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MFA #34: Life Safety or Life Saving? - Compatible goals

In an example of how far the arguments against the MFA approach have devolved, we now find ourselves facing critics within the fire service who complain that our tactics have become too safe!  More specifically, they contend that the focus has been taken away from rescuing victims and protecting property to instead maintaining our own safety.  Having been an outspoken advocate of these principles for over a year now, and of firefighting safety in general for many decades, this is an aspect that I had never anticipated being used as a criticism, yet here we are.  (Just including “tactics” and “too safe” in the same sentence was a first for me.)

Debates over the pros and cons of different firefighting strategies can be thoughtful discussions regarding such topics as the scientific findings, experiences of veteran firefighters, and the mechanics of performing the different techniques.  In that type of respectful exchange, the various participants provide their perspectives and opinions, and afterwards are (hopefully) left more knowledgeable about other ideas, even if still unswayed in their beliefs.  There are also more passionate arguments taking place that instead invoke themes, for example pride, tradition, and duty, which arise from, and inspire, more visceral responses from both sides.  These topics are much more difficult to define, and therefore easier to manipulate so as to support a particular position.  I try to operate in the first, rational world, but often find myself responding to noise from the second, emotional realm.

From time to time during the more spirited dialogues, some “contributor” will lob in a comment referencing a perceived “philosophical” difference with the approach to firefighting that is the topic of the moment.  Often, the opinions relate more to the persons involved than to their ideas.  The intent of these declarations is to illustrate how the opposition is fundamentally misguided, though the statements are usually more inflammatory than factual.  Some such oft-repeated phrases are that those who oppose the modern fire attack (MFA) methods are "afraid of change” or “ignorant of the science".  Speaking as one who was on that side until a relatively short time ago, I would suggest that a more accurate assessment would be that those opposing these tactical modifications are not yet convinced that they should abandon techniques that they have practiced for years, and in which they continue to have great faith.  Now, that insight does not absolve us who believe differently from continuing our task of persuading those who are as yet uninformed, but it does suggest that we should do so from a position of respect.  

(Eddie Buchanan, one of the originators of SLICE-RS, also considers himself one of the first and most vehement skeptics of the MFA movement, and was only slowly convinced after repeated interactions with the researchers themselves.  His story of transformation from a position of utter disbelief, then understanding, and eventually operationalizing that new knowledge - in his case to synthesize a new firefighting approach - is a trajectory that any current firefighter might follow in their own enlightenment process.  Our differences really relate to where we are on that path, whether currently still all against, somewhat aware, or already all aboard, regarding the recommended changes.)

From the opposite side come the statements that the MFA approach demonstrates a disregard for victims and property, and/or has elevated firefighter safety to the point where we are hindered in performing our mission.  These criticisms are mostly based upon its promotion of the early application of water to an interior fire, ideally before crews enter the structure, an action viewed by some as an unnecessary delay to building entry.  Despite the passion behind these claims, they are baseless.  They are also both probably as old as firefighting itself, and have been levied against proposed changes in our methods or additional safety measures for as long as we have had organized fire protection (See MFA #10: Firefighter DNA - Our colorful history of resistance to change at  I will attempt to debunk both the perceived problem (not able to do our job) and its alleged cause (being too careful) in our modern context.  

The first component of these interrelated criticisms, which is premised on the assumption that early entry is the better method for protecting life and property, may be the easiest to address.  It is also, realistically, the least likely to result in a change of opinion, at least for many of those currently working so hard to prevent a change in our approach.  So, rather than presenting (again) the evidence that supports the practice of quickly putting water on fires (sounds kind of silly when you break it down to its most basic, huh?), I would instead point the reader to one of my earlier blogs (for example, MFA #4: The New Rules at and MFA #20: The New Standard? at, or any of the many other sources of evidence to the contrary that can be found at ;

Bottom line: We MFA enthusiasts promote early water application because we believe it better protects life and property.

The “too safe” charge is more difficult to dispute, but only because it is also more difficult to define.  That vagueness certainly does not make it any more valid.  To start, though, I would turn it around, and ask if the traditional methods disregard firefighters’ lives or devalue safety?  In other words, does the success of the “Aggressive Interior Attack” (AIA), the default tactical approach that many departments take great pride in, require the abandonment, or even lessening, of concern for the welfare of our personnel?  Of course not!  Think about it: No legitimate fire control strategy could advocate routinely putting personnel at excessive risk, and any approach could come to an immediate halt if a firefighter were injured in its execution and unable to assist!  Safety is a prerequisite for the success of any fire control technique, “aggressive” or otherwise.  In fact, such activities as AIA actually require an especially vigorous attention to safety because of the increased hazards of operating in a building along with uncontrolled combustion.  (Ironically, it is possible to even attempt such an approach only because of the advanced protective properties of PPE available for the past 30 years or so.  In other words, increases in firefighter safety are what allowed for interior attacks to become an option!)  


