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Priorities and Tactics - Apples and Oranges

When engaged in an activity where seconds count, lives hang in the balance, and there is little margin for error, choosing the correct initial action is critical.  As firefighters, we must "get it right" the first time, and there are no “do overs”.  To be most successful in protecting lives and property, our selection of methods and their execution must be flawless.  Unfortunately, some in the fire service incorrectly link our traditional and consistent goals with our evolving and varied techniques, thereby complicating discussions and hindering our provision of the best service possible.  In this posting, I will offer my perspective on these concepts in an effort to provide some clarity and counter this train of thought, with the hope that we might move beyond these distractions to address the ever-enlarging mountain of changes that the fire service faces.  Here goes.

I think we can all agree that our priorities are life safety and property conservation*, in that order.  Expressed as a general mission statement: “We protect life and property”.  These goals are constant and universal, and form the foundation for planning and performing our job.  Every one of our tasks is done with one or both of these ends as an intended result.  Tactics, on the other hand, refer to the methods we utilize to address those priorities - reach those goals - and that list of techniques is both extensive and constantly changing.  

*Sometimes Incident Control is listed as a goal, but I would suggest that the two topics already listed are its goals.  Put another way, if there is no life or property to save, does the incident even need to be controlled?  Anyway, feel free to keep it on your tactical checklist, but, in this discussion, I’m sticking to these two basic, classic, and sacred items.  I will also here skirt the contentious issue of further defining whose “life” we prioritize - firefighters or victims - by stating simply that we should always do our best to save others without dying in the process.

Putting aside, for now, the recently accelerated evolution of firefighting that has been fueled by fire dynamics research and technology, tactics have always varied by department and region for the entire history of the fire service, and have also been subject to such societal pressures as economics, education, and environment.  For example, better funded, and therefore better equipped and staffed, agencies can usually accomplish more than there underfunded counterparts; training, at all levels, determines the confidence and competency of members, and therefore their choice of methods; and urban settings, with denser concentrations of population and structures, call for different approaches than those areas where the people and things we protect are more dispersed.  In addition to these and many other variables, we must apply and/or adjust our actions based on the unique circumstances of each incident, resulting in an almost infinite variety of potential tactical styles and combinations.

So, we have our goals, which are simple and constant, and our tactics, which are complex and ever changing.  Welcome to firefighting.  None of the preceding discussion should come as a surprise to anyone reading this post.  Our basic job description is deceptively straightforward: protect life and property from whatever threat we are called to address, utilizing whatever means we have available.  The concept of a “tactical toolbox” refers to the variety of skills and abilities we bring to an incident, though “tactical menu” could also be used to describe the multiple capabilities from which we can craft a response plan.  Practicing, improving, and expanding our options is a lifelong endeavor. 

The problem to which I alluded in the introductory paragraph is that some firefighters think that the goals dictate the methods.  The arguments go something like this: “Since Life Safety is our number one priority, then search/interior fire attack should be our number one tactic.” While such declarations sound correct, the flaw in that logic is that while the premise - “Life safety is our number one priority” - is true, the conclusion - “We should search/go interior first” - is true only sometimes.  Connecting our primary focus to an activity that seems to best support it represents an error on several levels.  

First, initiating actions without considering the situation can be almost as big a mistake as arriving altogether unprepared.  In the least, choosing the wrong approach delays the completion of the appropriate measures.  At its worst, it can lead to the deterioration of conditions and/or allow the opportunity for success to pass.  While we need to be ready to perform any tactic within our capabilities immediately upon arrival at a structure fire, we also must wait until a plan is determined for that specific incident before actually initiating action.  I’m not suggesting a committee meeting be convened or a complete building inspection be performed; just that the person in charge assess the situation and call the play, even if it's often the same play.  With lots of tactics from which to choose, and lots of different situations to which they can be applied, taking the time to discern the best combination is necessary to prevent incorrect and inefficient efforts.

Secondly, the proper application of the concept of priorities is as a focus for incident control, not a method.  They are the destination, rather than the way.  Beyond their use as an inspiring motto, they serve as a tool only when applied to a particular situation.  That is, they function solely in context.  We always survey a fire, leak, or wreck with an eye towards first easing their effects on people and property.  Such aspects as the known or potential location of victims in relation to the hazard, amount of property at risk, and available mitigation resources are factors that must be assessed anew for every incident.  Only after it is determined what must be accomplished can a plan be constructed, then bringing available methods into consideration.  While this process is often intuitive and instantaneous, it remains sequential.  The infinite variability of circumstances and their effects on priorities precludes any pre-incident association with specific tactics.  

Finally, the harsh reality of choosing tactics for emergency incident control is that it shouldn’t matter what we want to do, like to do, or even what we are good at doing, but what we need to and can do to best accomplish incident control.  While we will likely continue to debate the relative value of different methods, the initial actions undertaken should be those dictated by the situation and falling within our capabilities.  A ready example of the clash between incident requirements and responder proficiency can be seen in departments that maintain the traditional separation of roles between Engine (water flow) and Truck (basically, everything else) companies.  The services of an Engine might be viewed as the priority at a fire, focusing, as they do, on extinguishment, which improves conditions throughout the structure and addresses both goals.  But, what if there is a fortified door requiring forcible entry, victims dangling from windows from which fire is showing, or the Truck has arrived in advance of the Engine?  In those instances, and many more, Truck functions must be initiated before fire extinguishment can or should be attempted.  And, even for departments that do not operate with such company-specific job descriptions, the idea that we can or should focus on a specific tactic initially is both overly simplistic and destined for failure, usually at the worst possible moment.

For those who persist in their conviction that we must remain victim-focused in both words and deeds, I would offer the following “compromise”: at a structure fire, our priority tactic should be that which will most quickly lead to fire control.  For Truckies, that might mean decreasing ventilation (e.g., closing doors, deploying smoke curtains), and for Engine crews that often translates into flowing water into the burning compartment(s).  Stopping, or even reducing, the process of combustion typically improves conditions most rapidly and extensively, buying time for still-living victims while slowing the rate of property loss.  This is often the most efficient use of resources, especially as compared to any efforts to find and separate individual victims from hazards.  Again, though, it also has to be accepted and expected that there will be many times when attempts toward fire control cannot, or should not, occur until after other steps are completed.  

We in the fire service face the challenges of constantly honing our fire mitigation knowledge, skills, and abilities, and then choosing and executing the exactly correct techniques to bring a particular incident under control.  Added to that, we must balance the need to maintain rapid responsiveness with comprehensive awareness, thereby avoiding premature commitment to a particular approach.  Our goals are clear and simple, while our methods are anything but, and each function as factors in a complex equation that must always include situational context.  They are vital, interdependent, but separate concepts.

MJC

The author can be reached at markjcotter@comcast.net

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