Posts Tagged ‘firefighter safety’

FAQ-Fire Attack Questions Part 3

Saturday, April 27th, 2013


Thursday morning saw a sea change in perspectives on fire behavior in the United States! Over 2500 people were in the big room at FDIC to hear BC George Healey (FDNY), Dan Madryzkowski (NIST), Steve Kerber (UL), and LT John Ceriello (FDNY) talk about fire research conducted on Governors Island in New York.


This excellent presentation emphasized the importance of understanding fire behavior and the influence of flow path and provided several key tactical lessons, including:

  • Importance of control, coordination, and communication between crews performing fire attack and those performing tactical ventilation
  • The effectiveness of anti-ventilation such as closing the door (even partially) on slowing fire development
  • Effectiveness of water quickly applied into the fire compartment (from any location, but in particular from the exterior) in slowing fire progression
  • The demonstrated fact that flow path influences fire spread and not application of water. You can’t push fire with water applied into the fire compartment.
  • Importance of cooling the hot smoke (fuel) in the upper layer

Several years ago, who would have thought that a presentation on fire dynamics and research would have drawn this number of people to a presentation at FDIC. Kudos to FDNY, NIST, and UL for their ongoing work in developing an improved understanding of fire dynamics and firefighter safety.

FAQ (Fire Attack Questions) Continued

I had the opportunity to visit with Captain Mike Sullivan with the Mississauga Ontario Fire Department while at FDIC and we are continuing our dialog with another series of questions related to the characteristics of water fog and its use of a fog pattern for self-protection when faced with rapid fire progression in a structure fire.

The next three questions deal with using a fog stream for protection. In the IFSTA Essentials of Firefighting 5th edition it states that “wide fog patterns can also protect firefighters from radiant heat”, however in the IFSTA Essentials of Firefighting 3rd edition it states “In the past, water curtain broken stream nozzles were commonly used for exposure protection. However, research has indicated that these nozzles are only effective if the water is sprayed directly against the exposure being protected”. This tells me that fog patterns cannot protect from radiant heat.


Another question for which the answer is “it depends”. Both statements are correct (in context). Water droplets reduce radiant heat by absorbing energy and scattering the radiant energy. The effectiveness of these mechanisms depends on droplet size, wavelength of the radiation, geometric dimensions of the water spray, and density of the fog pattern. To put this in context, firefighters use a water spray for protection when approaching a flammable gas fire. In this context, the high density of the spray in proximity of the nozzle is quite effective. In contrast, application of a water spray between a fire and exposure is likely to be much less dense, and thus less effective in protecting the exposure than simply applying water to the exposure to keep its temperature <100o C.

In the past there was a belief (which some still believe) that if you find yourself in a bad situation in a house fire you can simply switch to a wide fog and it develops an “umbrella of protection from the heat and fire”. I believe this to be false. What I do think has happened in the past is that firefighters have found themselves in a room with extreme rollover or even had pockets of unburned gas igniting around them. When they used this technique they didn’t protect themselves with an umbrella of fog protection but they cooled the smoke layer and made the situation better.

This also is an interesting question, there are incidents where firefighters have opened the nozzle when caught in rapid fire progression and have survived (not necessarily uninjured), likely due to the cooling effects of the water spray. However, I would agree that this does not provide “an umbrella of protection” like a force field that provides complete protection. The benefit is likely by cooling of the hot gases above and potentially controlling some of the flaming combustion in the immediate area. However, as continuous application will likely not only cool the hot upper layer, but also generate a tremendous amount of steam on contact with compartment linings, the environment will not be tenable in the long term. However, this environment is likely more survivable than post-flashover, fully developed fire conditions.

Much the same as in driving or riding in fire apparatus, the best way to avoid death and injury in a crash is to not crash in the first place. If firefighters recognize worsening fire conditions, they should cool the upper layer to mitigate the hazards presented, if this is ineffective, withdrawing while continuing to cool the upper layer is an essential response.

My last comment on this; and this is where I am not really sure. If you are in a situation where you need to back out quickly, would it work to use a fog stream to push the heat away as you are reversing out of the structure? You would only do this for a short time while you retreat.

