Firefighting Back to The Future


A dialogue about research in a guest post from Jim McCormack


Remember when firemen wore denim jackets and three-quarter boots? Remember when there was one, maybe two, SCBA in boxes on the apparatus? Remember when firemen arrived to find fire blowing out 2 windows and a door on the front of the house? When those crews showed up, they stretched lines and opened the nozzle somewhere along the path from the engine to the front of the house and started knocking down the fire so that they could eventually push in and put it out.

There were also plenty of those fires that, on arrival, presented with thick smoke but no fire. The guys often employed a slightly different approach when they encountered this type of situation…they might take a window or two in an attempt to lift the smoke a bit so they could start to make a push. The ventilation might light things up a bit but, in all honesty, they were actually looking for that so they could start making a knock on things.

Add a victim or two to the above situations and not a whole lot changed for most departments, mainly because most departments didn’t have the staffing to do more than one thing at a time. For those departments that were large enough to have multiple companies (engine and truck) the hoses were stretched and the victims were dealt with simultaneously.

Fast forward to today and let’s take a quick snapshot.

We’ve moved from denim and rubber to bunkers (too many options to list one). SCBA is a welcomed reality! Fire blowing from the front door and two windows, in most departments, is still handled pretty much the same way. There are plenty out there who move closer, and sometimes push in further, than they should because of the protection afforded by the gear—but there are also plenty that approach it the same way described above. The difference, we’ve become somewhat less educated (even though we’re actually a lot better educated) and our senses have been dulled by technology.

The above representations are an over-simplification because there really is a lot more that goes into a fireground operation (modern or from days gone by). If you know much about me you’ll know I’m often accused of being too simplistic. Lazy too! You see in my quest to be an over-achiever I’ve found that the simpler I can keep things, and the fewer steps I can use to get something done, the quicker I can do things and the more I can get done!

Not that there is anything against trying to find out more about both the contents that are burning and the buildings they are burning in but it really does seem that the time being spent on all of this is far exceeding the time being spent learning and performing the basic skills of suppression.

Here’s a simple suggestion to get some dialogue started…how about for every fire we light to study fire behavior, building characteristics, ventilation, flow paths and all of the other measured criteria being looked at we also light a fire with the express purpose of training guys to perform the fireground tactics required to put it out. And for every paper that is written detailing the information gleaned from the data studies there is also a paper written regarding sizing-up, stretching, forcing entry, searching, laddering, extinguishing, venting, rescuing, overhauling, and all of the other tactical skills used to solve the suppression side of the fireground problem.

Recently there was a record jackpot for the Mega Millions. During all the hype about what one might do with such a huge windfall one network ran a quick story on what some of the major charities could do with even 20% of the winnings…feed X number of people, clothe X number of people, build X number of houses, etc.

Just imagine the immediate fireground impact if we took 20% of the funding used to conduct all of the recent studies regarding fire behavior, building construction, burn characteristics of today’s combustibles, tactical impacts and the like and let X number of firemen practice putting out real fires! Bet every one of them would say they just won the lottery!

Photo courtesy of Filippelli

Jim McCormack is best known for the service Fire Department Training Network. Click the image below to learn more about FDTN


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  • Marques Bush says:

    Backstep, Jim

    Homerun, wish I could say more, but what was important has already been said. Thank you for walking the talk with your network, and degree program. 

  • Matt Parrish says:

    Education can't replicate experience, but it can enhance it. Well said !!!

  • Shan Raffel says:

    Practice does not make perferct. Perfect practice make perfect. The ground breaking research is ensuring that the foundation of our actions is based on the current built environment and latest scientific knowledge. As the environment changes and more knowledge is gained, we must continue to reevaluate the way we fight fires and the way we train. Just because an approach worked well 50 years ago does not mean it is the best way today.

    So we must insure that the practical training is producing the most effective and safe fire and rescue practices. We owe that to the people we serve and to our colleagues who risk their lives.  

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