I have heard the mantra "train the way you fight - fight the way you train" from day one in the fire service, I have even said it from time to time. It just dawned on me that this could be one of the reasons firefighters get injured and killed at fires.
Recently one of our firefighters was telling me about a training experience at a house burning drill. Craig explained that the instructor had the crew crawl down a hallway while fire was rolling over their heads at the ceiling level. When the nozzle person asked if they should hit the fire the instructor's response was "no." "Crawl down the hall and get into the room on fire." When the attack crew was in the fire room the instructor ordered the nozzle to be opened, but only long enough to knock the fire down, "don't drowned it because we have to set it on fire again." I asked Craig if the room was vented? He said no, the windows were boarded up and were only opened a little at the top.
We have all been a student in a training exercise similar to this during our tenure in the fire service. Some of us have even taught it just this way. However the question is this: Is this how we want our firefighters to practice in the real world? The answer is NO! Our justification for teaching this way is to instill confidence in the firefighter, teach them to feel the heat, instill aggressiveness, learn to get close to the fire, be macho, and get your helmet burned. Sounds like good logic, but what we are teaching is in violation of some basic firefighting rules. Do not go past any fire without putting it out. Do not crawl under fire. Flow enough water to cool the box and put the fire out. Ventilate early and often to let the heat, flammable gas, and smoke out.
So why are we so surprised when firefighters get injured or killed in un-vented buildings with no water flowing? Maybe we taught them to do that.
Now when these firefighters get to be officers the "get in there and get it" mentality does not go away. At a recent multiple alarm fire in a large food store I had command of division 3, the rear of the building. We were operating in a defensive mode after the steel trusses failed in an apparent metal deck roof fire. Prior to the collapse of the roof, the evacuation had been ordered early on in the fire. We had large lines in the back doors of the building and trucks were being positioned for ladder pipe operations. A chief with more trumpets then me arrived on the scene and I briefed him on the current fire conditions. Despite the fact that he had the ability to assume the division command at this incident, he allowed me to continue. I next notice him with a crew at the back door and they are putting their facemasks on. So I approach them and inquired, what are they doing. The Chief told me he was sending then into the building 20 to 30 feet so they can hit the fire better. The crew is eager to get in there so they can be real firefighters. I said "Chief I don't think that is a good idea." He replies, "Don't worry they are only going in 20 to 30 feet. I say, "Chief the evacuation order has already been given" "Don't worry it's ok" he replies. My final statement was "Chief you have to tell command over the radio that you are sending firefighters into the building" I hold my microphone near his face. It was at this point that the chief changed his mind. The firefighters were obviously disappointed with the decision, we blamed command for not letting us have any fun. Firefighters and officers will fight fire the way we train them.
What we want them to do at real building fires is vent the building and flow water, do not risk fire fighters to save unsolvable property. Though, what we teach them to do is take a beating, burn your helmet, see how close you can get to the fire, get in there and get it. All very macho and very aggressive but in all actuality, this is not very smart or safe.
Chief Alan Brunacini said "The hardest thing to do is put a firefighter in reverse." That is because we only teach them to go forward. The strategy and tactics of hesitation, retreat, wait for water; and wait for ventilation are not taught. Navy Seals are taught tactical retreat so it must be a macho decision under some conditions. Chief Ted Golden, Mokena FD Illinois asked these questions at a resent RIT/Mayday training session. "Would you put a $300,000 fire truck in the building to attack the fire? If the answer is no, then why would you put firefighters in the building to attack the fire?" Very thought provoking and sole searching questions.
The purpose of much of our live fire training seems to be let's see how hot and smoky we can make it for them so they become tough aggressive firefighters. Maybe we need to rethink the objectives of live fire training. At a minimum live fire training should be conducted as engine and truck operations all the time; ventilate to remove heat, flammable gas, and smoke; apply water to cool and extinguish. If it is hot and smoky maybe you forgot to do something. All of us from rookie to fire chief need the training; to teach the newbees how to do it right the first time, to teach the oldies to change there ways and finally get it right. When we do this the mantra "Train the way you fight. Fight the way you train." will save firefighters.
Dr. Burton A. Clark, EFO is the Management Science Program Chair for the National Fire Academy and Director of an Emergency Support at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. . Burt writes and lectures nationally on fire service research and professional development. If you would like to contact Burton, he can be reached at email@example.com