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Addressing Public Expectations - Meet or change?

Duty to the citizens we serve is frequently held up as our most basic and sacred responsibility as firefighters, and I couldn't agree more. It motivates us to perfect our skills for the benefit of others, face dangers known and unknown, and even to leave a warm bed to assist a stranger. In short, it inspires selflessness. Still, though that obligation is powerful, it is unfocused; it serves as a compass, not a map. My point in making this distinction is to counter the frequent citation of “duty to the public” as a rationale for whatever daring actions are being advocated, regardless of their relative risks and benefits; and the stated belief that our commitment to those we are sworn to protect supersedes firefighter safety.

In particular, this rallying cry has been used as an argument for quickly “going interior” for application of water directly to the fire and/or to perform a search for occupants, even in situations where the likelihood of achieving positive outcomes is negligible and/or there are sound alternatives. That line of thinking at least had some validity when it was believed that this was the only effective approach. (Logic which in no way lessened the risks involved, yet perhaps made them more acceptable.) Now that we have been shown the significant benefits, and lack of harm, from initially employing water streams from the exterior; and learned that any occupants still alive will likely be in rooms with closed doors, and therefore potentially better accessed via windows, the previous urgency to immediately drag a hoseline into a building has now been at least diminished. In my opinion, the persistent appeal of the so-called “aggressive interior attack”, even in situations that present opportunities for other, more appropriate, initial actions, shows it to be more an expression of our desires and habits than the needs of the public. We should certainly maintain our readiness to perform this complex and dangerous operation, but remove it as our default approach.

As many have pointed out, almost everything we do as firefighters is "dangerous", and complete avoidance of injury, and even death, is a pipe dream. We can manage, but not eliminate, risk. I acknowledge this reality in an effort to preempt the almost reflexive response from many who criticize alternative tactics, which just happen to be safer, as "failing our citizens”; misdirected and selfish efforts to protect ourselves at their expense. The Modern Fire Attack (MFA) principles I so often write about have many positive attributes, with a reduction in risk being merely one. They are also, in many cases, easier to perform and more effective at protecting life and property. Keep in mind, too, that the occurrence of a serious firefighter injury or, God forbid, death, will typically and immediately cause all other operations on the fireground to grind to at least a temporary halt. Making the wrong call in a Go/No Go situation affects not only firefighters, then, but the entire operation and its potential for success. On the time-sensitive and dynamic fireground, a falter can result in a failure.

In fact, it is my belief that the inherent danger of firefighting helps to explain the almost universal esteem with which we are viewed by the general public. My experience is that civilians typically see almost everything we do as “heroic”, including not only entering burning buildings, but disentangling victims from mangled automobiles, and even just rushing to incident scenes. Most non-firefighters are only vaguely aware that our training, PPE, and procedures provide protection that in large part negates the obvious hazards of smoke, heat, and sharp edges, but they would likely remain impressed regardless. So, with the common opinion being that we’re going above-and-beyond merely for having joined this team, how much further need we go? Again, for many, the belief is that our obligation goes as far as necessary, to include losing our own lives. A more accurate determination of the actual limits of that responsibility might provide guidelines that prevent such a drastic commitment in every circumstance.

Bringing a third party (civilians) into debates over tactics that were previously two-sided (firefighters all) shifts the focus of the arguments, while not necessarily changing the facts. Admittedly, though, as our “customers", the public’s interests must be our interests. So, putting aside, for now, disagreements regarding the best methods to meet their needs, what, then, are their expectations? In other words, how does, or should, civilian perceptions of our duty to them influence our choice of fireground actions? Research in the area of the extent of our mandate is lacking, although there is no shortage of strong opinions. (Our perceptions of their perceptions.) An internet search of "public expectations of firefighters” finds references to performance standards, commentaries regarding the often unrealistic nature of the general population's understanding of fire service delivery, and even cites our ever-expanding responsibilities as a common cause of firefighter stress. Our customers apparently not only expect us to do everything, but to always be successful, both unachievable standards. Absent, though, is an accurate measurement of how far they wish us to go in risking our own lives as we strive to save their lives and property, leaving us with only our assumptions.

