Don’t Look Now, But Someone Broke the Cookie Cutter

Not sure it ever worked in the first place

We are in a fascinating period of time for the fire service.  Never before have the resources (financial, physical and mental) been greater.  We are finally looking at fires, how they burn, how conditions change.  We are looking a fuel packages, flow paths.  We are discussing heat release rates and polar vortexes.  Oh wait, the polar vortex is the weather people.   The information from these studies is very interesting.  It has proven to us some things we have always known, but it has quantified them scientifically – versus them being based on theory from experience.  I guess you could say input the math into our gut feelings. 

For example, we have always known that our entry point was also a ventilation point.  Every fire photo you look at of the first line going in shows that.  In fact if you think about, it is a larger ventilation point than most holes cut in the roof.  However I am not sure we always consciously considered it a vent point.  While we knew it was an opening to inside, most probably classified it as an entry point.

Maybe we don’t need to close the door, maybe we need to stop screwing around and just get water on the fire!

What has come out of the studies is the need to control this entry/vent point to make sure we dictate – as much as we can – how the fire is vented.  While some see a wholesale change in how we operate, closing the door and controlling the fire, is it really? Maybe we haven’t always treated the front door in this fashion, but haven’t we always used a closed door as tool to control the fire until we can put it out?  Haven’t most escape instructions for civilians including closing the door when they leave?

It is also emphasizing a different issue, one that goes back to our proficiency and training.  It is emphasizing the need to get water on the seat of the fire more quickly.  It is emphasizing the need to have your line ready and charged, so when that door opens the line moves in.  It tells us if you can’t get that line to the seat quickly, you might have to wait until you can.  You might have to hit it through a window to keep it in check.  And then again you might be able to just attack the fire the way you always have, force the door and move right in. 

A few years back we began to understand that wind is a big factor.  Even a slight breeze can have significant impact on the fire floor.  As with most information this came out of experience; see Dec 18, 1998 – 17 Vandalia Avenue, Brooklyn; Dec 23, 1998 – 124 West 60th Street, Manhattan (Macaulay Culkin Fire); Apr 16, 2007 – Marsh Overlook Dr., Prince William County.  We now have a clearer understanding of how the weather affects our operations.  No longer are we primarily concerned with just the temperature (hot or cold). 

As a result of these events, wind driven fires became a firehouse term.  We looked at how we operated, even in the land of 1 story ranches, and added another piece of knowledge to our size up.  We now considered the effects of the wind on every fire.  We incorporated into our decisions on when to vent and where to vent.  And we made sure that we were prepared if Mother Nature and Murphy got together.

My point is this, we learned and we adapted, but there wasn’t a wholesale change in how we operated.  There were times when we had work differently, but there were other times when we could operate as we have before.

With the results of the UL/NIST Studies it seems that the message is that every fire department and every firefighter needs to change.  The message is that what they used to know is wrong, and what the studies produced is the new ‘gospel’.  They must immediately abandon what they have done in the past and change how they operate at every fire.  At the end of the day, while the results mean the same things for everyone in terms of fire behavior, they mean different things in terms of how we operate.   The variable is, and always has been, the capabilities of the department.

When was the last time you fought a building fire, inside another building? (UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute photo)

When was the last time you fought a building fire, inside another building? (UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute photo)

Every fire is unique, in the fact that no matter how similar it is to a thousand fires before, the fire wasn’t in that building, at that time, being fought by that department and those firefighters.  The real world is a not a laboratory.   When exactly was the last time you fought a house fire inside a large warehouse?  Conditions cannot be duplicated exactly, so for someone an urban/metro department to try and tell someone from a rural department how to operate is ridiculous.   Likewise that rural guy has no idea how to operate in a land of 30 seconds until your next due arrives and five-man engine companies.  And for anyone to try and tell both departments that they must operate the same way makes very little sense.  “Local knowledge’ trumps so many other things when it comes to fire operations.  So maybe instead of gospel, this information is just another hymn in the hymnal, familiar and ready for use but not always needed.

This does not discount the value of the information from the UL/NIST studies, in fact it makes it all the more important.  If you are a student of the game then you are committed to reading about, learning about and practicing every aspect of this job.  The UL Information is critical into your understanding fire behavior, and how smoke is fuel, how it flows through the building, and how everything you do impacts how it behaves.  But you cannot control when a window will fail, how fire will extend into to void spaces, how the weather will impact fire growth, how any alterations to the building with affect fire spread and access.   You can however control how well prepared you are, your crew is (maybe), the tactics employed and the actions taken (again maybe).  We have known forever or a little longer that coordination between fire attack and ventilation is critical.  We now know more.  We now know that however true that was, it is ever more critical in today’s fires, with today’s fuel.  We also know that this job requires training, discipline and preparedness.  Firefighting is series of fluid actions by individuals used in a coordinated manner.  We should all know the scheme, the basic plan, and our assignments.  But then we all work individually, as a team to get the job done.  Our actions should be dictated by the plan (SOPs), our training, and what we are faced with based on conditions and the knowledge we have.

As firefighters we must be able to translate our training, educations and the lessons learned into our situation.   While it is critical that we constantly learn about our enemies, it is equally critical that we apply that knowledge where it is needed in our operations.  We do not need others to tell us what to do and how to do it.  Quite simply, they are not in our shoes.  And while fighting fire is fighting fire, all of us go about it differently based on our resources, training and experiences.  The fire you face is your fire alone, and regardless of what others may tell you can and cannot do, unless they know your circumstances it really makes no difference.

