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MFA #37: Thinking Firefighters - Intelligent choices

We are learning that the fireground is more complex than we had previously understood, and we probably still don’t know the half of it.  While the recommendations for tactical changes that have arisen from ongoing fire dynamics research have spawned the most discussion amongst members of our profession, the raw information alone was revolutionary in its own right, even absent the practical applications that followed.  Flow paths, smoke as fuel, and the (actual) effects of hose streams and ventilation are all new concepts we need to acknowledge, comprehend, and assimilate into our practices in order to take advantage of this more accurate understanding of structure fires, much less begin to better control them. 

The effects of a fire in a building are both more intricate and different than we had previously known.  Furthermore, the level of complexity and the number of corrections will only increase as additional experimentation leads to additional enlightenment.  Of course, it didn't require sophisticated instrumentation and computer-generated flow models to tell us that the hazards we face at structure fires are dangerous and can change rapidly.  We already knew this work was difficult, and we now know that, in some ways, we had even less of a handle on it than we believed. 

This new awareness of additional factors and options certainly adds to the decision making burden when attempting to manage a particular incident.  Having to determine flow paths and the location of the fire before entry are some of the new and challenging components of size-up facing an incident commander, while limiting ventilation and choosing between an interior or exterior attack are tactical necessities that we had been ignorant of until recently.  Firefighting has never been simple, and new considerations continue to be layered atop those we were already assessing.

On the other hand, the increased complexity of the unique environment in which we choose to operate (i.e., burning buildings), or at least our realization thereof, does not necessarily equate to increased difficulty in management.  New knowledge creates new opportunities.  A flat earth, and the limitations on exploration it imposed, were well accepted for centuries until an alternative model was proposed, leading to an explosion in the rate of discoveries.  Similarly, we all accepted that exterior hose streams worsened interior conditions and dutifully avoided such an approach.  Now that such restrictions have been shown to be unfounded, we have before us the ability, in some situations, to more rapidly, easily, and safely begin to control structure fires.  

What this improved understanding gives us is better intelligence regarding the enemy we face, from which perspective we can better assess the risks posed by any given situation, as well as our options for its control.  It was from such an enlightened state that the MFA methods arose.  In demonstrating how much more there was to be mindful of, and then adjusting our tactics to address these newly-identified factors, we have increased our chances of regaining control over a foe that is at the simultaneously deadly, rapidly advancing, and hard at work long before we arrive.  Furthermore, rather than adding to the difficulties already present, and when viewed at its most basic, MFA adds just one tactic - exterior streams - which is usually easier to perform than the interior version.  (It also removes one - pre-extinguishment ventilation - resulting in a potential net reduction in the amount of actual work that needs to be performed during the initial moments of structural fire attack.) 

It is long past the time for every firefighter to become fluent in the new language of our craft - heat release rate, ventilation-limited, survivability, to name but a few.  (A good start can be found “Evidence Based Practices for Strategic and Tactical Firefighting at  Whether or not an individual, or an entire department, has made adjustments to their operational methods based on the principles these phrases represent, they are part of our reality.  In fact, they always have been, even before they were given names.  The arguments about their translation into practice will likely go on for many years, no doubt continuously re-fueled as more changes are proposed.  The validity of the concepts, though, must be recognized, even if not embraced. 

I first encountered the term “thinking firefighters” when it was used by Tom Brennan, the late, great editor of Fire Engineering, as his rationale for forging that magazine into a training-centric publication.  He had a knack for both illuminating the unseen complexities of topics that otherwise appeared quite straightforward, and then packaging those newly introduced factors into a practical approach that ultimately left the reader smarter and more capable.  Truck work was a frequent subject of his deconstruction-reconstruction exercises, and he thereby transformed  our appreciation for that activity.  At least for this student, my understanding of this tactical area was elevated from what I had considered to be a focused effort to break things, into what is instead a nuanced and multifaceted series of actions, each of which must be carefully integrated with other fireground factors and developments, actually requiring significant precision - even delicacy - regarding timing and where to focus initial efforts.  His goal of thinking firefighters was an effort to utilize education to improve our ability to assess and adapt to the challenges on the fireground.  

More recently, the same term has been used by a variety of authors and organizations to refer to programs that disseminate the MFA message.  The intent is to inform members of the fire service of the latest research findings and their applications in order to take advantage of their increased efficiency and safety.  Assisting firefighters to become more knowledgeable about our workplace, and therefore more aware of the various parameters that need to be assessed and addressed, produces a professional better able to make the proper decisions when facing our primary task: controlling structure fires.  

Now, it would be counterproductive if this enhanced size-up capability resulted in delays in beginning actions to actually improve the conditions we find on our arrival at a burning building.  Since fires, and the damage they are inflicting on the structure and any occupants, expand exponentially, time is not on our side.  Regardless of the vintage of our tactics of choice, it has always been imperative that we perform a rapid and thorough evaluation of any emergency scene.  The “new” factors that have recently been highlighted for our attention actually allow us to work smarter, and thereby develop strategies more likely to be effective for the situation at hand.  

The fireground, though, is not the proper place to introduce, learn, or even experiment with new concepts or methods.  Such familiarization and practice needs to occur in a setting that allows for careful study and familiarization, without the attendant risks and pressures of a real incident.  Fires are a harsh and unforgiving proving ground, and therefore an inappropriate training ground.  Even after completing classroom instruction on MFA tactics, additional, hands-on training is required in order to both be able to commit them to muscle memory, and to work out the associated details and difficulties of any new technique.  Once all members of a department are educated, and proficiency has been demonstrated, then these innovations can be put to use. 

Out of the complexity and contradictions produced by our ongoing study of fire dynamics has come improvements in our ability to assess and manage structure fires.  The operationalization of this new information, in the form of alternative tactics, has not complicated firefighting so much as it has provided new tools to manage the complexity we now perceive.  Wearing “blinders” that limit your view to a single, default approach to fire attack may be “simpler”, but the proven risks and limitations of such actions, well-documented in countless LODD reports, are what sparked the recent acceleration in the evolution of tactics in which we now find ourselves.  Ignorance may be bliss, but it’s a reckless attitude toward firefighting.

Of course, at its best, research just provides new knowledge.  It did not create the tangle of chemical and thermodynamic reactions that is fire, but instead enhanced our ability to understand and, in turn, control its effects.  We ignore this gift at our peril.


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