If you cannot put water on the fire to achieve control (shielded fire) or the heat release rate (HRR) of the fire exceeds the cooling capacity of your stream you are in a losing position. When faced with rapidly deteriorating thermal conditions, it is essential to cool the upper layer. It is important to note that cooling, not simply “pushing the heat away” is what needs to happen in this situation. This action reduces heat flux from both convective and radiant transfer. Adequate water must be applied to accomplish this task, as temperature increases so too does the water required. Long pulses provide a starting point, but the pulses need to be long enough to deliver the required water. If needed, flow could be continuous or near continuous while the crew withdraws. In much the same manner a crew working with a solid stream nozzle would operate the nozzle in a continuous or near continuous manner and rotate the stream to provide some cooling to the upper layer while withdrawing.

There are those who believe that you can use a fog stream to protect yourself in a house fire by pushing the heat away from you as you advance on the fire. I believe you can push heat away from you and it happens in 2 distinct ways,  the wide fog with the entrained air is literally pushing the heat away from you and you have now created high pressure in an area that was low pressure (typically you are near an open door) so you have effectively changed the flow path. Having said this, I feel the benefits are short lived. With this fog pattern you will also be creating a lot of steam which will continue expanding until it’s temperature reaches equilibrium with the rest of the fire compartment (expansion could be as high as 4000 times). With all this pushing and expansion you are now creating high pressure in an area down stream from you that had previously been a low pressure area. As we know, everything is trying to move from high to low pressure, now the low pressure area is directly behind the nozzle. Now you are in a situation where not only is the heat coming back behind the nozzle but there is an enormous amount of steam being created and heading your way. The confusion here is most likely with the techniques we use when practicing for gas fires, we do this outside where there is an endless amount of space to push the heat away (I read this part in a good article in Fire Engineering).

The impact of continuous application of a fog stream (or any stream for that matter) as you advance is dependent on a number of factors, principal among which are the flow path and where steam is produced (in the hot gas layer versus on contact with surfaces). Continuous application is likely to result in vaporization of a significant amount of water on contact with surfaces; this will result in addition of steam to the hot upper layer without corresponding contraction of the hot gases that results from vaporization of water while it is in the gases. Without ventilation in front of the fog stream (or any stream for that matter), this can result in a reduction in tenability. However, when ventilation in front of the stream is provided, a combination attack (using a fog pattern, straight, or solid stream) can be quite effective for fully developed fire conditions.

I was hoping you could elaborate on the term “painting”. It is defined as a “gentle application of water to cool without excess steam production”. The hard part as a firefighter is the word “gentle” as this word doesn’t register in firefighter lingo. I can see this during overhaul but was hoping you could elaborate.

The way that I typically explain the concept of “gentle” is using a fire in a small trash can or other incipient fire inside of a building. If you use a hoseline to extinguish this fire, it is unlikely that you will need a high flow rate or application of the stream with the bail of the nozzle fully open. It would be appropriate to simply open the nozzle slightly on a straight stream and apply a small amount of water to the burning fuel.

Surface cooling can be done using a vigorous application from a distance when faced with a well involved compartment. In this situation, the reach of the stream is appropriately used to extinguish the fire and cool hot surfaces from a distance to minimize thermal insult to firefighters while quickly achieving control. However when faced with hot and pyrolizing compartment linings or contents, it may be useful or necessary to cool these surfaces from closer proximity. In this case applying water with force will result in much of the water bouncing off the surfaces and ending up on the floor. Painting involves using a straight stream or narrow fog pattern with the nozzle gated back to provide a gentle application resulting in a thin layer of water on the hot surface. As you note, this is most commonly used during overhaul, but could be used anytime that there is a need to cool hot, pyrolizing, but unignited surfaces.

Next week Mike and I will conclude this series of FAQ with a look at pyrolysis and flow path.


“Flashover Training”

Saturday, April 6th, 2013

This week’s questions focus on training firefighters to recognize, prevent, and if necessary react appropriately to flashover conditions. Casey Lindsay of the Garland, Texas Fire Department sent an e-mail to a number of fire behavior instructors regarding how they conduct “flashover training”

One of the challenges we face in discussing fire behavior training, particularly live fire training is the result of variations in terminology. Differences exist in the way that live fire training props are described and in fire control techniques. For this discussion, CFBT-US defines the type of prop pictured below as a “split level demo cell”. This terminology is derived from the original purpose of this design as conceived by the Swedish Fire Service in the 1980s. The split level cell is intended for initial fire behavior training focused on observation of fire development. As used in the United States (and some other parts of the world) it is described as a “flashover simulator” or “flashover chamber”. This provides a disconnect in context as this prop is not intended and does not subject the participants in training to flashover conditions, but simply provides an opportunity to observe fire development through the growth stage and recognize some potential cues of impending flashover.