For example, a comment was written about VES last week on Facebook while discussing the Dunmore, PA fire video , the gist was, “VES is a last ditch tactic, that should only be done if you have positive confirmation that a victim is located in that room and no other means of rescue are available.”  Those that are trained in VES and use it on a regular basis know this is not 100% accurate.  For places that operate with a dedicated truck, VES is a primary tactic, used to search the area where the fire is spreading to, also the area where victims are most likely to be located.  However, this does not mean the author of the comment is wrong; it is his explanation of how his department uses VES.  Maybe that is the level they are comfortable operating at based on their training.  If it is what works for them, then that is what is important.  And as long as they don’t then tell everyone else this is how you have to do VES, there really is no problem.

This seems to be the crux of the problem, across the country there are thousands of fire departments and suddenly there being told, “You’re doing it wrong.”  Just like Stevie told Brian in ‘Backdraft’.  But are they really doing it wrong?  Is the data from these studies so markedly different from what we already know?  Or is it a verification of things that we assumed?  And while the studies were comprehensive and produced repeatable results, what about some of the real world factors that may change the ‘experiment’?  Failing windows, void spaces, different construction types. Whether it is a lack of experience, or a lack of confidence, there seems to be a huge push by some to abandon everything we know in the name of ‘safety’.  It seems as though we as a service grab ahold of something and advocate for it, because we are at a loss for how to fix our issues.  Or we are unwilling to do what really needs to be done.  Hard work, lots of practice and constant learning.

To be fair, some of you are the problem as well.  Some of you are unwilling to learn, you refuse to accept that things may be different, you refuse to acknowledge the mistakes you make.  As professionals we should be honest enough to know there is always room for improvement and that we can always do better.  When things go wrong we should be honest enough to except we should have done better. Every day there are countless examples of what not to do on YouTube.  We try and learn from them, but it usually deteriorates rapidly into name calling and quarterbacking.  Regardless of the value of the lessons to be learned, we often cannot take the criticism that comes with it.  We do not like others telling us what we did wrong, or what we could do better.  No one really does.  One of reason so many people think the NIOSH reports lacking, because if they wrote the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth…..well to paraphrase Colonel Nathan Jessop, “We can’t handle the truth…”   To be effective firefighters we must digest the information from these studies and then apply it to OUR own circumstances.  However the key here is being able to translate what happened to others into where it fits in your department.

To some this will be an unpopular position.  I understand their view, and am in no way trying to minimize the importance of these studies.  But equally important is the necessity for us to do the job that is expected of us.  It is important that we train on the basics and prepare to fight our fires, in our towns to the best of our abilities as our resources and training allow.   And in some cases, we may not need to change anything.  Perhaps what we are doing is working just fine.  In that case we have increased our knowledge with the data from the studies, and then verified that our tactics work and no change is needed.   And that should be enough.  We cannot expect to find a blanket solution for all departments.  The differences between departments are staggering.  A fire that is considered uncontrollable to some is the work for a single engine and truck for others. 

This job is inherently dangerous; we have all heard that since day one. It is made more so by those that are timid, unsure or hesitant to act.  Whether this is caused by their training, or their lack of experience, not acting, or delaying action can be just as dangerous as charging in blindly.   All that risk avoidance does is to make the situation less safe for someone else.  And that someone else could be civilian or firefighter.   The UL/NIST studies have not show that we should fight every fire from outside; the studies are not evidence for those uncomfortable with taking risk, validating their risk avoidance mantra.

What the UL/NIST studies have shown is that there is no silver bullet, no one thing you can change.  The studies show that more than ever we need to look at and interpret what we are seeing.  We need to think.  We need to fight the fire in front of us, based on what we see, what we know and what we can do.  The studies have shown more than ever that there is no one size fits all answer, no cookie cutter solution to today’s fire problem.

Photo courtesy of Gene Shaner, Clayton Fire Co./

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Dave LeBlanc is a Captain with the Harwich, Massachusetts Fire Department. Dave entered the Fire Service in 1986 as a Call Firefighter with the Dennis Fire Department. He worked full time during the summers in Dennis, while attending the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. While at the University of New Haven, Dave studied Arson Investigation. He also was a volunteer with the Allingtown and West Haven Fire Districts in West Haven. He spent his sophomore year as a Live In student with the Allingtown Fire District. His education included internships with the Aetna Insurance Company and the Boston Fire Department Arson Squad.

In 1993 Dave went to work full-time with the Harwich Fire Department as a dispatcher. In 2000 he transferred into suppression and was promoted to Lieutenant in 2008. In addition to his regular duties, Dave also manages the Department’s Radio system, is responsible for conducting Fire Investigations, and assists in maintaining the computers systems.

Dave’s blog tends to focus on current day issues and maintaining a commitment to the ideals and principals that created the fire service, while keeping today’s firefighters safe.

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  • Craig says:

    It's ironic that after all this technology, training, tests, fire modeling it boils back down to the basics. Putting water on the fire either inside or out. It's the same thing we've been doing for a hundred years. Yes tactics have changed but the fact it takes the right hose line in the right place at the right time to get the job done hasn't changed. Just think of how many problems are solved just by putting the fire out.

    "If you put out the fire, you won't have to jump out the window" Andy Fredericks

  • Ray McCormack says:

    Nice piece Dave.


  • Dave LeBlanc says:

    Thanks Ray

  • Larry Rich says:

    Well stated. Reading many of your points I felt like you were reading my mind. Too many people, and departments are scared to change, scared to adapt. Everything we learn, and everything studies like NIST/UL reveal just allow us to put another tool in our tool box. Too many people forget that making the heat, and the fire go away eliminates so many of the problems you face on the fire ground.

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