An inherent misconception I’d also like to address is that the MFA “movement” has as its central goal the improvement of firefighter safety, and thereby places our mission of protecting the lives and property of our fellow citizens in a secondary position.  (While I can’t believe I’m actually raising this issue - that is, taking exception to being called “safe” - in the interest of accuracy and completeness, I was forced to go there.)  Now, we have all been subjected to policies and procedures that were instituted, either locally or nationally, in response to known hazards or notorious incidents.  Charged hoselines before entry, Two-In/Two-Out, and RIT procedures were created for the sole purpose of improving firefighter safety.  Many of us only grudgingly agreed to such (now) obvious requirements as SCBA use in all IDLH, and seatbelt use in vehicles (instead of “I’ll click in as soon as I finish putting on my gear”).  And don’t get me started on the need to wear reflective vests over my reflective turnout gear!  While we might understand and accept these efforts, there remains in the aggressive firefighter a sense of frustration that every additional layer of safety is another burden that detracts from our ability to perform our job - to save lives and property.  Though I state this without apology or remorse, MFA methods do not deserve to be viewed in that same light.

It is true that many of the fire dynamics studies were performed in an effort to analyze the factors and phenomena that had resulted in fireground LODDs, and one of the major advantages of the approaches that incorporate this new knowledge is improved firefighter safety.  Contrary to the "overemphasis on safety" criticism, though, none of the tactical recommendations were made with the sole intent of reducing risks.  That was merely a fringe benefit of enacting the changes suggested by the research findings, not an objective.  Recall that this tactical revolution in which we find ourselves began with the identification of fire development patterns and behaviors of which firefighters, at least in North America, had previously been unaware.  Flow paths, smoke as fuel, ventilation limited fires, increased heat release rate of modern fuels, and the practical limits on victim tenability were new concepts for most of us.  These “discoveries” lead to additional studies that analyzed various techniques that were intended to address and/or capitalize on these phenomena, and the new insights that resulted then inspired us to re-examine and adjust our techniques.

The resulting methods - such as immediate water application and delayed ventilation - were adopted because they were shown to be more effective.  These practices also happen to be less hazardous to perform than those we had all been taught from the beginning of our careers, which included dragging hoselines into buildings without attempting to first control burning, and climbing atop those same structures in order to cut holes in the roof.  So, the fact that the tactical revisions that resulted from this new information provide a greater margin of firefighter safety is a bonus, not a reason to criticize it as “slacking”.  As I have stated before, our new understanding of fire dynamics and the actual effects of firefighting tactics may have resulted in an approach that is a little easier, faster, and safer, but it remains by no measure easy, fast, or safe.  

Effective firefighting, by whatever method, calls for skilled firefighters, in full PPE, willing and able to quickly make entry into a burning building in order to perform search, rescue, and fire extinguishment.  The distinguishing features of the MFA approach are its recommendations for water flow into the structure as soon as practical, and limited ventilation until after fire control.  The utility of those components should be the focus of our debate, not ill-defined and polarizing insults.


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Comment by Mark J. Cotter on August 15, 2016 at 7:10pm

I appreciate your comments, Ryan, especially the need to "package" MFA in a more practical fashion and to accommodate firefighters' propensity for action over analysis. Thanks for the feedback!

Comment by Ryan James Johnsrud on August 15, 2016 at 4:57pm

     My personal view is that the disconnect comes in the way the information is presented.  MFA is presented very scientifically, based on evidence, smacking of bureaucracy. AIA has aggressive right in the title, firefighters who push themselves in workouts, in training, in dedication to details will always be drawn towards pushing themselves.  It is a trait in everything we do.  If you want to win over the holdouts I would suggest using the science as a last resort, its out there we know about it.  Now start promoting it using the K.I.S.S. principle, formulating sayings that encompass: "if your not hitting the fire while they're forcing the door you're slacking."  Make the more dangerous choice the less appealing choice, make MFA attractive.  Appeal to your audiences' tendencies to be aggressive.  The guys on the line are usually younger, don't forget what drove you at that age, aggressiveness.

     I was won over by the ATF, UL evidence on flow paths and LaCoFD's Hit it Hard from the Yard video, and have been reading intently on the subject since.  However, it wasn't until watching videos of Bobby Halton and Derek Alkonis speaking at FDIC 2015 that I was able to marry the idea of safety with my indoctrinated passion for "getting after it" and devaluing the risk I was putting myself in; I like the risk, I want to save lives, and put out fire.  If we haven't come to terms with the fact that our profession has inherent risk we will be surround-and-drown-ing every interior fire.  But as Pete Van Dorpe said, "there is a lot of real estate between aggressive interior attack and surround and drown".

     Another reason you are probably getting resistance is that as the actual number of fires decline some firefighters may be being promoted before having a real working comfort level with running and continually assessing a rapidly evolving fire scene.  As fires decline and destructive force increases, and experience decreases, the new officers may have a tendency to be overzealous in there promotion of "firefighter safety" because they have had the chance to develop their confidence in their crews.  We haven't experienced this were I'm from, but I imagine the result is micromanaging, frustration from officers and firefighters, and a resistance to increased bureaucracy.  Maybe having younger guys, or firefighters instead of officers championing your cause could help.

I'm just spit-balling, because I believe in your message, and culture change takes years, and be really frustrating.  My thoughts and view are my own and don't reflect any official message from my department. (I should probably read through this to make sure it makes sense, eh "add comment" we can't live without risk)


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