Reading the Fire: Developing Expertise

Reading the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) firefighter fatality reports or other documentation of incidents involving rapid fire progress, I ask myself: Would the individuals involved have taken the same course of action...


Reading the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) firefighter fatality reports or other documentation of incidents involving rapid fire progress, I ask myself: Would the individuals involved have taken the same course of action if they knew what the fire behavior would be?

Editors Note: To view more detailed images of the figures displayed on the right, please click on the links to each figure in the body of the article.

Surprises are sometimes OK on your birthday or during the holiday season, but are frequently a less enjoyable experience when they occur during structural firefighting operations. Reading the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) firefighter fatality reports or other documentation of incidents involving rapid fire progress, I ask myself: Would the individuals involved have taken the same course of action if they knew what the fire behavior would be? I think that this is unlikely.

In most of these cases, it is likely that neither the victims nor other key decision-makers recognized the likelihood or timing of rapid fire progress. Effective strategic and tactical decision-making is dependent on the ability to recognize current fire conditions and predict fire development and spread. Firefighting is often characterized as a battle. However, despite similarities, there is at least one fundamental difference between firefighting operations and warfare.

Because war is a clash between opposing human wills, the human dimension is central in war. . . War is shaped by human nature and is subject to the complexities, inconsistencies, and peculiarities which characterize human behavior (USMC, 1994, pp. 12-13).

Unlike warfare, firefighting operations are not a conflict between humans; firefighting is a human attempt to control a natural phenomenon. Civilians and at times even firefighters describe fire behavior as unpredictable. Nothing could be further from the truth. As a chemical and physical phenomenon, fire will behave the same way each time under the same conditions. It is the last part of this sentence that presents the problem when operating on the fireground. Scientists and fire protection engineers can control the conditions such as fuel load, ventilation profile and compartment configuration, resulting in consistent fire behavior under laboratory conditions. Firefighters operating at a structure fire have incomplete information about key factors influencing fire behavior and must quickly assess the situation and develop a plan of action.

Fire behavior is quite predictable, but limited information, pressure to make rapid decisions and our level of expertise limit our ability to do so under emergency conditions. How can firefighters improve their ability to recognize current conditions and predict fire behavior? It is useful to consider the difference between novices and experts.

Experience And Expertise

While this article focuses on fire behavior indicators, your real goal should be to develop expertise in reading the fire and predicting fire behavior. The words experience and expertise are often used without much thought about what they really mean.

Firefighters often conceptualize experience as years of service. However, this is only part of the picture. An experienced individual is "skilled or knowledgeable [has developed expertise] as the result of active participation or practice" (American Heritage College Dictionary, 2004, p. 429). Development of firefighting expertise requires opportunities for experience such as participation in training and actual firefighting operations as well as thinking about these experiences to draw out lessons learned. While the experiences themselves are significant, what is more significant is what the individual learns from that experience.

What is an expert? If an expert is someone who knows everything there is to know about a particular topic, it is likely that there are few if any experts. However, for our purposes an expert firefighter or fire officer is someone who has a high level of knowledge or skill. Experts and novices differ in a number of important ways (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking 1999; Klein 1999).

This content continues onto the next page...