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Inciting Bravery - The realities of promoting risk-taking; Part 4: Summary

My inspirations for starting this series investigating the feasibility of increasing firefighters' danger tolerance included the suggestion that the modern fire attack (MFA) technique of exterior streams was evidence of cowardice, as well as recent rants regarding firefighters “not doing their jobs”, at least as defined by the person posting the rant, which generally involve the perceived hesitation of other firefighters to perform interior operations. To me, the idea that we all merely need to buckle down and try harder was not just overly simplistic, but actually misguided, incorrectly labeling tactical disagreements as character flaws. Sidestepping the arguments about the best approach to managing structure fires, the three preceding discussions on this topic instead looked at the concept of bravery as it relates to the fire service, the potential methods for effecting its increase, and the costs and benefits of such a change.

The points that I have attempted to convey through this series is that the romantic but vague concept of bravery is a poor foundation and measure of fire suppression strategies; building up confidence through training is a better method of improving performance under pressure; and increasing the frequency of interior operations (for extinguishment, search, or both) to include situations where there is less chance of finding live occupants (e.g., commercial occupancies after business hours, abandoned structures, residences where occupants are reported to have exited) will increase failures (firefighter injuries and deaths) more than successes (rescues). The reality is that few burning buildings hold living occupants on our arrival, but all of them hold the potential to cause us harm, so that increasing our exposure by entering structures where survivability and occupancy are even less likely will inevitably increase our risk more than it provides any benefit to potential victims. There are, of course, no absolutes in this business, and outcomes are subject to factors both within and far from our control. Being sure is not the same as being right. Still, while having the odds in our favor does not guarantee success, reducing them further will encourage losses more than wins.

Of course, even amongst those who agree with this logic, the resulting insight is merely another factor in a complex calculation, made all the more difficult due to ongoing controversies regarding the relative values of different firefighting methods. The practical arbiters of this debate will be our incident commanders, who must make the decisions regarding how to balance the safety of firefighters with the need to perform our mission at each structure fire, a choice that is rarely easy to make. Certainly, a fire department’s culture and habits will do much to influence the approach taken at a particular fire, but so will its staffing or training limitations, such as where there are insufficient personnel on the scene, or at least too few with the ability to perform vital functions. Such shortfalls may be viewed by some as a department-wide failure, but it is the reality for many organizations faced with a dwindling and/or aging membership. Also, the appropriate tactics for a particular incident, regardless of any change in overall risk tolerance, will still need to be determined on a case-by-case basis, so wide variations in the actions chosen for incident management will continue.

As an advocate of MFA concepts, my obvious belief is that those techniques (limiting air flow into a fire, while cooling the involved compartment as soon as possible) are superior, both in theory and in practice, when compared to the “traditional” approach (first stretching a hoseline into a building, and ventilating ahead of the advancing crew) that was taught to generations of firefighters. The unconventionality of these “new” tactics, in that they are not only different from longstanding methods, but actually involve quite the opposite actions, naturally make them a “hard sell” to the fire service. Compounding the effects of the inherent inertia encountered when attempting to initiate such significant changes in behavior among a group as large as the North American fire service, the current methods also quite readily appeal to the action-oriented nature of most firefighters. Most of us are all about quickly getting inside where the hazards and threats are located. Driven by the ingrained imperative of interior operations, avoidable risks, such as a fire below the level of entry, and plausible alternatives, like the use of exterior streams, are often ignored.

In all fairness, most critics of efforts to reduce LODDs (which category the MFA methods fall into both unintentionally and unapologetically) are suggesting that safety efforts have gone too far, not that we should completely disregard our own well-being. They are generally calling for an adjustment, rather than a reversal, of our current direction as they believe it to be diverting us from our mission. Their apparently sincere belief is that if only firefighters would enter sooner, search more often, and utilize the protection of their PPE to its fullest, then we could save more of the persons and property now lost to fire. In considering the frequently expressed opinion that we should risk more in order to save more, I perceive an underlying frustration towards those who are judged to be unable or unwilling to demonstrate the skills and desire necessary for our calling.

There are certainly many of us who need to improve our performance, in many areas, and any progress in that regard can have ready benefits on the fireground. No one can argue against the value of additional study and training. Certainly, too, the resiliency and abilities of firefighters and our equipment are, at times, not utilized to their maximum potential. Sometimes we, and even unprotected civilians, can, in fact, survive the conditions that a person in authority has deemed “unsurvivable”, causing what some would consider a premature end to interior operations. Still, the benchmarks that we use for assessing and comparing fireground performances are themselves subject to significant limitations, to include incomplete information, differing resources, and other confounding influences. Also, I have seen, and participated in, far more inappropriate offensive than defensive operations. While we might agree that we should all strive to be the best that we can be, and do as much as we can, there is less agreement on what that ideal performance looks like. (And, no, “Save Lives and Property” is a goal, not a strategy.)

In my view, the key ingredients in the recipe for a successful fire suppression effort are proper training, equipment, and leadership, while bravery/confidence are mere “spices” that can either inspire and carry an operation when present in the precisely correct amounts, or as easily ruin it if too little or too much. We need to focus on those factors on which we have control, to include the fitness and readiness of our firefighters, and the choice of tactics that are both effective and within our capabilities, so that we can better surmount those random and unpredictable events that will challenge and threaten our survival. Rather than always erring on the side of offensive or defensive operations, we should strive to improve our ability to choose and implement the best strategy for the situation a hand. That is, to err less often.


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