While we are admittedly now dwelling in the realm of conjecture, I would offer that everyone - civilians and firefighters alike - is okay with the idea of risking our lives if there is a chance to save that of another. Even the unprotected and untrained will often at least try to enter a burning structure if they believe someone remains inside, while parents have been known to persist in those efforts despite heat and smoke; at times to their own demise. Making the same gamble for the sake of a "potential" victim, on the other hand, as in searching a burning structure in order to ensure that no one remains inside, requires more consideration, and typically a higher standard of safeguards/lower tolerance of risk before proceeding. In general, those include performing a complete and ongoing size-up, and complying with two-in/two-out. We also now know that water application, even from the exterior, can be both effective at improving conditions throughout a structure and safe for any occupants.

But, are the same people who hold us in such high regard, and for whom we will gladly place ourselves in harm’s way, also comfortable with the idea of us dying, literally and painfully, in the pursuit of protecting their property? My opinion would be "No", but that's just my opinion. Certainly, everyone whose stuff is threatened by fire wants us to do our best to save it, and they can be particularly insistent as they actually watch it being destroyed, but a conscious and reasoned demand to sacrifice ourselves? I doubt it. Again, sometimes we get hurt or killed just coming to their aid, or the burning “property” might be a threat to life nearby, so there are no absolutes. Still, when we have no report or suspicion of the presence of living occupants, recognizing that we will search every burning structure as soon as conditions allow, there is no obligation to enter a burning structure before at least attempting to determine the location of the fire, estimate structural integrity, establish a reliable water supply, and assemble sufficient personnel for RIT/backup.

Though many in the fire service invoke duty when considering how to act in various situations, I would suggest that the correct approach involves determining how to best apply available resources to the problem(s) at hand. (Duty gets us to the fire scene; skill allows us to make it better.) This helps to remove from the debate emotion, which is always present in various degrees, but which is also just as capable of driving us in the wrong direction as the right. The reality of needing to match abilities to needs also explains, in part, the difficulty in transferring the general concepts discussed here to the various, real-life settings in which firefighters operate. For instance, departments with sufficient personnel and apparatus responding on initial alarms may accomplish this analysis and preparation quickly and routinely, while smaller agencies might find their momentum slowed by the need to more carefully assess and manage risks. In the end, increasing our firefighting "customer service skills" is better accomplished by proper planning and training than by motivational speeches.

Also, my sense is that the public expects us to come to their rescue, in part, out of an unrealistic sense of our capabilities. True, our skills and tools allow us to accomplish much more than the average citizen, but one thing that we can’t do is reverse damage that has already occurred, and a structure fire leads to rapid, and permanent, death and destruction. If we are truly interested in “protecting life and property”, then efforts to prevent fires in the first place, and to minimize the effects of any that still occur, would be the most effective approach. So, if you wish to best serve the citizens of your community, educate them about the likely causes of fire and their mitigation; and the lifesaving benefits of smoke detectors, sprinklers, and sleeping in a room with its door closed. A great resource that can help initiate the conversation about these issues can be found here: https://youtu.be/bSP03BE74WA

We can agree that our obligation to the public is part of what justifies the risks we face. It in no way follows, though, that the most dangerous approach is necessarily the most effective, nor that this justification is absolute. As professionals, it is our obligation to determine, on a case-by-case basis, the ideal methods for managing fires. We utilize specific safeguards, consisting of both equipment and practices, to minimize risk, and should consciously surpass or bypass those measures only in extraordinary circumstances. While advances in safety, such as modern PPE and the use of SCBA, allow us to operate in hazard zones with relative impunity, those protections have their limits, and exceeding them risks not only firefighters but our very ability to complete our mission.

MJC

The author can be reached at markjcotter@comcast.net

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