Commentary: What Ever Happened to the Way We Fought Fires?

For them, it wasn’t an option. The situation warranted a rapid attack and to put the fire out.

Evolving from the early days of incident command

By Mike Nakamichi

Back eons ago when I entered the fire service, the job of a firefighter was responding to fires. You entered the occupancy, made your way to the fire, and put the wet stuff on the red stuff. It wasn’t rocket science nor very complicated. It was all about moving through the occupancy looking for the seat of the fire with a charged line to begin your attack. Ventilation was done by breaking windows from the exterior, opening the roof above the fire and then the fans were placed to assist. Once at the seat, you opened your nozzle and the battle with the “red demon” began. Soon the fire was out. A simple operation, in most cases, performed by two engines, one ladder company and one battalion chief. Granted, the more involved conflagrations required upscale tactics, but nonetheless, the procedures were the same; put the fire out.

It was all about a rapid attack to the seat of the fire, ventilation by way of breaking windows and opening the roof, ensuring the fire was extinguished with minimal damage and a thorough salvage and overhaul. That was the way it was done when I became a firefighter.

Those were the days when firefighters did not wear full bunkers for every fire except when they had to bunk from a sleep. A SCBA was used as a training aid and never left the rig compartment during an incident. Hence, the term “leather lungs.” Ladder companies used a fan hanging from the doorway called a smoke ejector for ventilation into or from a space and as well as immediately opening the roof over the fire and breaking every window in the room and then performed search and rescue. Minimal water was used to extinguish to reduce any further damage. Even though the personal protective equipment was not as it is today, the job was performed as safely as possible and was also done with effectiveness and efficiency.

However, those days of old have been archived and as the years have gone by, firefighting moved in a direction that “the brown booter” veterans from World War II, the Korean Conflict, and then becoming firefighters, would scoff at.

Nevertheless, since those years when I learned to battle the “red monster” from the oldtimers as they did, there have been changes made for the betterment of the firefighter. The emphasis has been on safety. The evolution of the safety equipment has been the focus. During the mid-70’s, the turnouts were constructed of Nomex to be more fire resistive and were to be worn for all fire emergencies. The helmets were heavier duty with face shields. The gloves were fully insulated Nomex lined leather. Hoods were being introduced. The use of a SCBA was required to enter any IDLH environment. And individual portable radios were a must for communication. The accountability system was developed to track each firefighter at the scene. In all, making safety a paramount issue.

Not only has the safety for firefighters been a concern, the firefighting operations and tactics were to be upgraded. However, this element of firefighting was slow to take hold. Departments were feeling the resistance to the safety standards that had been introduced which made another change on how business was done problematic.

Nonetheless, the upgrade was in order. In 1970, Southern California endured major wildfires for days and throughout several jurisdictions. And because multiple agencies were involved, the command structure was in disarray. Hence, in 1972, Firescope was developed for the wildfire command system since the magnitude of these fires were such that the command and control measures were impossible to track. It was originally established for use in the wildland, however, the National Wildland Coordinating Group realized that Firescope could be used to coordinate non-emergency incidents as well. By the 1980’s, this system was modified into the National Interagency Incident Management System. It was used as an all-incident system during that era.

During the mid — 80’s, Firescope and the NWCG developed our present National Incident Management System. The design of NIMS ICS was to be homogeneous with all departments. It is presently used universally as an all — incident management system. The common terminology, the command and control measures, the communication and the accountability of personnel are the elemental management tools of NIMS.

The incident command system and structure were developed for a command and control guide for all incidents that are responded to. However, there are departments that have introduced supplemental command and control procedures. One such is the “flow and go” tactical procedure that has the nozzle firefighter opening the nozzle as soon as entrance is made into the occupancy whether there is involvement or not. This methodology has the nozzle firefighter rotating a straight stream into the occupancy prior to making entry into the seat of the fire. Thus, causing excessive water damage and the creation of steam. The steam generates heat and reduces visibility adding difficulty to penetrating to the seat of the fire. This tactic has also changed ventilation procedures as well. Any vertical ventilation would not begin until the attack team has the fire under control. The use of positive pressure ventilation would be the primary source, but again it would not be initiated until the attack team has the fire suppressed. Hence, the visibility issue becomes more of a problem with the ventilation being withheld.

Another procedure that has been implemented is communicating the incident using a standard operating guideline prior to the size up which in turn could delay assessing the incident depending on the difficulty of recognizing the problem and therefore impeding any tactics being initiated or communicated. These operating guidelines mandate the procedures to be taken when the specific SOG is broadcasted.

Here is one procedure the old “brown booters” would have cringed to hear, the term “transitional attack:” cooling the outside before entering the occupancy. For them, it wasn’t an option. The situation warranted a rapid attack and to put the fire out. They were not taught to cool the outside nor to flow water through a window; just enter the occupancy and suppress the fire.

These supplemental command and control procedures may be viewed as giving ICS a “shot in the arm,” but are there any advantages or benefits gained with these courses of action in combating the incident?

As I reflect on the days of old and firefighting as it was, it saddens me that fighting a fire has become this involved. Granted, NIMS ICS was needed for the command and control to standardize management of the incident as well for the safety for the firefighters, but these supplemental procedures are obstacles to the effectiveness and efficiency in combating the “red monster.”

Whatever happened to putting the “wet stuff on the red stuff” and calling it a day?

Mike Nakamichi
Retired Battalion Chief
Seattle Fire Department, 46 years
Bachelor of Arts, Business, University of Washington
Former Instructor, Edmonds Community College, Fire Service Leadership
Former Instructor, NIMS ICS

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