Note: The prop illustrated above is a Split level cell at the Palm Beach County Fire Training Center.

Container based props can be configured in a variety of ways for both demonstration and fire attack training. Most commonly single compartment cells are single level or split level design. Multiple compartment cells are arranged in a variety of ways with containers placed in an “L”, “H” or other configuration.

Do you currently teach firefighters that “Penciling control techniques can be used to give firefighters additional time to escape a flashover”?

We define penciling as an intermittent application using a straight stream as compared to pulsing which uses a fog pattern or painting which is a gentle application of water to hot surfaces. We do not teach penciling, pulsing, or painting as a technique to give firefighters additional time to escape flashover. We use gas cooling (short or long pulses) and coordination of fire attack and ventilation to control the environment and prevent or reduce the potential for firefighters to encounter flashover. However, long pulses (or continuous application) while withdrawing is taught as a method of self-protection if fire conditions exceed the capability of the crew engaged in fire attack.

In response to Casey’s questions, Jim Hester, with the United States Air Force (USAF) presents an alternative perspective:

No! We do not teach penciling or 3D Fog attack anymore. We did temporarily after receiving our training as instructors in the flashover trainer. We gave the technique an honest look and conducted research using Paul Grimwood’s theories. We decided there are too many variables. For example; what works in a room and contents [fire] will not work in heavy fire conditions inside a commercial. The last thing we want is someone penciling any fire, inside any structure, that requires constant water application until the fire is darkened down. That’s what we teach.  Open the nozzle for as long as it takes to get knock down and then shut the nozzle down. [It is as] simple as that. If you take that approach, even in the flashover trainer you will alleviate confusion or misapplication of your fire stream.

While I have a considerably different perspective, Jim raises several good points. I agree that there are many variables related to fire conditions and room geometry. If firefighters are trained in lock step manner that short pulses are used to control the temperature overhead, there will definitely be a challenge in transitioning from the container to a residential fire and even more so when confronted with a commercial fire. However, if firefighters are introduced to the container as a laboratory where small fires are used to develop understanding of nozzle technique, rather than a reflection of real world conditions, this presents less of an issue.

As Jim describes, fire conditions requiring constant application in a combination attack with coordinated tactical ventilation, may not be controlled by short pulses. However, when cooling hot smoke on approach to a shielded fire, constant application of water will likely result in over application and less tenable conditions (too much water may not be as bad as too little, but it presents its own problems).

Most firefighters, even those that advocate continuous application, recognize that a small fire in a trash can or smoldering fire in a upholstered chair or bed does not require a high flow rate and can easily be controlled and extinguished with a small amount of water. On the other hand, a fully developed fire in a large commercial compartment cannot be controlled by a low flow handline. To some extent this defines the continuum of offensive fire attack, small fires easily controlled by direct application of a small amount of water and large fires that are difficult to control without high flow handlines (or multiple smaller handlines). There is not a single answer to what is the best application for offensive fire attack. Shielded fires require control of the environment (e.g., cooling of the hot upper layer) to permit approach and application of direct or combination attack. Fires that are not shielded present a simpler challenge as water can be brought to bear on the seat of the fire with less difficulty.

Nozzle operators must be trained to read conditions and select nozzle technique (pulsed application to cool hot gases versus penciling or painting to cool hot surfaces) and fire control methods (gas cooling, direct attack, indirect attack, or combination attack) based on an assessment of both the building and fire conditions.

What flashover warning signs do you cover during the classroom portion of flashover training?

We frame this discussion in terms of the B-SAHF (Building, Smoke, Air Track, Heat, and Flame) indicators used in reading the fire (generally, not just in relation to flashover).


Building: Flashover can occur in all types of buildings. Consider compartmentation, fuel type, and configuration, ventilation profile, and thermal properties of the structure. Anticipate potential for increased ventilation (without coordinated fire control) to result in flashover when the fire is burning in a ventilation controlled regime (most fires beyond the incipient stage are ventilation controlled). Note that these indicators are not all read during the incident, but are considered as part of knowing the buildings in your response area and assessing the building as part of size-up.

