Science for Dummies Like Me, Part 3

Damage Control

Probably the single most damaging, turn-off, mind blowing, make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, nauseating, dreadful terminology that has been associated with fire research has been the use of the term (I can’t even print it without getting sick, so I will abbreviate) HIHFTY. Just the thought of this conjures up images of firefighters standing around flowing water through windows for long periods of time while victims wait for rescue inside. Or bouncing streams from ladder pipes off perfectly good roofs, allowing thousands of gallons of water to run down through the gutters and onto the street or yard just as designed – all while there are searchable areas inside the structure. So many have taken an old tactic that was revisited and never formally named by anyone (formerly called giving it a “shot,” “squirt,” “quit hit”) and spun it into a multitude of directions. If you are an instructor, chief, or just talking to anyone but yourself, stop using the term HIHFTY. Even if you have the best of intentions and understand the tactics and research as good as anyone, you are creating division, your message is lost, and you are closing the door to many to even listening to anything to do with fire research. You have turned off many who would likely agree with much of your work, experience, or research if they could only get that image out of their head. You have also unintentionally empowered many a perceived way out from knowing their job and making tough decisions.

Some in our business are very quick to pick out pieces of information and apply them to an agenda to suit their own beliefs. We all know that there are some among us who have never wanted to go inside a burning building. Did science hand them the shield they have been looking for? I don’t think so. Not if you use some common sense; have an agenda that puts the victim first; know your job; and function confidently in a highly complex, risk-managed attack. The best risk management is competence – not avoidance.

They Told Me Never

I was taught very early that you NEVER flow water from outside the structure into the structure unless you are operating in the DEFENSIVE mode of operation. If this mode was declared, then the fire was so bad that no one could survive and it was an official “surround and drown.” Under no circumstance were you to flow water from outside the structure if any firefighters were operating inside. If you have ever been inside and this happened to you and you came running out ready to kill someone with your skin stinging as if 1,000 bees had stung you, then you probably still subscribe to these rules.

With these lessons, I was also introduced to the Blitz Attack. This method, as explained to me, was to be used when there was more fire than you had resources to handle. Whether from a 2 ½-inch attack line or a deck gun, the water is flowed from outside through whatever openings are available or created and, using high gpm, the fire is knocked down. As soon as the fire is knocked down, an aggressive effort is made to move attack lines interior and a search is made. It is often the case that, on entering the structure and finishing up the fire attack, the search crews find rooms or areas of the structure untouched by the fire. There are numerous reports of survivors being rescued in these situations. In fact, there are several news stories about survivors from structures where the local fire department operated defensively for 20 to 30 minutes. I have been on the scene of one of these incidents. The Blitz Attack was never labeled offensive or defensive to me. It was just the Blitz Attack. If it worked, you moved in. If it didn’t, you stayed out.

You’re Either Offensive or Defensive – No In Between

My take is that we either operate in the “offensive” mode or the “defensive” mode – there is nothing else. (Some jurisdictions use the term “marginal” when the decision is made to move from offensive mode to defensive mode to cover the time it takes to move the resources out of the structure and collapse zone. Some say, “We are transitioning from offensive to defensive mode.”) The term transitional has infiltrated our vocabulary, often used as a mode of operation when the actions are more a tactic or method, so please remove it from your thought process as it has been inappropriately placed in between offensive and defensive. In the defensive mode, we have assessed the structure and determined there are NO survivable areas and there is a great potential for collapse. For the Blue Carders, this would be your eight, nine, and 10s on your profile. In this defensive mode, you stay back out of the collapse zone and flow large master streams in an attempt to extinguish the fire to protect the outside exposures. In the offensive mode, however, you attack the fire to control or extinguish to support a search and the removal of those trapped (life) and then to protect unburned areas of the structure (property).

So where does the Blitz Attack fit in, offensive or defensive? Why has it not killed all the people inside like some of us were taught? Maybe it has somewhere. Maybe we don’t know all the answers yet, and yes, it’s all situational. My point here is that not all flows from the exterior are the automatic doom that we have been taught. This does not mean that it should or has to be used in every situation.

