of firefighters on the fireground. 

Changing the expectations on the fireground may not be simple, but it is possible. Let’s evaluate all the training you have ever had. How many times have you trained to aggressively advanced a hoseline into a fire? Hopefully hundreds of times. How many times have you trained to search for victims? For fire? Hopefully hundreds of times. How many times have you trained for self rescue from a failed fire attack or failing building? Hopefully a lot. RIT scenarios? Again, hopefully a lot. Now…. how many times have you trained to calmly and methodically move your personnel, equipment and attack lines from an interior offensive attack out of a burning structure and continue fighting fire? I have only once… 

All of our training focuses on aggressively attacking fires, transitioning from exterior to interior fire attack, searching, and the potential for what to do when things go horribly wrong. We never train for going from offensive mode to defensive mode, and if we do we train that this is “losing”. In reality, we should train to expect that possibility. We should train how to attack the fire to protect the search, then when the search is complete we should train to back out. In our bread and butter operations the result of protecting the search is that the fire goes out. If the fire goes out, there is no reason to back out. But what if the fire doesn't go out? We always train to stretch the line and once we have water on the fire, our objective is met and we have won. That training sets the wrong expectation of “winning”. 

The other option we train for is that things are going bad and we have to bail out right now. We train to bail out of windows on rope or webbing, or climbing hoselines through the floor, or sliding down ladders. We are training to escape a building that is collapsing or a fire event that is going to overtake us. These issues can certainly come up while we make the initial push with the attack line or are completing the initial search, but every minute we spend inside a burning structure adding 1600 pounds a minute of live load to the structure, we increase the chances of something bad happening. 

Why not spend some of our precious training time devoted to expecting that we may not have immediate success on the fireground or catastrophic failure. How about training for a different kind of success- define success as completing our three main tactical objectives 1) searching for life 2) protecting our lives 3) preventing a conflagration. Train to meet these objectives by aggressively attacking the fire, quickly and effectively searching the fire area, and then occasionally training to not be able to immediately put the fire out and changing tactics. Train our personnel to start moving from the fire area once the search benchmark is hit if there is not significant progress made in fire suppression. The primary attack line starts moving back with the help of the search crew. Once the attack line gets behind the back up line, the attack line shuts down and leaves the building finding a secure position to support a defensive position. Then the search crew and backup line crew start backing the backup line out while flowing water until they are out of the building, and then they can operate from a safe position. The incident commander can then re-evaluate what needs to be done to effectively suppress the fire. 

Let us start setting these expectations from day one of our training. We will always address the life safety issues. We protect the search with attack lines, we search for life, we then address our life safety by exiting the building if the fire does not go out. This should be how the scenarios are presented to Fire I/II classes, strategy and tactics classes and safety and survival classes. Get our young firefighters as they come up and they will eventually look back and say how crazy it was that we defined “winning” as risking our lives for a building long after we verified we were the only lives at risk inside of a fire.  

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