Submitted/Authored by Jeff Chandler – Tacoma, Washington
I would like to offer a rebuttal from the “fact resistant” side, if permitted (I don’t have a web site of my own). Skepticism is necessary to keep science moving in the right direction. Skepticism is often based on experience which, when taken in context, IS science. To say any of the outlandish claims currently circulating through firehouses and the internet is “scientifically proven science” is ridiculous. Many have taken small portions out of context to bolster their personal opinion. For instance, let’s look at lightweight construction. Do TGIs and lightweight trusses lose strength when exposed to fire more rapidly than conventional (“legacy”) construction? Absolutely, but here’s where we take that science to divergent positions. The “new guard” has taken this and made rules in some departments against vertical ventilation and severe restrictions on entering these structures for fear of floor collapse. My take-home from these “scientifically proven studies”? Make sure you don’t have fire below you if you’re inside (do a 360) and use caution with fires that are in the attic (like always). The “new guard” forgot that these failures were from EXPOSED lightweight members. They are not exposed if sheetrock is protecting them. It didn’t require a college degree to figure this out, just experience and simple scientific reasoning yet many departments took away a tool from their toolbox.
The condescension that comes from many of the “new guard” while they proclaim that their life is the most valuable (yes, I’ve heard it said out loud on several occasions), that we should never vertically vent, that “transitional attack” is new or preferred, that “fires of today” are a new phenomenon or that their education makes them superior to the “traditionalist” necessarily brings a gut level response from those attacked. The ‘traditionalists” aren’t the ones calling for radical changes based on experiments that don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the variables we face every day. Discounting experience gained “data points” because they come from “traditionalists” who suffer from the “disease of ignorance and an aggressive form of laziness towards having to learn new things” is in itself ignorant, in my uneducated mind. Ironically, you advertise the 110 years of combined experience on your site rather than the combined college degrees. Maybe we should study the experience levels of the two sides? Anecdotally it seems that more experience breeds more skepticism. There’s a reason for that. There is a reason that some legends of the fire service are speaking out against the current trend. I value their decades of experience and leadership, their love of this profession and their work ethic to ever characterize their opinions as fear of learning something new. For the record, I count experience fighting fires, not simply being present in a fire station.
Science once proved the earth was flat. Skeptics disproved that because it was a theory, not a conclusion. Don’t assume that skepticism comes from a non-scientific viewpoint. Assuming that there is even one percent of necessary study to reach a “scientific conclusion” about fire attack is not realistic.
For example, synthetics have been around for over a hundred years. The fact that more civilians die each day in fires than firefighters annually die due to flashover is testament to the fact we have adapted. We’ve adapted to all these new developments through experience, some of it through very hard lessons. To discount this experience by proclaiming we finally have scientists to fix us is a slap to all those who have sacrificed and helped us change over time. “Transitional attack” is what we did before SCBAs. Why did we make and stay with the interior attack model if it wasn’t a success? Wasn’t that a significant change the old guard had to make?
Firefighting is learned primarily through experience. There are no books or classes that cover the entirety of the profession. It is not just squirting water on fire by uneducated individuals holding a “labor job”. We build on our profession through a lifelong endeavor to be better and learn more. Maybe that includes a degree, maybe that includes working somewhere that you see a lot of fire. I have embraced and used many scientific findings from Governor’s Island and NIST/UL. My read on transitional attack is that if your staffing dictates it’s the best you can do, that’s OK, do it. Not a new concept. The pushback is a result of the push to “progress” without regard for the decades of real world experience that remains untapped.
The irrational Great Debate with UL/NIST and Traditional Firefighting
A news story aired recently on Fox 6 News in Milwaukee last Sunday. (Watch it here) Trust me. You’ll want to see this.
We all know there is an internally heated debate within the fire service between the new NIST research findings & tactical suggestions and the way we’ve always fought fire throughout history. There are often heated debates within the fire service, and the public-at-large is typically none-the-wiser, nor should they be.
The fire service (department) is one of the last trusted government funded/backed agencies in the United States that still has the public’s trust. They know if they call us that we’re
going to show up and do everything in our power to help them and not hurt them. Law Enforcement can’t even lay claim to that. Our fathers, grandfathers and forefathers shed sweat, blood, tears, and their lives earning that public trust. We ride their coat-tails and do the same.
As a service to our communities, we’ve made daring rescues, we’ve taken incredible risks, faced difficult odds, and have proven our worth. We have died preserving the heart and the intent of our service to humanity. Overall, we’ve represented our profession with honor and nobility.
