Recognizing Firefighting Traditions as Fiction

Recognizing Firefighting Traditions as Fiction


The latest research from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) conducted in Spartanburg, S.C., adds a full measure of science to our existing firefighting knowledge base. Through an AFG grant, the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI) provides lessons learned from this research. (Read about the research in “NIST/ISFSI Live Burn Study on Safer Tactics” at The ISFSI deliverable is the online course “Thinking Firefighters do it Different” (   The research is confirming that some of the foundational elements you learned in rookie school and thought were “absolutes” are driven more by folklore than fact.

Individuals like Dr. Bill Gassaway are traveling the country opening our eyes to the value of research in our profession. In Dr. Gassaway’s case, brain research is changing the way we think about firefighter training and fireground decision-making. All too often we dismiss the research in favor of tradition and familiarity–what I call “Jurassic Park Syndrome.” The comfort in the way we’ve always done things makes it difficult to venture into new territory, even if we know it’s the right thing to do.

The mention of “Jurassic Park” conjures up powerful images. Steven Spielberg played on every kid’s soft spot for dinosaurs, which still lives deep in the psyche of many adults. The intrigue, curiosity and fear of dinosaurs tromping the earth is spellbinding for our inner child, even though the adult in us knows the movie is fictional. The infatuation with plastic play dinosaurs may fade, but the imprint on our person is so strong that the movie sends us spiraling backward to a much simpler and happier time.

I offer that a similar visceral and emotional imprint is created in our foundational fire service training. The mesmerizing effect of viewing fire, even a campfire, is imprinted in us. Recall your first live burn as a firefighter, and remember the intrigue, excitement and fear the experience created.  Like the child with dinosaur toys, we “played” with fire. We learned our craft through pretend emergencies, while our mentors imprinted lessons on our developing firefighter psyche. Again and again we heard “never spray water at smoke,” “aggressive attack is interior attack,” “don’t push the fire,”  “1700:1” and “vent early, vent often.”

I still remember my first house fire, crawling through the basement of a residence on 13th Street. My partner Gary and I both stopped at the same point in the basement. The awe of the flames licking against the floor joists above us triggered that memorizing emotion. We were momentarily frozen, taking in the hypnotic visual. Though it only lasted a few seconds, the image sticks with each of us to this day. Our fire-trained brain then kicked in, we recognized the idiocy of allowing the structure above us to burn, and we extinguished the fire. In my head, I could hear my training lieutenant playing that tape, “Never spray smoke, 1700:1, don’t push fire, vent.” I can’t explain why, but the emotional response was first and the cognitive response was second.

I believe the same thing happens on a much grander scale in our profession. The science is screaming at us. Dan Madrzykowski of NIST and Steve Kerber of UL have demonstrated again and again that we can’t push fire, yet we (and specifically I) really have a hard time accepting this. At any firehouse kitchen table today, you will find many who just don’t buy it and swear they’ve either pushed fire or seen it happen. I still have the imprint that tells me pushing fire with a fog nozzle is a fact–not fiction. But this sounds a little “Jurassic Park” to me. My brain is being retrained to the new paradigms, but it isn’t easy.

The recent Spartanburg, S.C., burns confirm that flow path is the concept needing our most deliberate attention. We have exceptional online tools to teach the science and question some of those basic visceral concepts from our foundational training. The leaders in the industry are changing the course of fire attack. But many firefighters still long for that trip back to the emotionally familiar setting, no matter how expensive it is.

The problem: Many firefighters love our own Jurassic Park–that gritty, familiar fire training ground where we were trained. We recall aggressive firefighters oozing knowledge. This is the source of the voice in my head in the basement of the 13th Street fire. On the drill ground, we bark for “aggressive interior attack” and scold anyone who dares to “spray water at smoke.” We push deeper into the fire building with artificial conditions that cockroaches couldn’t survive. We chant the mantra “every gallon of water equals 1,700 ‘gallons’ of steam,” and “vent–open it up!” This Jurassic Park is the juxtaposition of intrigue, excitement and fear.

It’s time we recognize Jurassic Park for what it is–memories and history. Count yourself lucky: You get to live in both worlds, that is, the world of science and tradition. Our training grounds need to maintain the best of both of these worlds, too. We need to use the drill ground to reinforce our greatest traditions, and to dismantle our most dangerous ones so that we come to know that, for example, it is possible to conduct an aggressive fire attack from an exterior position. I ask you to join the migration from Jurassic Park to the new era, because “Thinking Firefighters Do It Different.”