Criticism Versus Critical Thinking

A few days ago I watched a video clip of a fire officer performing a vent enter search (VES) operation on Shortly after the officer made entry into the second floor, the room flashed over and he was forced to make emergency egress over a ladder.

Yesterday, I came across the same video clip on and saw that the Captain involved in the incident had posted his perspective on the event. There were quite a few posts related to this video and it took me a few minutes to find the Captain’s comments. Reading through the posts, I began to think about the nature and purpose of criticism.

Some firefighters can be quite judgemental, particularly when commenting on decisions or actions taken by someone else. This is often painfully evident when reading comments on fire service blogs or forums. I frequently use video clips and written case studies as learning and instructional tools. Often, these involve mistakes or errors in judgment on the part of the participants. However, it is important to remember that it is quite different to sit around the coffee table or in a classroom and discuss an incident than it is to be faced with a parent screaming that their child is trapped on the second floor of a burning building.

Firefighters and fire officers are faced with the need to rapidly assess the situation and make decisions under dynamic conditions and with limited information. Sometimes the outcome is good and in other cases, the outcome is injury or death in the line of duty. These injuries and deaths are unacceptable, but as long as humans are involved in fighting fires, we will occasionally make errors in judgement. The key is to work together to reduce the probability and frequency of these events.


A critic is a person who offers reasoned judgment or analysis, value judgment, interpretation, or observation. While is it possible for a critic to agree with what is being criticized, the term is more frequently applied with someone who disagrees.

Criticism can be constructive or destructive. Constructive criticism is compassionate and respectful. This is often the case when we receive useful feedback from a trusted colleague, friend, coach, or teacher. Constructive feedback is essential to participatory learning. Destructive criticism on the other hand serves to derogate and destroy someone’s work, reputation and self-esteem on whatever level it might be. Destructive criticism might be intentional or done out of ignorance and foolishness.

When criticism is raised, some firefighters say if you weren’t there you have no room to comment (negatively) or take offense when questions are raised about the appropriateness of the actions taken by firefighters who have been injuured or died in the line-of-duty. I strongly disagree with this position. It is essential that we examine these events from a constructively critical perspective to identify the lessons learned.

Decisions made under stress are influenced by many factors, including individual values, organizational culture, experience, training, and education. Photographs and video clips of fireground operations do not lay this foundation nor do they provide situational context such as reported information (e.g., persons trapped) or conditions outside the view of the camera.

VES and Emergency Egress

When using Vent, Enter, and Search (VES); firefighters make entry directly into threatened compartments from the exterior and isolate that compartment by closing the door and then conduct a primary search of that single compartment and exit throught the entry point/ventilation opening. This is a potentially high risk tactic that requires an ability to read the fire and experienced judgment related to both fire conditions and potential for rapid fire progression into the compartment to be searched. The following incident involved VES at a residential structure where rapid fire progress required the Captain conductin the search to perform emergency window egress from a second floor window onto a ladder.

Companies were dispatched to a residential fire at 0400 hours with persons reported. On arrival, cars were observed in the driveway and neighbors reported the likely location of a trapped occupant on the second floor.

Given fire conditions on Floor 1, the Captain of the first in truck, a 23 year vetran, determined that Vent, Enter, and Search (VES) was the best option to quickly search and effect a rescue. In his post on, Captain Van Sant provided the following information about his observations and actions:

When we vent[ed] the window with the ladder, it looks like the room is burning, but the flames you see are coming from the hallway, and entering through the top of the bedroom doorway. Watch it again and you’ll see the fire keeps rolling in and across the ceiling.

When I get to the window sill, the queen-sized bed is directly against the window wall, so there is no way to check the floor. Notice that you continue to see my feet going in, because I’m on the bed.

Believe me, in the beginning, this was a tenable room both for me and for any victim that would have been in there…

My goal was to get to the door and close it, just like VES is supposed to be done. We do it successfully all the time.

When I reached the other side of the bed, I dropped to the floor and began trying to close the door. Unfortunately, due to debris on the floor, the door would not close.

Conditions were still quite tenable at this point, but I knew with the amount of fire entering at the upper level, and smoke conditions changing, things were going to go south fast.