Smoke: Increasing volume, darkening color and thickness (optical density), lowing of the level of the hot gas layer.

Air Track: Strong bi-directional (in at the bottom and out at the top of an opening), turbulent smoke discharge at openings, pulsing air track (may be an indicator of ventilation induced flashover or backdraft), and any air track that shows air movement with increasing velocity and turbulence.

Heat: Pronounced heat signature from the exterior (thermal imager), darkened windows, hot surfaces, hot interior temperatures, observation of pyrolysis, and feeling a rapid increase in temperature while working inside (note that this may not provide sufficient warning in and of itself as it is a late indicator).

Flame: Ignition of gases escaping from the fire compartment, flames at the ceiling level of the compartment, isolated flames in the upper layer (strong indicator of a ventilation controlled fire) and rollover (a late indicator).

How do you incorporate the thermal imaging camera into your flashover class?

We do not teach a “flashover” class. We incorporate learning about flashover (a single fire behavior phenomena) in the context of comprehensive training in practical fire dynamics, fire control, and ventilation (inclusive of tactical ventilation and tactical anti-ventilation). Thermal imagers (TI) are used in a variety of ways beginning with observation of small scale models (live fire), observation of fire development (with and without the TI) and observation of the effects of fire control and ventilation.

Do you allow students to operate the nozzle in the flashover chamber?

We use a sequence of evolutions and in the first, the students are simply observers watching fire development and to a lesser extent the effects of water application by the instructor. In this evolution, the instructor limits nozzle use and predominantly sets conditions by controlling ventilation. If necessary the instructor will cool the upper layer to prevent flames from extending over the heads of the participants or to reduce the burning rate of the fuel to extend the evolution. Students practice nozzle technique (short and long pulses, painting, and penciling) outside in a non-fire environment prior to application in a live fire context. After the initial demonstration burn, students develop proficiency by practicing their nozzle technique in a live fire context.

When working in a single level cell rather than a split level cell (commonly, but inaccurately referred to as a “flashover chamber” or “flashover simulator”) we expand on development of students proficiency in nozzle technique by having them practice cooling the upper layer while advancing and importantly, while retreating. In addition, students practice door entry procedures that integrate a tactical size-up, door control, and cooling hot gases at the entry point.

Do you maintain two-in/two-out during flashover chamber classes?

We comply with the provisions of NFPA 1403 and provide for two-in/two-out by staffing a Rapid Intervention Crew/Company during all live fire training.

What is your fuel of choice for the 4×8 sheets (OSB, Particleboard or Masonite)?

We have used a variety of fuel types, but commonly use particle board. OSB tends to burn quickly, but can be used if this characteristic is recognized. We have also used a low density fiberboard product (with less glue) which performs reasonably well. The key with fuel is understanding its characteristics and using the minimum quantity of fuel that will provide sufficient context for the training to be conducted. I recommend that instructors conduct test burns (without students) when evaluating fuel packages that will be used in a specific burn building or purpose built prop (such as a demo or attack cell).

Do you have benches or seating in the flashover chamber?

No, firefighters are expected to be in the same position that they would on the fireground, kneeling or in a tripod position. When we work in a demo cell (“flashover chamber”) with benches, we keep the students on the floor.

Do you teach any flashover survival techniques, other than retreat/evacuate?

We focus first on staying out of trouble by controlling the environment. Second, we teach firefighters the skill of retreating while operating the hoseline (generally long pulses to control flames overhead). There are not really any options other than control the fire of leave the environment (quickly)! This is similar to James Hester’s answer of continuous flow, with a sweeping motion (long pulses can be applied in a sweeping manner, particularly in a large compartment). It is important to understand that a short pulse is extremely short (as fast as you can open the nozzle) and a long pulse is anything else (from several seconds to near continuous application, depending on conditions).

Refer to the series of CFBT Blog on Battle Drills for additional discussion developing proficiency in reaction to deteriorating conditions.

Additional Thoughts

Our perspective is that discussion of flashover should be framed in the context of comprehensive fire behavior training, rather than as a “special” topic. Practical fire dynamics must be integrated into all types of structural firefighting training, in particular: Hose Handling, Fire Control, and Tactical Ventilation (but the list goes on). When working with charged hoselines, take the time to practice good nozzle technique as well as moving forward and backward (do not simply stand up and flow water when performing hose evolutions). In fire control training (live fire or not), practice door control, tactical size-up, and door entry procedures. When training on the task activity of tactical ventilation (e.g., taking glass or cutting roof openings), make the decision process explicit and consider the critical elements of coordination and anticipated outcome of you actions.


