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One of the more powerful sentiments I have been hearing and reading in response to suggested firefighting tactical improvements is that it is understood and expected that firefighters risk their lives in the course of their work, and that they need to put their self interests behind in order to save lives and property.  Essentially, the “suggestion”, typically provided in an admonishing tone, is that anything that gets in the way of interior operations constitutes a dereliction of duty, and is a blatant and cowardly violation of our profession’s promise to those we are sworn to protect.  It is further argued that concerns about LODDs are no reason to deviate from our sacred mission or methods and, anyway, they don't happen that often. 

Like so many of the indirect criticisms of the MFA movement, this belief is not completely unfounded; just not as applicable or meaningful as those who proclaim it believe.  (I have also addressed it previously in MFA #34: Life Safety vs. Life Saving - Compatible goals at  Extreme risk is certainly inherent in every aspect of firefighting, and that reality must be accepted by anyone who engages in this activity.  Contrary to the inference of a "damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead" motto, though, managing risk does not mean ignoring or avoiding it, but requires a comprehensive approach to identify and address predictable dangers.  (See "Negotiating Hazards" at  Still, with this passionate cry repeatedly being chanted in an attempt to drown out discussions about alternative methods, and gaining traction amongst some in the fire service despite evidence contradicting its veracity, I will here take a slightly different tack in arguing the contrary position.

Inherent in the call to ignore our mortality in the pursuit of our duties is the idea that it is acceptable to be injured or killed as long as we are endeavoring to save lives or property.  It is not.  While life-threatening and -ending injuries can, do, and will happen, given the level of risk, urgency, and chaos in our workplace, normalizing such occurrences requires a leap of logic to a level somewhat beyond sanity.  That is, it’s “crazy talk”.  Certainly, there is no hesitancy, and for some even an eagerness, to risk our lives if there is even a slim chance of saving another person.  (Or, as Nick Brunacini so eloquently stated, “..each of us will joyfully throw ourselves from a cliff to save small children and puppies…”.)  Since the majority of life and property in a burning structure is lost long before our arrival, though, we are being told to “sacrifice” ourselves for the sake of a principle, not for any practical purpose.  

Yes, the possibility of savable property or victims requires us to often position ourselves in hazardous environments in order to effect their salvation.  And, our gear and training allows us to  regard “Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health” (IDLH) as a mere workplace definition.  There is also the “Catch 22” that, except in the most extreme cases - a structure fully-involved with fire - we cannot definitively make the determination if there is anyone worth risking our lives for without first risking our lives to check.  While the completion of a search is a fireground benchmark, that does not render it priceless; just necessary.  Ascertaining when, or even if, to make entry into a burning building is a complex decision, naturally hampered by the time-pressured setting in which it occurs, and not one amenable to over-simplification through a vague, passionate, and misguided “do the right thing” slogan.  Furthermore, the potential costs - death or injury to firefighters - is not a mere "price to pay".

Consider for a moment what will happen if a fellow firefighter becomes lost, trapped, seriously injured, or killed: the fire immediately is relegated to secondary importance, except as it relates to controlling it in support of protecting the firefighter and his/her rescuers.  In essence, the focus of the operation will shift to ourselves, the very thing that an aggressive "save people and property" approach was purporting to avoid.  Despite the proliferation and success of RIT methodologies that attempt to prepare for and manage such occurrences, the reality is that the majority of firefighter "Maydays" are handled by non-RIT members already operating in the hazard zone, which necessarily and inevitably removes them from fire suppression and search activities.  Essentially, and predictably, if any of us falls, the operation will falter, so pretending that such an occurrence is in any way acceptable ignores, in the guise of “duty”, the immediacy and gravity of the effect of an LODD/LODI.  

The possibility of saving a life motivates us to perform extraordinarily brave feats, not the least of which is entering a structure that is actively being decomposed by fire.  Our success in this endeavor can be reduced to whether we have the capability of reversing hazardous conditions before they exceed those of our PPE.  Rather than merely stubbornly clinging to and more loudly defending our current methods, we should be actively seeking out and embracing anything that we can do to tilt the success/failure balance in our favor.  The early application of water, and the restriction of air entry until that is accomplished, are two proven techniques to assist with that goal.  On the other hand, anything that we do that increases our chance of failure, such as neglecting to manage flow paths, or ignoring signs of untenability and structural decay in our rush to make entry, should be avoided.  If we are to bet our lives, we need to do everything possible to shift the odds in our favor.  

We all agree that putting the victim/property/customer/taxpayer/public “first” is the correct approach, but placing ourselves "second" does not make our welfare inconsequential.  Our lives and limbs are on the line as soon as we respond to an alarm, and we must continuously match the degree of risk we accept to the chances of benefit we expect.  While our skills and abilities allow us to survive conditions that are lethal to civilians, they are not absolute, despite noble intentions or fearless attitudes.  


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Comment by Mark J. Cotter on October 26, 2017 at 1:21pm

Ok, here's a disclaimer: Of the 3,390 civilian fire deaths that occurred in the USA in 2016, my OPINION, based on the circumstances associated with those deaths (timing of most fatal fires [night], documented activity of the deceased [sleeping, unconscious, drunk, trying to escape], known hazards of interior fires [development of fatal conditions within minutes of ignition], and personal experience [lots of fatal fires, but rare "rescues", while working with aggressive and well-trained firefighters]) is that the majority of those deaths occurred prior to the arrival of fire suppression forces.  Happy?