I kept my eyes on my exit point, and finished my search, including the closet, which had no doors on it. Just as I was a few feet from the window, the room lit off…

The following video clip illustrates conditions encountered at this residential fire:

Find more videos like this on

Things to Think About

Incidents in which persons are reported present considerable moral pressure to take action. The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Rules of Engagement for Structural Firefighting and Acceptability of Risk states:

All firefighting and rescue operations involve an inherent level of risk to firefighters.

A basic level of risk is recognized and accepted, in a mesured and controlled manner, in efforts that are routinely employed to save lives and property. These risks are not acceptable in situations where there is no potential to save lives or property.

A higher level of risk is acceptable only in situatios where there is a realistic potential to save known endangered lives. This elevated risk must be limited to operations that are specifically directed toward rescue and where there is a realistic potential to save the person(s) known to be in danger.

If you were faced with the circumstances described by Captain Van Sant and observed in the video clip:

  • In general, do you feel that VES an acceptable tactic when there are potentially savable lives? Why or why not?
  • Would you have initiated VES operations in this situation? Why or why not?
  • Based on conditions observed prior to entry, would you have committed to entering the room as Captain Van Sant did? Why or why not?
  • If you were the firefighter on the ladder outside the window, what action would you take while your crew member conducted the search?

The safety of firefighters or officers engaged in VES is dependent in part on the ability to close the door to the room being searched. This use of anti-ventilation changes the ventilation profile, permitting smoke to clear from the room, but reducing potential for fire exension into that compartment. In many cases this can be accomplished quickly, but in other situations the door cannot be closed (as occurred in this incident) or there may be no door present.

  • If you encountered this situation, what action would you take?
  • Under what circumstances would you discontinue the search to immediately exit the compartment?
  • What other strategies might be appropriate under these circumstances

Each of these questions focuses on what you would do if faced with this situation. It is important not to criticize simply for the purpose of pointing out others errors. The value in thinking critically is to help ourselves and others become more skilled at our craft. As Theodore Roosevelt observed:

Criticism is necessary and useful; it is often indispensable; but it can never take the place of action, or be even a poor substitute for it. The function of the mere critic is of very subordinate usefulness. It is the doer of deeds who actually counts in the battle for life, and not the man who looks on and says how the fight ought to be fought, without himself sharing the stress and the danger.

Entering a burning building to attempt a rescue takes courage. Not doing so, in the face of tremendous moral pressure when conditions and circumstances preclude savable lives also takes courage. Act on the basis of your knowledge, skill, and experience.

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO

4 Responses to “Criticism Versus Critical Thinking”

  1. Stefan Svensson Says:

    A comment to the clip: I would have brought a hoseline, which probably would have solved the problem.
    Regarding criticism: The problem in the fire and rescue community (and this is probably an international phenomenon) is that whatever you say or how you say it, it will in many (most?) cases be taken as negative criticism. For some reason, we are not very open minded to any criticism. Can one reason be that we consider fire fighting more as an art than science?

  2. PL Lamballais Says:

    I agree and at the same time, don’t agree with Stefan. This is not (unfortunatly) a typical “status” of firefighter. When we study the way and adult learn, we discover he learns wih 4 steps:
    1) incompetence without conscience. He don’t know he don’t know.
    2) incomptence with conscience. He knows he don’t know
    3) competence with conscience. He know how to do, but this needs an effort
    4) competence + inconscience. He know how to do and do it naturaly (like when you drive your car)

    When you start teaching, you must help the guys to go from state 1 to 2. But you CAN’T do that by talking to ONE guy. You MUST talk to the group, because the group protect itself. Don’t ask a guy “do you think you’ve made the right choice?”. But ask the groupe (in this example): “Is anti-ventilation a good practice?”. The group will answer and the group will discover the answers are differents. The main problem is that criticism work for one guy. Even if you try to be polite, gentle, even if you use humour, you still are an agressive person, because you make criticism.
    Just let the group make its own criticism.
    It works fine.

    This is not a fire problem. It’s a pedagogical one. And, sorry Stefan, but even if you consider firefighting as an Art or a Science, you will never change the world. Because at firefighter level, this is simply a technical action, like drilling a piece of wood or building a house. Not less, not more.

    Best regards

    PS:but I also agree with the fact that bringing a hoseline, seems to be logical! 🙂

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