Plan on attending Wind Driven Fires in Private Dwellings at Fire Department Instructors Conference, Indianapolis, IN on Wednesday April 24, 2013 in Wabash 3. Representing Central Whidbey Island Fire & Rescue, Chief Ed Hartin will examine the application of NIST research on wind driven fires to fires in private dwellings. This workshop is a must if the wind blows where you fight fires!



Battle Drill Part 2

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

A Quick Review

As discussed in the last post in this series, military battle drills are an immediate response to enemy contact that requires fire and maneuver in order to succeed. Battle drills are initiated with minimal commands from the unit leader. Soldiers or marines execute preplanned, sequential actions in response to enemy contact.

This post discusses application of the battle drill concept in training firefighters to react appropriately on contact with our enemy (the fire) which requires fire (application of water) and maneuver (movement to a safer location) in order to succeed.

Remember: The key elements of a battle drill are fire and maneuver! This requires the ability to operate and maintain control of the hoseline while moving backward.

Working Without a Hoseline

In the United States, it is common for some companies working on the fireground to operate inside burning buildings without a hoseline (particularly when performing search). While common, this practice places firefighters at considerable risk when faced with extreme fire behavior. Without a hoseline your only defense against rapid fire progress is recognition of developing conditions and immediate reaction to escape to a safer location (see video below); which is not always possible. In some cases, firefighters fail to recognize developing conditions or the speed with which conditions will change. In other cases, firefighters are unable to escape or take refuge outside the flow path of hot gases and flames quickly enough.


If your department’s operational doctrine includes companies working on the interior without a hoseline (or without being directly supported by a hoseline), it is essential that firefighters are trained to 1) recognize early indicators of potential for extreme fire behavior and 2) maintain a high level of awareness regarding locations which may provide an area of refuge. When confronted by rapidly worsening conditions, action to escape must be immediate and without hesitation.

Extreme Fire Behavior Battle Drill

Regardless of their assignment (e.g., fire attack, primary search), firefighters with a hoseline have a solid means of maintaining orientation, a defined primary escape route, and the ability to actively control the fire environment through application of water. However, as always, safe and effective operation in the fire environment is dependent on a solid size-up, dynamic risk assessment, maintenance of a high level of situational awareness, and proactively controlling the fire environment. The best way to deal with extreme fire behavior is to avoid it or prevent it from occurring. For more information on reading the fire and key fire behavior indicators related to potential for extreme fire behavior, see:

In situations where you were unable to recognize potential for extreme fire behavior or you have been unable to control the fire environment, immediate action is required!

This is my nozzle, there are many like it but this one is mine. My nozzle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I master my life. Without me it is useless, without my nozzle I am useless.

I will use my nozzle effectively and efficiently to put water where it is needed. I will learn its weaknesses, its strengths, its parts, and its care. I will guard it against damage, keep it clean and ready. This I swear.

As stated in the first paragraph of this adaptation of the United States Marine Corps Riflemans’ Creed, Without my nozzle I am useless.

The extent of thermal insult experienced in an extreme fire behavior event is dependent on both radiant and convective heat flux. Total radiant heat flux is dependent on temperature (of gases and compartment linings) and flow of hot gases. The higher the temperature and faster the speed of gas flow, the higher the heat flux. These scientific concepts drive the key elements of the extreme fire behavior battle drill. Extinguish or block the flames, cool hot gases, and maneuver out of the flow path to a point of egress or area of safer refuge.

Drill 8-Extreme Fire Behavior Battle Drill: Key hose handling and nozzle techniques when faced with extreme fire behavior are the ability to apply long pulses of water fog or maintaining a continuous flow rate while maneuvering backwards. This requires a coordinated effort on the part of the nozzle operator, backup firefighter, and potentially other firefighters working on the hoseline or at the point of entry.

Hose Handling & Nozzle Technique Drill 8 Instructional Plan

While this drill focuses on single company operations, it is important to extend this training to include crews operating backup lines. The importance, function, and operation of the backup line will be the focus of the next post in this series.

