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MODERN FIRE ATTACK (MFA) #1 - UNLEARNING: Coming to Terms With the New Firefighting Paradigm

MFA 1 - Unlearning

Coming to Terms with the New Firefighting Paradigm

The process of firefighting has become a lot easier.  Except, that is, for many of us who are already firefighters.  The virtual explosion in the amount, detail, and practicality of fire service research in recent years has provided information that is both priceless and shocking regarding the effects of our tactics, resulting in a significant shift in the recommended methods for incident control.  Among other things, data from live fire experiments has shown the rapidity with which structures can become unsurvivable, the increase in fire intensity that occurs with ventilation, and the immediate benefits realized throughout a structure from applying water to the burning area, or even into smoke.  If taken to their logical conclusions, entering a building with heavy fire, searching while a fire burns unchecked beside or below us, or climbing atop a roof to cut a h*** will become but the faded memories of all of us "old guys".  

Admittedly, I exaggerate, but only slightly.  The recommended change to the overall approach to a structure fire - to take a careful look, limit ventilation, and cool first, often before entry - is radically different than what has become our common (and, might I add, proud) practice - early entry; search during, if not before, fire attack; and aggressive vertical and horizontal ventilation.  Still, even the most active promoters of the new research-based structural firefighting tactics are careful to avoid the use of such words as "never" or "always".  Since each fire represents a unique combination of factors (setting, circumstances,  responders, etc.), each must be approached with a specific incident action plan.  The more tactics we have in our "toolbox", the better we will be able to offer an effective solution, and discarding any operational "tool" would be inappropriate.  Making immediate entry to determine the location of a deep-seated fire in a building with a high life hazard occupancy might be necessary in some circumstances, while, on the other extreme, fighting a well-advanced fire solely from the exterior is often the best plan.   

Not surprisingly, efforts to thwart and debunk this interpretation of research findings are as loud and vigorous as we fire service veterans would have expected, having lived through vehement, decades-long debates about even such issues as helmet material or fire apparatus color (and those were before the advent of the internet, with its global reach, immediacy, and potential anonymity).  Regardless, the intensity of the naysayers' arguments in no way compares to the rigor with which the opposing scientific findings were obtained.  Probably most significantly, many of the rationales for firefighting tactics we learned, practiced, and taught for decades have been systematically and convincingly disproven.  In the end, it may be an enthusiastic fight, but an unfair one, with the ultimate conclusion all but decided in favor of the progressives. 

To me, one of the more amazing aspects of this shift in firefighting theory is how rapidly the fire behavior research findings have been translated into logical and workable fireground tactics. Having had a long career in the medical profession, where we are accustomed to, rely on, and encourage scientific analysis and experimentation, I can assure you that nothing has happened in medicine in the last 40 years that even approaches both the speed and significance of the current shift regarding firefighting tactics.  While "change" is, in fact, constant in all endeavors, in this instance that word minimizes and mischaracterizes our situation.  This "revolution" in tactics is probably only the third in my fire service career.  The era of merely flowing water from outside burning buildings, almost regardless of fire size or intensity (rarely were SCBA available, much less worn) was just coming to an end as I joined, though not all at once, and in some departments long before others.  What followed was the current heyday of aggressive entry, search, and extinguishment (often, in that order).  Once the dust settles from the battles over the latest concepts, and the techniques are further tweaked, I predict the accepted practices that result will last until they give us all ray guns to extinguish fires. 

Beyond all the hyperbole, it is important to keep in mind that the ongoing debates regard only the middle component of the firefighting continuum of tasks, tactics, and strategy.  The work of firefighting will continue to involve the same skilled manual labors of forcible entry, search, hoseline placement, tool operation, etc.  On the other end, what we refer to as strategies - Offensive, when the fire is primarily fought from the interior of the structure in order to confine damage to a limited area and effect rescue, and Defensive, when efforts are limited to the building exterior because the fire is too far advanced to allow safe entry or survival of occupants - remain our two general approaches.  Even our incident priorities - the protection of life and property - are unchanged.  What is being proposed is merely a rearrangement of the Tasks we have always performed, to match one of our standard Strategies, and ultimately accomplish the same goals.  

Probably the most difficult transition for all of us current firefighters will be to reorient ourselves to this new understanding of fire behavior, and assimilate the new approaches into our routines.  This will be necessary whatever our role on the fireground, as even the most basic of tasks is better performed if done with awareness and anticipation of its part in the overall incident action plan.  With the standard components of those plans radically changing, so must our understanding of our contribution to their success.  To their benefit, new firefighters will know no different, and will likely only be confused by our war stories.

I remain confident of our collective ability to adapt.  All in all, our job has been made both less hazardous and less difficult, though still not "safe" or "simple".  Heck, even the acronym for the new tactics is easier to remember as it now actually spells out a word (SLICE-RS* vs. RECEO-VS). 


*SLICE-RS is the acronym for Size-Up, Locate the fire, Identify/Control flow path, Cool the fire from a safe location, and Extinguish; with Rescue and Salvage performed as indicated and able.

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Comment by Mark J. Cotter on June 17, 2015 at 9:35pm


Thanks for your comments.  We agree that this new approach has value, and that "old" firefighting still works.  Fire behavior has not changed, including its response to ventilation or the application of water, so every tactic ever used to put out fires still puts out fires.  It is our understanding of the effects of these and other items in our "toolbox" that has been improved, and that knowledge has, in turn, lead to the development of improved methods.  The research shows that ventilating a building increases fire intensity, while limiting ventilation (partially closing entry doors, leaving windows and roofs intact, or even installing temporary barriers) reduces fire intensity.  Intentionally increasing fire intensity before entry might pre-empt that same effect from a window failing unexpectedly, but it in no way makes that entry any "easier"; just predictably more difficult.  Also, this tactical approach (SLICE-RS being the acronym for the current version) is designed for fighting fires, not just fighting fires with short staffing.  In fact, at least two rather large departments (who I will refer to only by their initials: FDNY and LACoFD) are implementing these concepts and approaches in their operations.  Finally, applying fire dynamics knowledge does not include discouraging entry into a burning structure.  Instead, it has lead to the recognition of the value of proper size up to locate the seat of the fire; flowing water before or during entry; and limiting ventilation until after extinguishment has been initiated.  Entry is still required for all of the things we do now (extinguishment, search, overhaul, etc.), but conditions can be improved more quickly, and the interior conditions rendered less hazardous.  I appreciate the chance to clarify these points.

Comment by Robert Davis on June 17, 2015 at 8:34am

This is just a different way of fighting fire.  A new tool in your tool box.  This doesn't mean you throw away the rest of your tools.  "OLD" fashion firefighting still works.  Entering a vented fire building is much easier than entering a vent limited building that is just waiting to vent it's self when you least except it.  I'm not bashing this concept.  It is tool that a short staffed department can use until it gets the man power it needs to make entry.  

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