In proper progressive fashion, we’re fortunate to have fire engineers and scientists on our side working hard to find a way to make our job just a bit safer. It’s noble work and much needed. We can learn from science, and we should be excited to see the data behind what we do. Used properly it should help us hone our tactics.
As soon as I watched the Fox News Milwaukee story titled “Researchers test new approach to fighting fires; critics say it could delay victim rescue” I said out loud “Oh Shit.”
The internal fire service debate has gone public. A news story like this does nothing more than cast a web of doubt among the public about it’s fire service. Inserting the idea that we would EVER put ourselves before THEM damages our reputation as a service and dilutes public trust.
Internal debate within the fire service can be a healthy thing to have. It’s how we grow as firefighters and learn our craft. The great debate seems to lay between the hard-nosed traditionalists and the new guard. Historically, the fire service was never a field that required a college degree; it was a labor job. Who needed a degree to spray water? Today, the world and our profession are much different. We aren’t just pulling ceilings and spraying water anymore. We’re an all-hazards response service. We’ve taken on EMS, Hazmat, a myriad of Technical Rescue all with their own skill set, WMD/CBRNE and so on. We’re are better equipped and educated than our predecessors.
What’s the Breakdown?
The breakdown in this debate rests in a few places.
- The first breakdown resides in this nasty strain of fact-resistant that seems to be sweeping the nation. You know those guys that reject every provable fact or every single scientifically proven study? It’s a disease of ignorance and towards having to learn new things.
- The guys that are banking on it. There are some folks out there who are waving the flag of transitional attacks as if it’s going to replace firefighting and the old way is dangerous. Pump the brakes a bit. We’re all still learning. Teaching 1.3 million firefighters new science is a painstakingly slow process, generational really. Lets use a transitional attack for what it is. A new tactical option fit for some fires but maybe not all of them.
3. Science. The scientific method is based on measurable evidence that is subjected to specific principles of reasoning. It’s a pretty fool-proof way of figuring stuff out. As a fire service there is a lot we can learn from fire science and the UL/NIST studies. There are ways we can use that new knowledge to our benefit. Knowing is half the battle. (Caveat, fact-resistant firefighters have to be willing to accept scientific findings and be willing to learn.)
4. The Traditionalist, blatantly rejecting the science. Yes, we’ve always done it a certain way. Yes, we have an obligation to the citizens we serve. Yes, they should be put first in the pecking order. We’ve been fighting fires by what we’ve learned through experience and weak science for decades. It’s worked, and we’ve saved lives. However, building construction has changed, home furnishings have changed, houses are flashing over and construction materials are breaking down much quicker than the sturdy homes of the past. New construction practices and materials put us at an even greater risk. Chief Brannigan was right. The building is our enemy, and we must learn how to fight it. The enemy has changed.
Nobody is saying we’ve been doing it wrong. The NIST and UL findings do suggest ways we can fight fire better. SLICE-RS/DICE-RS offers an acronym reminder for a transitional attack. The “R” or Rescue
are considered actions of opportunity, meaning they are the priority if we are able to do so. It’s the trump card in the transitional attack.
The reality here is that change is hard. Heck, even the idea of change is difficult to digest. It means we all have to get off our ass and learn something new. It’s in our nature to fight change because we enjoy the comfort of wherever we are.
Am I endorsing the UL/NIST research?
No, not entirely. I believe we have a lot to learn, and I firmly believe in the scientific method. I believe that information is power, and I want to know as much as possible about the enemy we face. There are times when a transitional attack would be beneficial. It’s a useful tool for the box and a safe option for volunteer fire stations with minimal experience. It would help keep inexperienced firefighters heads above water.
Am I advocating for traditional tactics?
Yes and No, with new home construction materials it’s difficult to say reasonably we can fight residential fires the same way we always have. Back in the day, we could search an entire house twice before ever having to worry about the house collapsing. Today, the roof
and floor joists are designed to be lightweight and are held together with glue. It’s clear we need to change the way we fight fires in newly constructed residences. They are falling apart faster and flashing over at about the time of our arrival. A transitional attack is a tactical option for an experienced incident commander to use after reading the structure and it’s integrity.
My HARD Suggestion?
Everyone needs to calm down a bit. The reality here is that fire departments all over the world will be playing around and will be experimenting with the UL/NIST findings for years to come. We aren’t taking an about-face on everything we currently know or do. We aren’t going to wake up tomorrow mandated into performing transitional attacks knowing we have a viable rescue to make. Let us use some common sense and some outward emotional restraint. When there is a rescue to be made, almost all rules seem to go out the window. The UL police aren’t going to show up and arrest anyone for not making a transitional attack.