Not all That is Learned is Taught

When training to operate in a hazardous environment, avoid the mindset that it’s only a drill. As often observed, you will play the way that you practice. Extreme stress can activate inappropriate routine responses. For example, a Swedish army officer suddenly stood up while his unit was under fire while engaged in peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia. When asked about this response, he explained that in training, he often stood up while leading exercises (Wallenius, Johansson, & Larsson, 2002).

“A simple set of skills , combined with an emphasis on actions requiring complex and gross motor muscle operations (as opposed to fine motor control), all extensively rehearsed, allows for extraordinary performance levels under stress” (Grossman, 2008, p. 38).

When developing skill in nozzle technique and hose handline, and in particular the critical skills required to effectively perform this extreme fire behavior battle drill, it is essential to maintain critical elements of context such as appropriate use of personal protective equipment, position, and technique.

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO


Grossman, D. (2008). On-combat: The psychology and physiology of deadly conflict in war and peace. Millstadt, IL: Warrior Science Publications.

Wallenius, C. Johansson, C. & Larsson, G. (2002). Reactions and performance of Swedish peacekeepers in life-threatening situations. International Peacekeeping, 9(1), 133-152.

Be Safe!

Monday, June 15th, 2009

Safety Week 2009

June 14-20, 2009 is Fire & EMS Safety, Health, and Survival Week. CFBT-US urges you to take this week to examine your own habits and behaviors and common practices in your fire service organization with a critical eye and identify ways in which you can reduce your risk and improve the effectiveness of fireground operations.


IAFC Recommendations

The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) has published a list of recommendations to encourage individual and organizational responsibility for safety.

Safety: Emergency Driving (enough is enough-end senseless death)

  1. Lower speeds-stop racing to the scene. Drive safely and arrive alive to help others.
  2. Utilize seat belts-never drive or ride without them.
  3. Stop at every intersection-look in all directions and then proceed in a safe manner.

Health: Fire Fighter Heart Disease and Cancer Education and Prevention

  1. Don’t smoke or use tobacco products.
  2. Get active.
  3. Eat a heart-healthy diet.
  4. Maintain a healthy weight.
  5. Get regular health screenings.

Survival: Structural Size-Up and Situational Awareness

  1. Keep apprised of different types of building materials and construction used in your community.
  2. Develop a comprehensive size-up checklist.
  3. Always complete a 360 walk of the structure to collect valuable, operational decision-making information.
  4. Learn the practice of reading smoke.
  5. Be familiar with the accepted rules of engagement.
  6. Learn your accountability system and use it.
  7. Master your tools and equipment.
  8. Remain calm and concentrate.

Chiefs: Be the Leader in Safety

  1. Become personally engaged in safety and make it part of your strategic vision for the department.
  2. Be willing to make the tough decisions regarding safety policies and practices and their implementation.
  3. Hold members of the organization accountable for their safety and the safety of those with whom they work.
  4. Ensure that resources are available to accomplish activities safely and effectively.

Additional Considerations

In addition to the recommendations made by the IAFC, I would like to offer several additional recommendations and revisions to the IAFC’s list.

Health: Remember that products of combustion present both short and long term health effects. Don’t breathe smoke and minimize exposure to products of combustion by using care in handling contaminated equipment and clothing and cleaning it promptly after use.

Survival: Develop a solid understanding of practical fire dynamics. In addition to understanding building construction (B) and reading smoke (S), use the entire B-SAHF (Building-Smoke, Air Track, Heat, & Flame) approach to reading the fire. Remember that size-up and dynamic risk assessment are an ongoing process conducted by everyone on the fireground!

Chiefs: Not only must you hold your members accountable. They must be able to hold you accountable as well. Lead by example!

Still Waiting to Hear from You!

In an earlier post, I encouraged you to construct a personal concept map of fire behavior indicators, starting with building factors. As a way of collaborating on this project, you can follow edhartin on Twitter and Tweet Back on this question with factors that you think should be included in the concept map. No response as of yet! Take a minute and revisit Reading the Fire: How to Improve Your Skills and consider engaging in this project. I need your help to make this work.

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO

Culture of Safety or Culture of Extinguishment

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

I had intended to write today’s post simply about the IFE Compartment Firefighting Special Interest Group in Sydney, Australia. However, the recent keynote presentation at the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) by FDNY Lieutenant Ray McCormack claiming the fire service needs a “culture of extinguishment not safety” cannot pass without comment.