We Have All Done It

Now back to a transitional attack. I don’t really draw much distinction between what is lauded as “transitional” and a Blitz. Whether it is a large amount of involvement being attacked with a large master stream or 2½ inch or it’s smaller with one or two rooms attacked with the 1¾ inch, the concept is the same. Everyone has opened the line outside and flowed water through the front door as fire is rolling out the open front door, preventing our entry, right? Well, if you answered yes, then you have performed what is being described today as “transitional” by many. You were not in the defensive mode, you were in the offensive mode; but make no mistake or apology, you were flowing water from outside the structure for a few seconds before you entered.

What is the difference between this and opening a line from the safety of the hallway to attack a fire that is pushing out of a room? Fighting your way into that room for extinguishment is what we do. Whether this starts outside the structure or inside the structure, it is still an offensive attack. If you just stand in the yard and flow water with no tactical objective other than not getting inside to the victims, then that is just called not knowing the job or risk aversion.

The tactic demonstrated by research, now commonly referred to as “transitional,” based on Underwriters Laboratories (UL) test experiments has been published and presented as “a straight or solid stream directed from outside through a window at a steep 70-degree angle for 10-15 seconds or approximately 25 gallons of water.” It is important to understand that this works great if the fire is in the room that you are flowing in. If the seat of the fire is farther interior, the effect is somewhat limited to a temporary control of that room. I have not seen any UL information to the contrary.

In my opinion, the decision to use this tactic should be based on whether it will improve interior conditions more quickly than if you were flowing from inside. If it buys you time to allow you to get the resources assembled that are needed for interior operations, then do it. If it is an extra step that slows you down from doing the same thing from inside, then don’t take the time for it. After all, the victims are inside, and they may be in the path of your entry or your path to the fire. This decision should be based on the resources you have available at the time or the location of the fire.

For example, if I arrive and have four to six people available and fire is blowing out of a back window, I am not dragging a line around back to hit the fire and then dragging it back to the front to make entry (waste of time). I can make entry through the front and attack the fire from the adjoining room. Same situation and I only have two people, I might stretch that line around the back, give it a quick hit to knock it down (to improve conditions and buy me time), drop that line, then deploy a second line for the interior operations through the front (hopefully as more help arrives).


Too many in our business have latched onto the exterior hit concept as a must-do tactic deployed on every situation, just as many have misinterpreted and misused this old “quick hit” method to justify risk aversion. If you are standing close enough to the building to flow through a window at a 70-degree angle, and you are doing it for more than 10 to 30 seconds, and stretching it into minutes, then you are not using a tactic that is supported by any research. You are basically operating in a defensive mode inappropriately by being in the collapse zone. If you can accomplish the same thing faster from inside, then get inside. But don’t be so perplexed about a newly learned tactic that you forget about the reason you are there – to get that structure searched and get out! Remember, the special ops person who trains on rope rescue every day is going to take 10 to 20 minutes to assemble all the equipment and set up a rope lowering system to get the tree surgeon out of a tree when he could be reached and rescued by a good truck crew with a ground ladder in two minutes. Be careful how you train!

Dissenting Views are Healthy

Finally, opposition to particular findings of research is healthy but should never be personal. Questions and personal experience can contribute tremendously to factors that may not have been considered in previous research. It’s probably a little-known fact, but even ole Baby Face Kerber hates the term “transitional.” It is not healthy or productive to attack individuals for their opinions and for sharing their beliefs for or against anything. If you don’t agree with someone’s position then you present a better argument based on facts, not just opinions.

Remember, many of today’s facts are proven wrong in time as better information is available. Just think of all the foods that have been bad for you, then good for you, bad for you, and good for you again, all in the past 30 years. Likewise, it is unethical to design research that is intended to produce results that support a personal agenda.

Researchers need to produce findings with full disclosure. They should test tactics and report findings on the results but should never attempt to dictate tactics. To my knowledge, none of the researchers have told anyone how they should be operating; they have only provided information on the findings of the research and preface all classes with, “You should use the tactics that work best for your department.” Some individuals tell you that you are doing things wrong, but I hope they are not the researchers themselves. Please vet your sources!

Use caution when listening to many who have latched onto science in an attempt to make a name for themselves short of experience. They may have an agenda also (to gain recognition and make money). This is just as damaging to the truth as those who only rely on their experience and oppose for the sake of opposition (that ain’t the way we did it, so it’s got to be wrong). Keep an open mind and be skeptical all at the same time. One thing is for certain, time will expose the truth so the dummies like me can finally figure it out. Everything else will fade away. It’s a natural process.

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