Let’s use this science for what it provides us. Information. Information that may help us do our jobs in an ever-evolving fire service. We can only benefit from new fact-based fire knowledge, and it can only help us learn more about what we do.
For the love of God, let’s keep this “great debate” an internal fire service one and leave the pubic out of it. We’re only protecting our reputation as a public service provider.
I recommend watching a few of the modern fire behavior videos on the UL YouTube channel HERE. You’ll notice that it’s Firefighters, Fire Engineers, and Scientists working together.
The purpose here is to dig deep into the tug-of-war between education and experience. In the last two decades there has been an explosion of fire service certification and degree programs sprinkled throughout the country. Brick-and-mortar schools, online colleges, accredited and even less-than-accredited distance learning courses, state, national, international certifications and the like. These programs exist to help us gain an edge within our careers. Some of us start off in Fire Science class before ever riding an engine while others matriculate later in their fire careers when it’s time to move up the ladder.
The argument here is an age-old military quandary. The crusty old Sergeant taking orders from the young, inexperienced, but educated Lieutenant. It’s likely an issue as old as education.
The real question is what is more valuable; years of experience OR a university degree backed with proper fire certifications?
The Fire Service has always been a bastion of process for promoting from within because on-the-job experience is extremely valuable to an organization. The wisdom a firefighter gains from running calls in their area-of-operation is incredibly valuable and irreplaceable. Running emergency calls and mitigating situations can’t be learned in books. Wisdom is so valuable in fact that whatever education you happen to achieve along the way is almost secondary or an added bonus to your experience and ability to execute that wisdom, in some departments.
Wisdom aside, education is paramount. Having the ability to learn the fine intricacies of your craft is an integral part of being a complete firefighter, in the “whole” sense of the term. Reading books, writing research papers, answering a thesis, combing through peer reviewed articles, learning legalities as well as philosophical aspects of the job will help you fully understand where we are and how we got here. It’s not enough to know what decision to make on scene, we have to understand why we’re making those decisions and what the consequences could be if we are wrong.
Core classes such as English, Math and Science will help round out a persons thought process and general knowledge. It helps to provide the ability to generate accurate reports and can also help create a base for proper personnel management. Every decision a leader makes has to stand the test of a court or inquiry.
Education also helps us hammer home the importance of having a legitimate incident commander. Well intentioned Volunteer Fire Chiefs who, sometimes, fall into the job title by way of popular vote may only be equipped with years of volunteer experience. If there happens to be a line-of-duty-death under that incident commander’s leadership, the NIOSH Firefighter death investigation team would most certainly point to that as a contributing factor. Training, certifications, and education is always a hard focus during LODD investigations.
Information is extremely powerful and education is vastly important. Legitimacy plays havoc at the core of the education issue. It’s hard to say you can do the job if you can’t prove that you’ve at least learned the job. It’s not enough to walk the walk, you have to talk to the talk.
Not to flip -flop but education isn’t even not enough. Digging into history, Vietnam was a great example of the brightest minds in the country consistently making the wrong decisions. Kennedy’s “Whiz Kids” had a wealth of education from some of the finest universities in the country. They had information and intelligence, but lacked the experience to pull it all together into an effective battle strategy. Decisions that were made by some of the most educated people in the country were not enough to win a war. They lacked experience and wisdom.
To ensure the title isn’t lost on anyone. The “best” refers to those with wisdom gained from on-the-job experience and the “brightest” refers to those with education. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a common expression such as: “What he lacks in education he makes up for in experience” or vise versa.
Experience and education are not interchangeable. There are many Fire Officer and Fire Chief job descriptions that will accept experience in-loo of education. One should not be allowed to mascaraed as the other. Yes there is a wealth of learning that takes place while gaining experience but it is a stark contrast from the learning that takes place in the classroom.
It’s seems to be good measure to increase your education level as you gain experience. It’s always best to achieve certifications according to your experience timeline. You should not be a 22 year old Fire Officer IV or a 24 year old Instructor II. There is a lack of legitimacy in those numbers. It’s difficult to lead and /or teach what you haven’t experienced
If you don’t think education is the future of the fire service, then you are already behind. It’s an unreasonable expectation for you to believe you can progress through the ranks without it. It’s time to put your brain where your mouth is.