Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A Call to Arms

            We are all aware that for the past couple of decades, our enemy has been getting bigger, faster and more deadly. This has hopefully led you to the realization that we now have less time on the fireground to accomplish all of our critical tasks. But before we get into the meat and potatoes of this article, let’s look at the basics of the above premise. The two biggest reasons that the fireground has changed so much in the last generation or so, are that the fuels have changed, and so have the construction materials and methods. The fact that our fuels are continuously evolving means that our fires are as well. In addition to our enemy evolving and become more dangerous, our buildings are also changing and becoming more hazardous for firefighters. I won’t infantilize you with all the boring details, but I think the Cliff’s Notes are essential for a full understanding of this topic, so bear with me.

            Let’s first take a little closer look at how our fuels have changed. Yesteryears fuels were mainly natural and consisted of a lot of wood, wool, cotton, silk, etc. With our increased ability to make synthetic materials, most rooms that you might find yourself in today consist of numerous petroleum based products, or hydrocarbons, and its ubiquitous derivative - plastic. Plastics are everywhere…seriously, look at the room you’re in right now: computers, TV’s, kid’s toys and even the chair you’re sitting on - all plastic. In the fire service, these petroleum derivatives are widely referred to as solid-state gasoline, and for good reason. These synthetic materials produce heat release rates (HRR) that are much higher than the natural materials of yesteryear. Let’s not forget that not only are the fuels different, but we also have a lot more “stuff” in our houses today than we did when we were growing up. Again, take a look at the room you’re in right now. So what does all this mean, plain and simple, it means that today’s fires produce more energy, faster, which leads to more rapid fire growth and faster times to flashover.

If fire is our enemy, that makes the building our battlefield. Building construction prior to the 1980’s utilized dimensional lumber held together by nails for the structural members. Most of the buildings that are being built all across America right now are cheaper and lighter than the buildings of past generations. Modern construction is dependent on lightweight truss roofs and floors composed of engineered lumber that are often held together by gusset plates and glue. Lightweight truss roofs and flooring systems are dangerous because of the decrease in mass of the structural members, since mass resists heat; but also because of how the materials react to heat and flame impingement. The materials tend to fail with heat and flame much faster than our father’s dimensional lumber, and they fail catastrophically. That means that when a part of the roof or floor fails, the entire roof or floor will collapse at once.

So with the knowledge that today’s fires are getting much bigger, much faster; combined with the fact that our buildings are failing catastrophically and much faster, this leads to the obvious conclusion that we now have less time to operate in, and on, these structures. This then begs the logical question: “How must we change our approach?” Recognizing and clearly defining the problem is the crucial first step. The answer as I see it, is that we all (literally all of us!) have to be smarter, faster and safer on the fireground. If our enemy and our battlefield are less forgiving, then we have to be that much better at our chosen trade.

That might mean using different strategies, tactics and tasks than we might have done thirty years ago. Slow down…I am not advocating moving away from our history of aggressive firefighting, quite the contrary, it’s in our blood; but I’m also not advocating arbitrary recklessness. I am advocating intelligent aggressiveness. We need to expand our strategies beyond simply going offensive or defensive. We have to be experts at building construction, students of fire behavior and artists at reading smoke to anticipate how our enemy and battlefield are plotting together to kill us. That means that if command wants the lid opened up, then we have to be faster and more efficient with our actions. That means that we need to be better in our searches and more competent at victim removal techniques. It’s crucial that we become great at forcible entry, no matter how fortified the objective. We need to be quick at establishing a supply and smooth making the fire. Our RIT/FAST need to be properly trained and positioned to rapidly rescue our brothers and sisters. That means that all our actions need to be coordinated with the other operating companies. That means being professionals and knowing how all of our actions on the fireground can impact the fire, the building and the other companies operating in, on and around the structure.

I’m going to need to borrow a soapbox for this next part.

The only way to make this all happen is to train more, and train intelligently. That means getting sweaty at every opportunity, and that means every single day we’re working fellas. There is no excuse for not drilling while on shift…none. We need to know all of our equipment backwards and forwards. We need to train with the other companies that we’ll be in combat with, so that we’re all on the same page, and we all know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s essential to have to attack, search, ventilation and RIT train together, but too often we don’t. We have a horrible habit of training on one task at a time, one firefighter at a time, and oftentimes not in proper PPE…how realistic is that? That’s the football equivalent of the quarterback, receivers, running backs and offensive linemen all practicing separately, and without pads or a helmet. It’s just plain stupid, and moments after kickoff everyone will know they’re not prepared like they should be (I’m looking at you Chiefs).

There is no denying that this job is physically demanding, and we need to be up to the task when called upon. We are all aware of the leading cause of firefighter LODD’s and we can no longer avoid talking about the 800 pound gorilla in the room, we all need to get in shape, period. We need to train and workout in our PPE and on air. It’s vital that every one of us know about how long our SCBA bottle will last us, and the rest of our company. We have to acknowledge and accept the fact that we’re occupational athletes, and approach the job with that attitude. How good would Adrian Peterson be if he hadn’t stepped foot in a gym in years?

That means that we should be reading like we’re English lit. majors. We should be reading anything that we can get our hands on. There are so many resources out there today that we need to be taking advantage of: books, magazines, manuals, SOP’s/SOG’s, blogs, etc. We should all be attending classes and conferences whenever we can. We should be testing ourselves daily and always be looking for ways to be smarter, faster and safer on the fireground. That means constantly looking for new information, watching fireground videos and asking our leaders and mentors questions, always with the goal of becoming great at our trade.

I know that I’m preaching to the choir here, but we need to get into the job. We need to get sweaty. We need to get dirty. We need to read and get nerdy. We need to constantly strive to pass along any nugget of knowledge that we posses, however small it may be, to others. Hopefully our actions will lead others into finding, or rediscovering, their passion for this calling. We owe it to our brothers and sisters, families and communities to make sure that we’re up to the challenge. Now let’s get sweaty.