Within the fire service, each of us has a duty and responsibility to leave the service better than when we came in. This includes bettering ourselves along the way. Each generation firefighter receives the theoretical baton from those who came before. The baton symbolizes the rich history of the fire service, where we came from, where we are today, and where we’re headed. Modern fire science, through the work of Underwriters Laboratories – Firefighter Safety Research Institute (UL-FSRI) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), has been working hard to forge the fire service path to modern fire tactics, but are some insisting on going down a path we’ve seen before?
I entered the fire service in the late 70s as a volunteer firefighter. I became a paid firefighter in the early 80s and retired in 2017. The training foundation I received throughout much of that time was basically the same foundation of training born from the 70s and before. In the 80s and 90s, the popular trade books that taught firefighter strategy and tactics came from many popular and well known chief officers from big city departments across the USA. These books, like many of the firefighter service manuals were experienced based and served us well based on what was known at the time. However, fire science has advanced our understanding of modern fire dynamics and modern tactics, and points out what we didn’t know we didn’t know. It brings context to the discussion of modern fire, clarifies terminology, and in some cases introduces us to new terms and definitions.
Today, many of those same books have been updated to reflect changing times. The authors, many of whom are well known speakers at our popular seminars like the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC), recognize as technology evolves so too does fire science. UL-FSRI and NIST began conducting research to better understand the evolving fire ground. The results of their studies have and continue to offer valuable information and insight. In fact, some of their proven findings debunk our understanding of some of the tactics many of us understood as tried and true, like ventilation leads to cooling or attacking fire from a window pushes fire or firefighters must always attack from the unburned side.
Over the course of my combined 36 years, like many veteran firefighters, I saw my share of changes. Some change seems to go full circle from what we saw before, as it seems our departments spin in change only to eventually come back to the same place they started. Some of the study information uncovers statements made by fire service predecessors like Lloyd Layman, who said, “The most effective and practical method of extinguishing fires involving ordinary combustibles is by cooling the involved and exposed combustibles to a degree lower than their ignition temperatures.” Today’s modern fire science is again saying something very similar. Modern fire science teaches us about stream application, water mapping and the effectiveness of surface cooling to significantly reduce temperatures and improve interior conditions. It shows us fast water is critical to firefighter success, regardless of where it comes from. Thanks to modern fire science, we better recognize flow path, how it’s influenced, and how we can often control it with door control.
Change is constant within the fire service, whether acknowledged or not. As our environments change and evolve, so too must firefighters. It is essential to remaining effective. We see evolutions in technology that offer increased personal protection in the form of turnouts, breathing apparatus, better suppression apparatus and equipment, larger water tanks, high volume low pressure nozzles, and thermal imaging cameras. These are all good things that make the fire service better than before.
Experiential learning is a great and essential tool firefighters rely on to build their knowledge, skills, and abilities. At a time when fire science was limited, experience forged the way to creating our firefighting learning foundation. Our firefighting manuals were written from this experience. However, experience is a trial and error proposition that comes with time. In the past, fire departments had opportunities to fight more fires than most firefighters see today. Live fire training in acquired structures was more prevalent and more closely resembled real structure fires. Today’s fire service is younger, has less experience, and regulations intended to improve firefighter safety and wellbeing limit their ability to train under real world fire conditions that mimic the modern fires we see today. However, knowledge and understanding of fire science can offer them a foundation to allow them to recognize fire behavior and understand the fire dynamics to mitigate their fires effectively and efficiently, while reducing the threats to trapped savable occupants and firefighters.
When it comes to modern fire science and experienced based knowledge, the debates are fierce. Some believe they have to choose and support one or the other, and depending on what you choose, will often define the kind of firefighter you are in the social media forum. The fact is none of us have to choose. It is essential we embrace both equally. Modern fire science bridges the gaps between our experience and our knowledge and understanding of modern fire dynamics and modern tactics. It offers information we can use before the fires occur, so our experience does not have to rely on trial and error, but instead, can rely on proven and successful. The first step in changing our ways is to believe and have faith in the science, even when our experience may tell us otherwise.
In order to leave the fire service better than when we entered it, firefighters must also be better. Disregarding modern fire science continues a cycle of firefighting born from our earlier days. Today’s firegrounds have evolved and no longer resemble yesterday’s fires involving ordinary combustibles. We live in a world of synthetics, which seem to have had more influence on our fires than any other factor except modern building construction.
Teaching modern fire dynamics and applying modern fire tactics is a step in the right direction to leaving it better. We should be teaching from a modern learning foundation that is better suited for today’s fires instead of repeating what we’ve always done because that’s what we’ve always done. What many of us have always done was based in experience, even when we didn’t necessarily understand what was truly occurring on our fire grounds and how our actions or inactions were influencing the fires. Today’s firefighters are tomorrow’s fire service leadership. Do not do them a disservice by having them repeat our past.
The Fire Service must lead from its future not from its past to leave it better. Modern fire science is forging a path to greatly improve firefighting mitigation efforts, not through trial and error, but through proven success. When you get to the fork in the road, which way will you go to leave it and yourself better?
NICK J. SALAMEH is a 36 year veteran of the fire service. He was a Fire/Emergency Medical Services Captain II and previous Training Program Manager for the Arlington County (VA) Fire Department, with which he served 31 years. He is a former Chair of the Northern Virginia Fire Departments Training Committee and was a former volunteer firefighter for the Fairfax County, VA Fire and Rescue Department, Bailey’s Crossroads Fire Station 10. Nick is a contributor to Fire Engineering www.fireengineering.com and Stop Believing Start Knowing (SBSK), https://www.facebook.com/StopBelievingStartKnowing/.