Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Holy Grail of Fire Attack?

        With all the recent fire studies conducted by UL, NIST, ISFSI, etc. the fire service is undergoing a renaissance...or at least that's what I thought. The aforementioned organizations have pumped out volumes of empirical data that we can consume and digest to make our profession smarter, more effective and most importantly, safer. Although over the past couple of months I have heard too many people spout misinformation regarding the findings of these studies. Specifically, I have had conversations with more than a couple firefighters that feel that there is now no need to ho interior anymore; that in all circumstances we should fight fire from the exterior. What these ill-informed firefighters spout as law is that we can't push 'fire', and exterior streams cool the entire box, regardless of stream origin (front yard, down the hall, fire room, etc.) so they then fill in the blanks of their logic (this is much easier than thinking) to conclude that we should always fight from outside the box. They have found the Holy Grail of fire attack.

Let's be very clear here...if you have been paying attention to these studies, you have undoubtedly heard these organizations (the Mythbusters of the fire service) make it a point to clarify that exterior fire attack is not right for every situation, nor every fire...simply they are proving that it is an effective tactic that has advantages in certain situations. With that being said, some of us aren't really listening.

        These studies (specifically UL's Horizontal VentilationUL's Vertical Ventilation and UL/NIST/FDNY's Governor's Island) and their findings are meant to give us more information and to make us better at our craft, not to be dumbed-down into blanket statements and sweeping SOGs that don't have our shareholders best interest in mind. The truth is that the fireground is not black and white, so critical thinking is still a necessity in our profession. These studies have validated exterior fire attack (aka transitional attack, softening the target, OEO, hitting it hard from the yard, giving it 10 seconds for safety, etc, etc.) as a crucial, effective tactic for the fireground, although some of the methodolgies of these studies have left room for interpretaion. So let's look at these studies with a more critical eye. 

        No one can deny that the scientific study of the modern fireground is inherently great for the fire service; as GI Joe always said "Knowing is half the battle!". With scientific studies comes the obligation to follow the scientific method, which, like everything else in the world has its pros and cons. The most obvious intrinsic con of following the scientific method is that for each test one does, only one variable can be manipulated; and since building houses and buying various equipment/cameras/probes/etc. for the sole purpose of then burning everything isn't cheap, this leads to small sample sizes with a resultant small number of variables studies. The next most obvious 'con' to conducting a fire study in the litigious 21st century, is that we are severly limited with regards to putting our fellow brothers and sisters in any real harms ways, so interior operations are accordingly limited. Therefore, to no fault of these organizations, some of the limitations of the methodologies were: small sample size, no or delayed interior operations (no search, no rescue, no or delayed interior attack, etc.), they do not measure humidity (we don't fully understant the affects of wet vs. dry heat on the human respiratory tract), they don't fully address pushing cooled products of combustion (only reading O2, CO and CO2), nearly all of the fires were contents fires, limited interior floor plans were studied and most of the studies (Horizontal and Vertical Ventilation) were done in a "sterile" environment lacking wind and rain.

        Now that we understand some of the context and limitations of these studies and realize that nothing on the fireground is black or white, we must then agree that we haven't found the Grand Unified Theory of firefighting...and that it probably doesn't exist. It seems as though many of us are trying to, as Chief Anthony (Andoni) Kastros so eloquently puts it: "safety ourselves out of a job." This can be a very slippery slope for firefighters as it can lead to complacency. Our job is inherently dangerous, period; and if one believes that there is now only one fireground tactic necessary for all fires, chances are they they will only drill and train on pulling a line to the front yard and applying water from outside. What happens to this firefighter when they arrive at a fire where the seat if out of the reach of an exterior stream? More importantly, what happens to the family trapped inside? Chances are that it won't go as smoothly as it could you see how hubris can lead to a slippery, dangerous slope?

        To be good at our job, we must be tacticians. Make sure that you recognize that exterior fire attack is a valid tactic in many circumstances, understand it's proper use, its limitations, drill on it and add it to your repertoire...but realize that you took an oath to protect the unprotected, and that means that you must also be prepared to go interior.

        Now let's go get sweaty.

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