The 2011 Firefighter

Trained and confident? Or tentative and fearful?

On Wednesday night’s Firefighter Netcast, Chris Naum hosted “Looking Forward through the Rearview Mirror”. The idea of the show was to discuss the significant events that affected the Fire Service in 2010 and what was needed in 2011.

While there is/has always been a need for us to “Master our Craft” and know as much about our enemy (the fire, the building, the smoke) as possible, some factors do exist that make it difficult to gain the experience necessary.

Fire Duty is down. Maybe not everywhere, but even the busy departments/companies are not fighting fires like they did 30 or even 20 years ago. It is difficult to gain actual experience (reading conditions, knowing when to stay, knowing when to go) on the training ground. In the same breath, the fire service has never had so many tools, like the internet, to help bridge the experience training gap.

Fires are different. “It ain’t your daddy’s fire service”, well really “these ain’t your daddy’s building fires.” The building industries desire to build it faster, bigger, cheaper has but the fire service in the position of often losing the battle before the first 911 call is made. Combine that factor with the use of plastics, resins and other fuels (furnishings) and we have our work cut out for us. Especially if we are not fighting fires as often as often as we used to.

While there is no magic fix, there are things that can be done to improve the odds of us having a successful mission, and returning to the firehouse. Many of these things require buy in, not in the financial sense, but in the sense of commitment from Administrations to Company Officers to the Backstep Firefighter. They require us all to realize that we don’t know everything there is about the enemy we face, and that even if every single thing goes right, we could still end up on the losing end of the battle.

One problem is, and has always been, is that not one united voice. The aggressive firefighters think the safety sallies are more worried about their vests, and the safety sallies think anyone who goes inside is a cowboy. Ok, maybe those are exaggerations, but hopefully it made you chuckle.

There is no one fix. The Ten Commandments for the Fire Service are difficult to write because not all fire departments have the same manpower, alarms assignments, building construction, capabilities and equipment. We all have to figure out what works for us, and then hone and refine that so that whether we are doing 2 fires a year or 100 fire a year, we are on our A game every time.

We need to evaluate the calls where the fire went out, and no one got hurt and figure out what was done right and wrong. Then we need to address the wrong. So often the difference between life and death is “shit luck”. Far too often we ignore just how close we came.

While the spirit of Everyone Goes Home is valid, if we constantly beat this into our firefighters heads, what is the message we are sending? Is it a message of safety and concern? Or is it a message of fear and tentativeness? We need to accept the reality that everyone might not go home, no matter how well prepared we are.

In the late 1950’s the “Code of Conduct for Members of the Armed Forces of the United States” was introduced. This “Code” was recited every morning by the troops at reveille. It was designed to “steel the will of the soldiers” in response the manner in which American POWs conducted themselves after being captured in Korea. Colonel David Hackworth writes of the Code, “If we’d had hardened, well-trained, and well led soldiers in Korea, we wouldn’t have had all those POWs to begin with. The U.S. Marine Corps had very few”. Colonel Hackworth goes on to say, “To me, the “Code of Conduct” was a silly and degrading exercise. And it was potentially dangerous too, in that as an Army Wide Preventive wartime cure-all, it could easily lead to even worse complacency in the peacetime training program.” The Code addresses the symptoms, not the disease.[1]

As I read these words by Colonel Hackworth, I could not help but see some similarities to the position the fire service finds itself in now. While our training and learning needs to be constant, what we learn needs to be folded back into the basics that we have trained and relied on. If we constantly seek to add new techniques and methods, we dilute the value of the training our firefighters are receiving and possibly even do a disservice to them and the fire service as a whole.

We need our firefighters to be capable and confident. Confidence is not bred out of a constant drum beat of how many ways you can die. Confidence comes from good realistic, repetitive training and then practical execution. We need to review out actions and tell of firefighters when they did well, and when they need to improve. We all need to become serious about the fact that this is a profession. We need to focus on making sure we are the best at what we do.

What do you think the 2011 Firefighting is going to be? Trained and confident? Or tentative and fearful?

1. “About Face: The Odyssey of An American Warrior” Col. David H. Hackworth (U.S. Army Ret.), Julie Sherman, Touchstone 1989

Photographs courtesy of Bill Carey, Wayne Barrall.

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  • Capt. Keith A. Edson says:

    Excellent article. I am the Captain of Engine Co. 6 in Providence RI and as such the bulk of neww firefighter training falls on my shoulders. I try to teach my men and women to be Aggressively defensive. While this might sound strange I believe in every aspect of firefighting from driving to putting the wet stuff on the red stuff we need to be aggressive while always being defensive of our situation. Perhaps a better way of stating this is to always be aggressively thinking how to defend yourself when the “what ifs” become “Oh Shit”

  • Dave LeBlanc says:

    Capt, Thanks for the feedback. A friend of mine from Texas says we need to change aggressive to decisive. He feels it more accurately represents how we should behave. By reading the conditions and conducting our size up to then deciding how and what actions to take.

    Your method is much like a military mindset, where soldiers may be attacking, but are always prepared to defend themselves when the feces hit he fan.

  • This is excellent antidote to the perverse consequences of the EGH mentality.

  • Ray McCormack says:

    Bill, your subtitle says it all. There will be both types of firefighters in 2011. One group will be trained to be confident. The other will be taught to be tentative and fearful. The fear of fighting fire within the fire service must be replaced with quality fire training that builds confidence and knowledge so that we are truely prepared.
    Ray McCormack

  • Aaron Fields says:

    Words matter, or more to the point, how we subtly define them matters. I believe that “aggressive” firefighting is not the problem, it is the solution. For my definition, aggressive means understanding; our tools, what you have with regards to fire, and what you likely will have. It means understanding the “how’s and why’s.”
    It means being able to make an aggressive interior attack, or making the call to go “defensive” when the situation dictates. It means, being able to make choices based upon our environment, experience, and education with regards to the job.

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