Before The Basics

Nov. 17, 2006
Just what are the basics? What constitutes the set of skills that you and I must possess before we can practice our craft as firefighters? Are my basics your basics?

This week's commentary is being crafted for those of you who think that my only function in life is to sit at home on the front porch, puffing on a cigar and watching the traffic flow by. Oh, do not get me wrong. I still do that, but as the weather starts to get cooler, I do it a lot less.

However, my friends, there is a lot more to my life than that. I get out to go out to lunch a lot and I also spend an inordinate amount of time chatting with folks on the telephone (regular and cell). I also spend a great deal of time reading and researching on the Internet. Keeping up with the latest trends is an important part of my work as a fire protection consultant.

How can I provide the best service for my clients if I am not familiar with the latest trends in our field? Of course that does not mean I have to agree with each and every new idea, concept, or gadget thing which comes down the pike. No my friends, there is a lot of hooey out there.

On more than one occasion I have encountered people who sought to develop a lemming-like devotion to a new theory: a theory not backed by any real research or experience. To be brutally honest, some of what I read and encounter is just so much hot air. There are people claiming to be experts who may never have seen, let alone ridden on a piece of fire apparatus.

However, there is one trend to which I am willing to subscribe. I have heard the recurring hue and cry of the fire service for more years than I would care to remember which states that we must go "back to the basics." I just cannot count the number of times I have attended a conference or a committee meeting which this topic served as the basis for discussion.

Unfortunately there is one really basic problem that must be solved before we can move on to a true journey back to the basics. That question is simple, but unless we answer it we shall have little hope of getting to the bottom of our firefighter training issues.

Just what are the basics? What constitutes the set of skills that you and I must possess before we can practice our craft as firefighters? Are my basics your basics? This is a critical distinction. Am I talking about the basic Firefighter-I skills taught by those people who utilize the National Fire Protection Association's standards?

Or is it possible that I referring to those practical how-to firefighting skills and tips that have become the province of aging, grey-haired people such as myself. This is what people in the academic world call tacit knowledge. These are the skills which people learn by the doing of their jobs and the living of their lives. There is a great difference.

Is it possible that there exists a basic set of skills that each firefighter must have: one not covered in the codes, books and standards? I think so; or at least I believe this to be the case. I also believe that we need to fully identify this list and then reproduce it for use. This is a task I attempted to accomplish when I wrote my firefighting textbook back in the late 1990's. I wrote of those things which I had learned as I made my way through the fire service.

I believe that this skill training program should be somewhat akin to the basic combat training accomplished by each infantryman in the U.S. Army. Every person who joins the United States Army must complete the same basic training course as set forth by the Department of the Army. Regardless of where the training takes place, it is delivered according to a common script provided by the Training and Doctrine Command.

Allegedly every one leaves basic training with a set of soldier skills. It is even stricter in the United States Marine Corps. I have often heard the fact that whatever their job skills and duty assignment, every Marine is a trained combat infantry warrior. However, this is just the start.

Every individual to whom the honorific title of "infantryman" is given must complete the prescribed course of instruction which is delivered at a skill-specific advanced individual training site. They are trained to perform the whole range of tasks that history has shown to be important in the success conduct of close combat in a hostile environment. This is true in both the Army and Marine Corps.v

Their training today is delivered by veteran instructors who have, in all probability, seen combat in the not too distant past. One of the serious, systemic disconnects which occurs from time to time involves the teaching of skills that have been found wanting, but which replacement skills have yet to be developed. This has happened at the beginning of each new conflict when the skills of the past have been superseded by the realities of the new conflict.

There is always a penalty paid by the troops during this period of adjustment. During WWII there was no way to know about the post-D Day problems that would be encountered in the hedgerow country of Normandy. The folks out there doing the daily duty of fighting the Germans were the ones who paid the price for this problem. The same things happened during WWI when our troops were exposed to trench warfare.

Wisely there is a mechanism in place to review the lessons of combat. There is always going to be a time lag between the gathering of new knowledge and the creation of training to address the new lessons learned. However progress does occur. In the long run fewer lives are lost and that is the most important aspect of this process.