I wonder how much of the commentary on the web is based on quotations pulled from LT McCormack’s Keynote Presentation or simply extension of comments by others. If you want to know what he said, listen to his entire presentation.

Too Much Safety

I disagree with much, but not all of what LT McCormack had to say. One of the memorable quotes from this speech is “Too much safety makes Johnny a poor leader and a terrible rescuer.” What does this really mean?

I believe that LT McCormack cares deeply about the firefighters and fire officers he works with and does not want to see them injured or killed. However, he recognizes that there the fireground presents inherent hazards. Completely eliminating firefighter injuries and fatalities on the fireground would require that we not go to fires. On this point, LT McCormack and I are in agreement.

LT McCormack indicates that safety should come from proficiency in the craft of firefighting. On this point I substantively agree, but suspect that the LT and I would disagree on the full range of knowledge, skills, and work practices that should be included. For example, while the LT poked fun at air management, I believe that working effectively while maintaining respiratory protection is a fundamental component of effective and skillful firefighting.

Learning from Experience

Introducing the LT, Chief Bobby Halton stated that “Experience without reflection or evaluation is simply interesting”. Reading the stories of firefighters who have died in the line of duty while fighting fires inside burning buildings, I find that the common elements are frequently the same. In some cases, firefighters die because they over extended themselves in attempting to rescue a civilian occupant. However, in other cases they died because they did not recognize and control the hazards presented by the situation.

We tend to be reactionary, making policies, rules, and procedures based on prior bad outcomes. However, this practice often fails to address the root cause of the problem. I believe that the concept of two-in/two-out is sound and providing a rapid intervention team (RIT) when firefighters are in a hazardous environment is a solid idea. However, it does not address the root causes of firefighters becoming lost or trapped inside burning buildings. Does this mean that having a RIT is too much safety? I think not. However, failing to ensure firefighters’ knowledge of fire behavior and building construction is too little safety! Safety is not simply about policies, programs, and procedures; it must be integrated into our work practices. This is not to say that we do not need policies, programs, and procedures, but they must be sound and integrated with skillful and effective work practices.

LT McCormack undoubtedly recognizes that some civilian occupants lose their lives before the fire department arrives and is not advocating extension of search into areas of the building that contain a fully developed fire. The major question is where to draw the line between offensive and defensive operations. How much risk is acceptable to save a savable life, how much risk is acceptable to save savable property? This is a question that each fire department, each fire officer, and each firefighter needs to answer.

Trapped or dead firefighters do not save civilian occupants or property. Firefighters working to save their comrades likewise do not save civilian occupants or property. Working safely allows everyone on the fireground to contribute to our purpose of being there. Too much safety is not the problem.

Identity and Values

LT McCormack states that an emphasis on safety is based on fear and results in firefighters risking loss of their identity as firefighters and the values of courage, determination, and pride. On these points I disagree.

There is a difference between fear and understanding the hazards presented on the fireground. There is a difference between unthinking reaction and well though and skillful tactical action. The values of courage, determination, and pride apply equally to service to our citizens and service to our members. Sometimes it is necessary to say, no, the risk is too great. I suspect that in some of these situations the LT and I would agree and in others we would not. That is the challenge.

Culture of Extinguishment

LT McCormack states “We do not need a culture of safety; we need a culture of extinguishment… If we put out the fire, safety is accomplished for everyone on the fireground”. This is absolutely correct. However, I suspect that the LT and I might disagree about the application of this important concept or how it should be supported.

  • Effective risk management results in saving savable lives while not compromising the safety of firefighters.
  • Search supported by effective fire control and tactical ventilation is more likely to succeed than search that is not.
  • In some cases firefighters should take the fire first, rather than focusing on primary search (as controlling the fire will eliminate the threat to both firefighters and occupants).

At the start of his presentation, LT McCormack stated “my name is Ray and I like to go to fires”. Much of what we do is driven by our identity as firefighters and the fact that we enjoy our work. While selfless sacrifice for others is honorable, sacrifice because of thoughtless action or ignorance is simply tragic.

“Too much safety makes Johnny a poor leader and a terrible rescuer”. I disagree. Safe performance makes Johnny a good leader and an effective rescuer.

Take 30 minutes and listen to LT McCormack’s presentation and give some thought to how you view safety and effective fireground performance.

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO