Firefighting: Train Hard - Work Hard - Fight Smart

Jan. 23, 2006
Many years ago, as a young Fire Captain in Newark, New Jersey, I penned a guest editorial for the old National Fire Protection Association publication, Fire Command magazine. The title of that article was "Go Through the Door." Into that article were poured all of the aggressive thoughts, words and deeds of a 31 year old Fire Captain in command of a busy urban engine company. We were oh so confident of our theories back in those days.

Many years ago, as a young Fire Captain in Newark, New Jersey, I penned a guest editorial for the old National Fire Protection Association publication, Fire Command magazine. The title of that article was "Go Through the Door." Into that article were poured all of the aggressive thoughts, words and deeds of a 31 year old Fire Captain in command of a busy urban engine company. We were oh so confident of our theories back in those days.

Life was quite simple back them. We got up in the morning, went to work, trained for a bit and waited for the fires to come. While there are a great many people who think that the late 1960's were the peak fire period, owing to the many outbreaks of civil disturbances back then, this was not really the case.

The truth of the matter is that, at least in our case, the mid 1970's through the early 1980's were the busy days for most of us. We took the training we received at the fire academy and used it practically on a daily basis. The rules of engagement were really quite simple:

  1. One building - one alarm
  2. Two buildings - two alarms
  3. Three of more buildings - use your judgment

The buildings were on fire and your job when you arrived was to stretch the appropriate hose lines, entered the buildings and extinguished the fire. This was how it went most of the time. On certain occasions, deck guns and ladder pipes were deployed, and you then proceeded to kick the fire in the teeth. But you were always expected to be aggressive when it was called for.

It might also be time to stress that these were the days before the Incident Command System and Incident Safety Officers. If you were first due, you were expected to drop a supply line at the nearest hydrant, stretch in and go to work. We made fun of the people who did not like to stretch the big line. We did not stage, we arrived. And we took it as a sign of manhood to hold down the number of alarms. "We can handle" was a phrase often heard.

Of course people got hurt. Others died. And over time, things began to change. One by one, the things which we did that could hurt people were examined and then changed, when they could be. Of course in the process I was there when we buried five of my brother firefighters.

But then something odd happened. I am not sure of which day that it occurred. Like many things which happen incrementally, small things happened a little bit at a time. But the result was that we transformed from firefighters and fire officers into incident managers. We no longer attacked fires, we marshaled resources. We lost touch with our firefighting roots and souls.

I can recall a speech at the Fire Department Instructor's Conference back in 1988. The speech was a passionate, well-thought-out treatise on the concept of limiting firefighting operations to streams delivered from the outside. This fine gentleman said that there was absolutely nothing which could justify placing fire personnel in harms way. I took exception then, and I take exception now.

Please, don't lose me here. I am not saying that safety is a bad thing, necessarily. However, when we begin to focus on resources and resource conservation, we begin to ignore the fact that there are people out there who expect us to place ourselves in harms way for them. We must remember that our heritage and traditions precede us in this respect.

I have seen is a move away from aggressive firefighting towards safe firefighting. People have become so concerned with safety that they fail to understand that a certain level of risk comes with our territory. And we fail to operate in controlled situations, where we can profit from the experience. If you miss the opportunities for exercising the troops, how are they to know how much they can really do when the chips are down, and lives are at stake?

What I want wish to propose is a concept that can best be described as smart firefighting. I propose it as a replacement for playing it safe. Back in the days of yesteryear, when my buddies and I played football in high school and college, the coaches always stressed to us that we should operate at full steam when we were attacking or defending.

Their theory was that when you attempted to play safely, you were injured by the opponent who was playing aggressively. Looking back at some of my injuries, they usually came when I was dogging it. During the first game of my senior year in high school, I suffered a serious ankle injury. It came when I was caught by an offensive guard while I was cruising through the line, rather than blasting into the back field. That injury almost ended my career.

The other extreme came usually came when you played out of control. Maybe you did not get hurt, but when you tried to play like a brainless bulldozer, you often failed to accomplish your mission. What it took was a triumvirate of brawn, brains, and bravery. The lesson here is quite simple. We trained hard, played hard, and worked hard to remember that we should play smart.

I am of the opinion that this lesson can be transferred to the fire service. There has to be a middle ground where the best of both worlds comes into play on behalf of the people you are supposed to be protecting.

I think that we miss the boat when we fail to develop a means for training our people under realistic circumstances. In many cases we limit the use of otherwise fine training facilities to recruit-level operations. How about periodic live fire fighting refreshers for every fire fighter? There will be those who say that this is too costly, or too dangerous. To this I must reply, more costly or dangerous than sending poorly trained people out to fight fire on those rare occasions when you encounter a real fire.

The workload is down, even in the bigger cities. Veteran firefighters are leaving on a regular basis. In my old department nearly one hundred people have retired since I left. And they are taking their experience and knowledge with them. If we are to fighter fewer fires, with less experienced people, then we must expend more of our resources in the training arena. In this way we can train hard.

I am not absolutely sure of how to approach the issue of playing hard. It seems to me that this involves some form of mentoring, where the newer firefighters and fire officers are paired with older firefighters and officers. In this way, institutional knowledge, organizational mores, and tradition can be passed from generation to generation.

Knowledge does not pass in some form of miraculous osmosis. Each thought, act, action or activity must be consciously taught to the next generation. Since there are fewer fires, we must extract a greater learning benefit from each that we encounter. This will require on-scene, post-fire critiques. How are you to accomplish this task my friends? It is really quite simple.

While the hose is still in the street and the impressions are fresh in everyone's mind, discussions must be held on location. Questions must be asked and answered in order for each individual to profit from the experience.

During my last assignment in Newark, there were a number of newer firefighters in one of the fire stations in my battalion district. I know how new they were, because they went through the Fire Academy during the time when I was the Chief of Training. I recall a time when we had a few fires in their neighborhood.

It was my feeling that we all needed to profit more from the lessons that could be learned at each incident, so after each fire I did just what was proposed in the last paragraph. While the smoke is still drifting away, and the hose is in the street, we talk about what we have just seen and done.

One surprising by-product comes from the fact that a number of my veteran troops have pointed out some of their own short comings. The new guys were also surprised by the candor of the veterans. However, we are all better for the experience.

We were working to train realistically. We were working to fight the fires aggressively, where it was called for. We were looking at the defensive attack for those occasions where it is appropriate. All of us were talking and sharing information. I think this led us in the direction of "smart firefighting". Were we safer at that point? Our injury statistics were down and I took that as a good indicator.

I offer this example to you as something about which you can think. I suggest that we need to work harder and smarter to do our job. If we are to begin having an impact on the rate of our firefighter deaths and injury numbers then we must change the way we work.

No matter how hard we wish to have fires go away, human nature will always provide us with the mistakes that lead to uncontrolled fire. There is the central focus of my argument. The fire is going to be uncontrolled. Therefore our response to the manner in which we combat those fires must be controlled.

Well-trained firefighters can make a difference. We need firefighters who know when to go and when to say no. That should be a goal for each and everyone of you in the coming year.

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