Saving Our Own: The Powell Doctrine and Interior Fire Operations

Both line firefighters and infantry soldiers now have an array of modern protective gear, surveillance equipment and offensive tools to achieve rapid victory; In reality, our systems, protocols and technology often fail us with disastrous results...


Both line firefighters and infantry soldiers now have an array of modern protective gear, surveillance equipment and offensive tools to achieve rapid victory; In reality, our systems, protocols and technology often fail us with disastrous results. Why?

Vietnam, Lebanon and Iraq


Colin Powell, former U.S. Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is widely credited as the principal architect of the 1991 Gulf War during which Iraqi forces were driven from their occupation of Kuwait. In the allied drive, key elements of the Iraqi military, including the Republican Guard, were destroyed as they fled toward Baghdad. The operation was viewed as a decisive victory and resulted in relatively low casualties for the allies.

Powell, with 35 years of military service, is a seasoned veteran. He served as an infantry major in Vietnam. In preparing for the Gulf War, he articulated a series of requirements that he felt must be met in order to ensure success on the battlefield: use force only as a last resort and only if there is a clear risk in not acting; if force is used it must be overwhelming; and an exit strategy must be determined in advance. Doug DuBrin, writing on what influenced Powell in the development of his doctrine, suggests that Vietnam is a core reason. According to DuBrin, in Vietnam, the objectives were fuzzy, force was not applied in a uniform way and the strategy was unclear. Defeat was the outcome.

Colin Powell was influenced, in part, by his former boss, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who set forth similar principles in the aftermath of a 1983 truck bombing in which 241 U.S. military personnel were killed during a peacekeeping mission in Beirut, Lebanon. In a speech before the National Press Club, Weinberger made these points: the commitment of force must be because vital interests are served; we must have clearly defined objectives; and we must have the resources to accomplish those objectives.

The Battleground and the Fireground


The 21st century battleground is dynamic, chaotic and complex, and so is the fireground. As with the military, we have gone to great lengths to employ organizational systems and technology to instill a degree of order and predictability to the working fire environment. Both line firefighters and infantry soldiers now have an array of modern protective gear, surveillance equipment and offensive tools to achieve rapid victory. The uniform application of command and control systems is designed to ensure coordinated and effective action and to strictly limit casualties. In reality, our systems, protocols and technology often fail us with disastrous results. Why?

In a speech entitled "U.S. Forces: The Challenges Ahead," Powell said, in part, "We owe it to the men and women who go in harm's way to make sure that...their lives are not squandered for unclear purposes." He was challenging leaders to make strategic decisions based on a core ethic: don't waste human life. Implicit in his speech and in the Powell Doctrine is that committing troops to combat should be neither an easy nor automatic decision. In fact, such a decision should be made only if there is a significant advantage to be gained.

On the Inside


Almost without exception, our firefighting forces are most vulnerable during interior structural firefighting. This operational environment most closely resembles the combat setting to which Powell refers in the Doctrine. In his view, committing forces requires four imperative strategic considerations:

  • Committing troops must be an absolute necessity;
  • There must be a compelling risk posed by not acting;
  • Overwhelming resources must be applied;
  • A clear exit strategy must be in place.

Do fire officers and firefighters routinely commit to interior operations where the objectives are fuzzy and the strategy is unclear? Are firefighters routinely killed in interior environments where the responses to these four considerations should suggest completely different tactics?

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