It seems like nearly every time I open my social media accounts I stumble across an argument or negative comments between those who claim to be aggressive firefighters, and those who claim to subscribe to the science side of the fire service. I don’t know if it is due to ego, bravado, or just plain ignorance, but somehow many of us have missed the point that both of these things have to go hand-in-hand. Aggressiveness without knowledge is just recklessness, and knowledge without proper practical application is just useless. We would never send our soldiers into battle without first being intimately familiar with the enemy, and the best intelligence gathering and detailed mission planning are absolutely worthless without warriors willing to risk it all to complete the objective.
Last year I had the opportunity to teach a class on roof construction at a fire service conference. Already knowing the answer before I asked the question, based on the location of the conference, I started the class off by asking “How many of us in this room work for a fire department where vertical ventilation and roof operations are part of your standard operating procedures when responding to a structure fire?” Just as I suspected, the majority of the class shot their hands in the air, and I could see a sense of pride on many of their faces from being able to answer ‘yes’ to this question.
As I started making my way through the material, covering both residential and commercial roof construction of virtually every type, it started to become more and more evident that the level of knowledge of roof construction from many of the participants was shockingly low. In many cases, I was met with blank stares when asking very simple questions about the types of roofs and materials that are found in the areas they work in, and the roofs they go on top of.
Leaving that class, while I felt great for being able to provide valuable information, and had very positive reviews from the participants, all I could think about was the overall change in demeanor and body language as the class went on. It went from so many of them proudly sitting tall when being able to publicly state they go on roofs, to the visible shift of them hunched over and feverishly taking notes from every slide, as they realized that there was an important aspect they were missing.
Now, I want to make it clear that in no way am I opposed to roof operations or vertical ventilation. I actually have very strong opinions on the subject that differ quite drastically from the organization I work for, and the tactics common with my part of the country, which has moved in the direction of positive pressure being the most common method of ventilation.
With my background in construction, and years of hands-on experience physically building roofs, I could objectively look at a roof, and based on several factors such as location, extent, and duration of the fire, I would be able to confidently determine if I am comfortable operating on that roof, and where the safest working points and routes of travel are. This confidence doesn’t come because I label myself as “aggressive”. It’s because I have years of training where I have gained knowledge, and my continual pursuit of this knowledge, that allows me to understand what I am dealing with. This, in turn, allows me to be more aggressive without being reckless.
The more knowledge we have on subjects like building construction and fire behavior, the better equipped we will be to read and fully understand the situations and conditions we are met with. While bravery, courage and heroism are character traits that I don’t necessarily think can be taught, the ability to intelligently make sound decisions and carry out these strategies and tactics aggressively comes from continuously educating ourselves and becoming truly immersed in this great profession.