One of the sad commentaries often heard from military analysts on the media outlets is that we, as a nation, always seem to be fighting the last war. My review of the literature tells me that this has been the case since Hannibal crossed the Alps with his elephants. I believe that this would be called the "go with what you know" approach to the delivery of services.

I honestly believe that there are still people in the world who would use a horse-mounted cavalry charge if the could get away with it. I also think that there are the same folks who would still ride the on the back-step of our pumpers if they could get away with it.

Herein lies a valuable lesson for those of us in the world of fire service research and development. Are we still fighting our fire wars according to the strategy and tactics taught to us in the long-ago days of our youth. Are we in the fire service fighting the last war ourselves.

By now many of you may well be asking yourselves if I am a total ignoramus. Harry my boy, you are probably thinking, what about NFPA 1001 and the wide variety of knowledge and skills that this fine document commends to us? I am well aware of the critical role this standard plays in our fire service. But I must once again play the devils advocate and challenge you with a simple question.

Who among us has done any actual research to determine whether we still need to be doing all of the tasks required of us by NFPA 1001? Are you aware of any recent studies to justify our approach to the delivery of suppression services? How can it be that we are still sending people to vent roofs that are an affront to all of the known laws of gravity? More examples could be listed, but I will leave it at this one.

There are all sorts of post-fire analyses being conducted by the National Institute of Safety and Health. These show us why our people died in a given scenario. I know about these because I am a student of our field. However I would be willing to wager a handsome sum of money that far too many among you are unaware that these important research findings exist.

Now I am going to proceed to stir up a hornet's nest amongst you. Let me offer you some questions to get you thinking:

  • Is entering a burning building with a water-filled hoseline the way to attack every fire?
  • Should we be putting our folks on the roof of a modern residential structure to open a hole for the release of the smoke and fire gasses?
  • Should we even bother fighting cellar or attic fires?
  • Should we continue to risk people for property?

Before you start to call me a chicken or a coward, give me a chance to explain myself. Let me take a moment to share my logic with you. These types of things are tough for an old-time, big-city, smoke-eating, fire guy like me to put into print. I cut my teeth as a rookie fireman on an urban engine company that went in, got close to the fire and put it out, just about every time.

However I think that it is time to rethink our approach. This is something which I began to ponder recently. It is based upon an experience that my volunteer fire department encountered. It was an occurrence that really got to me; one that made me really mad.

We were called to the scene of a fire in a newer development located within our fire district. It appeared that the home had not yet been occupied however the structure was open and easily entered. The fire was not a terrible challenge and our folks knocked it down with two 1-3/4-inch attack lines and were back in service in short order.

The fire was quickly extinguished and we felt pretty good that we had saved someone's home. The fire had self-vented and after checking for extension, we took up and went back to the station. Our chief called us together back at the fire house and thanked us for our efforts. There were a lot of nice, warm fuzzy feelings exchanged that evening.

Now for the best part my friends. Was there a thank you for our efforts? No, as a matter of fact the owner of the home notified the builder that he did not want a damaged house. The builder ended up tearing the house we had saved down and starting over. I saw the foundation just the other day.

Maybe it's just me friends, but I think that the time has come for a review of the how and why of the things we do. Some serious money needs to be devoted to a thorough analysis of what we do, how we do it, what skills need to be dropped and what skills need to be added to our repertoire?

We need to develop a true 21st Century basic skill set. We then need to do the necessary research to develop a program that sets forth when we should use those skills? It may be that this is a life and death issue. I would bet money on that one.

I am neither a chicken, nor am I a latter-day Chicken Little. I am just a veteran of 40 years in the fire service who wants to do what he can to cut down on the danger to our firefighters nationwide. I look forward to hearing your views on this critical topic.

Let me close by asking you to raise a glass in toast to me on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving this week. This is an anniversary of sorts for me, as it was on the that particular day before Thanksgiving in 1966 that I graduated from the old U.S. Air Force Firefighting School located at Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Illinois. I am celebrating my 40th anniversary in the fire service. I guess that makes me an official old-timer. Take care and stay safe.

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