By Shannon Pieper
Published Wednesday, August 1, 2012
In 2009, FDNY Lt. Ray McCormack roiled the fire service with a passionate keynote address at FDIC about the “culture of safety” that was developing in the fire service—and why he didn’t like it. One of the often-quoted lines from his presentation: “Too much safety makes Johnny a poor leader and a terrible rescuer.”
Many firefighters objected to Lt. McCormack’s presentation, arguing that his comments were inappropriate for a national presentation and could too easily be taken out of context and used to justify unsafe tactics. But just as many, if not more, felt that McCormack was simply putting voice to what they’d felt for some time now—that a continuing emphasis on preventing firefighter injury and death was threatening firefighters’ ability to do their job.
Three years later, firefighters continue to struggle with the need to be safe while still maintaining a certain level of aggressiveness, and fire chiefs struggle with how to teach firefighters to evaluate risk on the modern fireground, and respond accordingly.
That’s why it was refreshing to talk with Chief Richard Ennis of the City of Cape Girardeau (Mo.) Fire Department. Chief Ennis’ seminar at Fire-Rescue International (FRI), “Making Aggressive Offensive Fire Attacks in Today's World,” provides a new perspective. I caught up with Ennis before FRI to get his insight into this controversial topic.
The Evolution of Safety
As Ennis points out, this is not the first time that the fire service has grappled with increased safety standards. “We started addressing firefighter safety in the late 70s and early 80s, and it was controversial then too, but not to the extent it is today,” he says. “People fought against wearing SCBA and bunker pants, and you heard arguments about the tradition of the fire service. Some people labeled you a ‘wimp’ if you had to wear an air pack.”
A key difference between then and now, though: “The safety initiatives then actually improved our aggressiveness, so it wasn’t as controversial,” Ennis says. “Now, we’ve gotten to the point where the safety pendulum has swung. Some of the initiatives we’re talking about now go against our aggressive tradition.”
Using the pendulum analogy again: On one end, you’d have complete safety—which, as Ennis notes, would basically involve not even setting off the tones. On the other end, you’d have complete aggressiveness—reckless abandonment on the fireground. “The question becomes, where do you want to be—and a lot of people say, in the middle,” Ennis says. “But the middle isn’t necessarily the right answer either. The right answer is based on available resources, and the quantity and quality of them—how well are they trained? How many people do we have? [Only when we answer those questions can we] push toward being effective, efficient and aggressive while also being safe.”
Some fire service leaders have cautioned against even using the term “aggressive attack,” fearing that younger and/or more inexperienced firefighters will misinterpret the meaning and put themselves in danger. Ennis doesn’t have a problem with the term—but he does think we need to better define it.
Traditionally, an offensive/aggressive fire attack is interior; a defensive one is exterior. “If you ask firefighters to define, in traditional terms, what’s meant by an aggressive, offensive fire attack, the response will be, ‘getting inside, operating handlines inside, attacking the fire at the seat, saving lives, doing a search’—and I agree with that,” Ennis says.
But, he notes, it’s not that simple. “An offensive attack is really about attacking and controlling the fire; defensive is when you write off portions of buildings and focus on keeping the fire from spreading,” he says. “Our terminology should focus on the intent instead of where you’re positioned when you make the attack.”
But even those definitions can quickly become blurred. “Let’s take a typical fire in a strip shopping center, one store that’s heavily involved, fire showing out of windows,” Ennis says. “You pull up, decide you’re going to write the store off, keep fire from spreading to the other buildings. So you go two doors down on either side, extending handlines inside the exposure buildings, pulling ceilings, your crews are opening roofs—are you offensive or defensive? You’ve written off a portion of the building, but you’re inside.”
For Ennis, defining aggressiveness involves defining effectiveness and efficiency as well. “In our department, we stress that effective is getting the job done, and efficient is maximizing the use of resources or minimizing waste of resources—and on the fireground, the most critical resources are time, staffing and water,” he says. “Theoretically, by being aggressive you maximize your effectiveness and efficiency.”
Aggressiveness & the Exterior Attack
A recent addition to the safety vs. aggressiveness debate has been a tactic some call “transitional attack”—basically, hitting the fire with water quickly from the exterior before initiating interior ops.
Ennis, who doesn’t favor the term “transitional attack,” nevertheless sees nothing defensive about it. “Now take the same fire—let’s say you pull up and decide to hit it from outside with a master stream to knock down the fire,” he says. “What’s more offensive and aggressive than achieving a knockdown with a large-caliber line? If you’re flowing 500 gallons per minute and you gain control within minutes of arrival, what’s more offensive than that? But our connotation is that if you’re not interior, it’s not offensive.”
Tying it back to efficiency and effectiveness, Ennis notes that sometimes the most effective, efficient way to attack the fire is a fire stream from outside for 20–30 seconds to achieve knockdown. “Now, if you’re on the scene 20 to 30 minutes into the fire and you’re still putting water into the windows—unless there’s been a conscious decision not to go into the fire building due to collapse risk—then yes, that’s poor firefighting,” he says. “But it’s gotten to the point where if you hit the fire from the outside for 30–60 seconds before going in, there’s a faction among us that says that’s poor firefighting. They also argue that you’re going to push the fire back into the building, but that’s a [holdover from] when we were flowing 30 gpm, [not 500 gpm]. And even then, it’s not necessarily that you pushed the fire, but simply that the flow wasn’t sufficient to extinguish the fire, so it continued to consume the building. But with the 1¾", 2" and 2½" lines that we have now, if you hit it hard for a short period, you overcome the heat being produced. This proven tactic has been around for decades and was often referred to as ‘blitz attack.’”
As a result, Ennis teaches his firefighters to regularly employ an aggressive fire attack, even when that is done by hitting the fire hard from the exterior before going interior. And although Cape Girardeau is a suburban department, Ennis doesn’t see this as a tactic related to staffing. “We have 15 people on the fireground, and the first-in engine’s responsibility is to get a rapid knockdown in whatever way they need to do that,” he says. “I don’t care if it was 30 people, the job is the same. We have three-person engine companies, and on those engines we have 1¾", 2" and 2½" lines, a deck gun—our line of choice is usually the 2", so we get a quick knockdown. If we had a five-person engine company, I would expect them to do the same, just quicker.”
Down to Semantics
In essence, a lot of the safety vs. aggressiveness debate comes down to semantics—how we interpret phrases like transitional attack, defensive operation and, of course, aggressiveness itself. “It’s all terminology,” Ennis says. “Of course, none of us chest-thumpers wan t to be known as transitional firefighters; we want to be known as aggressive firefighters. I think my people are among the most aggressive and offensive firefighters there are, and yet we often hit fires through a window or door and then get inside.”
But words are powerful. By focusing on the desired outcome—extinguishment—the fire service can perhaps move beyond its hang-ups about specific tactics and whether they’re aggressive or defensive. Put simply, Ennis says: “I don’t think there’s anything more aggressive and offensive than gaining control of a fire within 60 to 90 seconds on the scene”—regardless of how it’s done. And, Ennis agrees with McCormack, “If you want to improve safety on the fireground, put the damned fire out.”
And a little humility never hurts either. “If we really want to talk about effectiveness, efficiency and safety, instead of arguing about safety vs. aggressiveness, we ought to be directing our efforts toward building support for residential fire sprinklers,” Ennis says. “Because I don’t care how aggressive you think your fire department is, nothing can put water on a fire 30 seconds after it ignites except a sprinkler head.”
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