So, the statement in question, as part of a larger argument against the movement by some to discount firefighter safety, is admittedly unprovable and provocative, but divisive and dangerous to the fire service?  Really?  Will we not work as hard and risk as much if there is even just a 1% chance of saving a life, much less for the 49% chance my estimate allows?  Will firefighters not bother to search for savable victims if the odds for success are not overwhelmingly in their favor?  I don't think so.  (Again, my OPINION.)  

My intent was to try to counter a belief that a firefighter's life was a fair trade for a civilian life or property, or that a strategy that discounts firefighter safety is justifiable or realistic.  If accepting my premise renders firefighters now unwilling to perform their duties, then I would suggest that the fire service is already in danger. 

Comment by Nick Ledin on October 26, 2017 at 8:32am

Thanks again for replying Mark. I appreciate you clarifying your "logic" for making such a powerful and divisive statement, which you purport to be fact: "the majority of a burning structure is lost long before our arrival". I believe this statement to be dangerous to the fire service, and now that we can see the leaps you took in formulating your opinion, I believe it needs a disclaimer, a correction, or a retraction.



Comment by Mark J. Cotter on October 26, 2017 at 6:30am

It's important to note that the FED (fractional effective dose) cited in this study is an experimental tool that is used to estimate the chance of impairment of occupants.  No two persons react the same to the same amount of heat and toxic gases, but certain populations (children and the elderly) react more readily, and higher levels are worse for everyone, so it provides a theoretical method to compare lethality.  The 11% untenability "dose" is for an FED of 0.3, the benchmark used by the researchers in their calculations (i.e., when that level was reached, they stopped the clock), while an FED of 1.0 corresponds to impairment of 50% of those exposed, and FEDs of up to 9.8 were measured in some areas of the structure.  The experiments demonstrated that things get bad inside a burning building quite rapidly, but not so much beyond closed doors, which was the intent of researchers.  I used their findings to support my argument that most victims die before our arrival, though they never intended, nor claimed, to measure how long occupants can survive.

We are in complete agreement that training and knowledge are the key to achieving success and avoiding failure, and, while we can go back and forth about the theoretical probability of finding a living victim inside a burning building, my guess was not "never", and yours is not "always", so we also agree that the interior search is a vital component of our duties.  Our challenge is to accomplish that task in a manner that attempts to balance risk with benefit, without distorting the calculation by discounting one or inflating the other. 

Again, thanks for sparking this discussion.

Comment by Nick Ledin on October 25, 2017 at 11:38pm

I appreciate the reply Mark, and agree that when we get ourselves into trouble, the fireground oftentimes goes sideways. I also believe that training and knowledge will decrease the likelihood of us getting ourselves into trouble...and increase the likelihood of us making grabs. So this is where I will continue to focus my efforts.

I also appreciate you using empirical data in your reply; these are the "facts" that I can get behind. Of great importance regarding your earlier statement ("the majority of a burning structure is lost long before our arrival") is found in the Traina, Kerber, Kyritsis, and Horn article:

"This FED value corresponds to a probability that the conditions are not tenable for 11% of the population (likely to include young children, elderly, and/or unhealthy occupants)."

...11%...that's an 89% tenability rate at the times listed. I don't know about you, but I like those odds. Think I'lll continue to focus on what we can do, rather than what we can't...

Comment by Mark J. Cotter on October 25, 2017 at 9:39pm


There is, of course, no data (that I have found) that lists the time of death of fire victims in relationship to the arrival of fire suppression services.  Instead, I would point you to research that analyzed the tenability of the interior of structures that contain fires:

"Occupant Tenability in Single Family Homes: Part I - Impact of Structure Type, Fire Location and Interior Doors Prior to Fire Department Arrival", published in Fire Technology, July 2017, Volume 53, Issue 4, pp 1589-1610, and available at:

Here is a relevant quote from that paper:

"Based on the results presented here and typical response times that may be expected by the fire service it is likely that susceptible individuals who remain stationary (sleeping or otherwise unable to self-evacuate) at these locations will have experienced untenability in all parts of the one-story structure that have direct connection to the fire room. The high FED levels achieved over relatively short duration (typically 6 min to 10 min) also raises a concern for those who may be attempting to evacuate from the structure, particularly if exiting through the main living room or family room areas."

The USFA has determined that most victims (70%) are asleep or attempting to escape when overcome (  

This third article discusses Victim Survivability Profiling, a blog topic in its own right, but contains useful information regarding additional research on the rapid lethality of fires:

Still, while I stand by my statement, and believe it to be factual, let's assume I'm mistaken, and the majority of fire victims could be rescued if only we were faster or better.  Has anything changed if my rationale on this point is found to be lacking?  I think we all agree that we need to do our job as fast and as well as we can in order to save the most people and property.  We need to get water on the fire, search the building, remove the remaining products of combustion, and ensure complete extinguishment.  Where many of us disagree is the relative order and timing of those steps, but no one I know is advocating the elimination of any of them.  I hope we also agree that losing firefighters in the process is not acceptable, even though, in the grandest of contradictions, such a loss is not completely avoidable.  

We need to hone an approach that has the best chance of accomplishing our mission, and my point with this posting was that ignoring our own safety contradicts that goal.

Thanks for your comments.

Comment by Nick Ledin on October 25, 2017 at 3:16pm

Mark, can you please quote your source on this powerful statement, " the majority of a burning structure is lost long before our arrival"?



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