Are We Missing The Target?

Dave LeBlanc on whether or not the fire service has shifted too far from basics to last chance training.

For those of you that follow the news and happenings of the fire service, you may have noticed an increase in the number of bailouts reported. Now certainly some of this is a result of the media figuring out that a firefighter bailing out isn’t a normal occurrence, so as one outlet begins reporting it, others follow suit. But it begs the question, why? Why are so many of our brothers bailing out? Have that many incidents occurred where things have gone that wrong?

This year’s Safety Stand Down had the following theme: Surviving the Fire Ground: Fire Fighter, Fire Officer & Command Preparedness. Now that is a great topic, and certainly one that should be a part of every firefighter and every officer’s training. Knowing what to do when you get in trouble certainly goes a long way toward saving firefighter lives. But what about preventing our members from getting in trouble in the first place? Is that something that we focus enough on?

How many hours did you spend on fire behavior this year? Two, five, ten? How many more did you spend on building construction? Until we understand our enemy, the fire and the building we operate in, how can we expect not to get in trouble? Until we understand what the environment we work in feels like through our PPE, how we can expect our firefighters not to go in too far. Until we address the need for an awareness of the hazards of the situations we operate in, how can we expect our firefighters and officers to make good decisions?

John Norman writes that a firefighter should never put themselves in a position where they have to rely on someone else to get out. Think about that one simple statement. It covers a lot of territory. As firefighters we must constantly evaluate where we are operating, what the conditions are, and what our way out is. We need to do this while trying to accomplish our goals for that particular fire.

If we become too focused on the objective, then we may miss certain clues that tell us not to overextend. If we don’t spend enough time training our firefighters about fire behavior, those clues may be missed as well. There has been a lot of discussion regarding Situational Awareness. SA is the understanding of the environment around you; the conditions and clues that you see, heart and feel. But how are we supposed to interpret those signs, if we have little or no training in their meaning? How do we know what is happening if we do not have the experience factor of having seen, heard and felt those conditions before?

It is amazing how much training is offered in MAYDAY and bailout operations and techniques, but at the same time so little is offered about Fire Behavior. In no way does this suggest that the MAYDAY and bailout training isn’t important. Nor does it suggest that any of the recent cases of firefighters having to egress via bailouts are a result of anything but unavoidable circumstances. But as we have seen from various NIOSH reports and others readings, our lack of understanding of fire behavior and building construction has a significant impact on ability to survive in the hostile conditions we encounter. Situational Awareness also involves an understanding of how our actions will impact those same conditions. This means that we must have the knowledge of what ventilation, fire attack, and searching will do to the building around us; as well as an understanding of the potential dangers it places us in.

But if we continue to limit our training in fire behavior and building construction, how can we really expect to understand?

Another issue is that classes on fire behavior can be so “scientific” that the average firefighter struggles to understand so of the most basic concepts. While there is science behind it, does the average firefighter need to know the formulas for determining wattage to effectively understand Heat Release Rates? Building construction material can be equally as confusing, which is why we need to develop training that keeps the interest of our firefighters while providing them with the critical information they need to stay alive.

One problem that is more difficult to overcome is developing the experience levels to compliment the increased knowledge we are discussing. While increasing our understanding of how and why fire does what it does will go a long way toward making our firefighters safer, we still need to develop and improve better ways to see it, hear it and feel it. Certainly the flashovers and backdraft simulators go a long way toward this, but how many are taking advantage of their existence? In service building familiarization can be used to “show” our firefighters different types of building construction, and at the same time offer discussion about tactics and strategy that will apply in our Towns and our buildings.

Until we put the emphasis on knowing our opponent and the playing field, we can expect to continue to read about firefighters getting injured and killed, incidents going badly and close calls. They represent the cornerstones in the foundations of our training and yet are topics we often we spend the least amount of time learning about.

Three out in under 30 seconds. Have we also learned how to not get in that spot as well?

“Safety Week 2011” Padgett, May 2011
“A Closer Look at the UL Ventilation Study” Hartin, May 2011
“The Art of “Reading Fire”” Raffel, July 2011
“New Rules for Modern Building Construction” Naum, February 2010
“Our “Reserve Chute” Should Not Be the Operational Norm” Sendlebach, July 2010
“Understanding, Anticipating & Avoiding Flashover” Hartin, August 2008
“Impact of Ventilation on Fire Behavior in Legacy and Contemporary Residential Construction” Steve Kerber PE, Research Engineer, UL

Photos courtesy Wayne Barrall/

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  • Angus Davison says:


  • John Mitchell says:

    Amen. What a great moment in what’s happening to commit to revisit the 2 most overlooked and important topics. Vow to train on fire behavior and building construction- now, regularly, and religiously. They are the foundation upon which all else is supported. Great job, my brother!

  • Jason says:

    This statement is brought to you by a RIT instructor: DAMN RIGHT!!! You hit paydirt with this one! I believe in training for RIT functions and self survival. With that being said, I’ll always preach that if we spent more time training how to be proficient at our jobs, knowledgeable about fire behavior, informed about building construction, and disciplined on the fire ground, there would be little need for learning how to bail out a ladder head first or dangle from a window on a rope. Great stuff!

  • John Shafer says:

    AMEN brother you are spot on! I agree with FF Survival and RIT concepts and teach them as well but if we spent more time on training on Rapid PREVENTION alot of FF wouldn’t need RIT. My favorite quote. “But if we continue to limit our training in fire behavior and building construction, how can we really expect to understand?”

    John Shafer

  • Jason says:

    Rapid Prevention. I’m gonna have to use that one John.

  • Very well said Dave. We spend countless hours on mayday training as well as rapid intervention training. Both very important topics, but we also school our firefighters on the basics of how not to get jammed up in the first place. That is step #1 in keeping our brothers and sisters safe. Also, many firefighters “push the envelope” so to speak feeling they have a rapid intervention team to fall back on. Look at the numbers, rapid intervention is not always that rapid, take a look at some of the numbers I have on a post similar to this that I wrote,

  • As the late Andy Fredericks (FDNY Sq-18) once said…“If you put the fire out right in the first place, you won’t have to jump out the window”

    We must focus our SURVIVAL training on prevention, recognition and understanding of unfolding events on the fireground. Take the time to explain the “why”. Let them know the “why” it is what we do and when we do it….. to your students.

    Let them know that a “bailout” is an absolute last resort. Be sure that the BAILOUT ITSELF is NOT ALL THAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT.

    More info on the stat sheet that The Training Committee speaks of from a few months ago

  • Garrett Rice says:

    Right effort, wrong target. It always comes at a bad time when someone dies and our knee jerk reaction is to fix it so we dont have to attend another funeral. Problem is, even with the advent of RIT our numbers havent got any better. My first fire service instructor told me long ago, always be a student of Fire Behavior and Building Contruction. Know how its built and we will know how the fire is going to react. Awesome article and keep up the good work.

  • Training can be broken down into several types, Mayday and survival training are a necessary components to overall firefighter operational knowledge. As I have always said such training is failure based. Something went wrong and now we must escape from this new development. While there is nothing wrong with training for such happenings we must train on what caused the event and how to avoid it. Unfortunately the explosive growth and attention to this category of training has overshadowed fundamental extinguishment in many departments. There is a gadget that while not new does work very well in firefighter survival – the Nozzle.

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