It is 3 in the afternoon and a frantic knock on the fire station garage door yields a young person who is pointing to a single family dwelling across the street. There is smoke coming from the soffits which over hang the second floor windows that seem to be clear. The 10” grass and 2 year old for sale sign are not much of a nuisance now since the dark brown smoke is also lifting from underneath the front porch. Everyone in your firehouse has watched the demise of this neighborhood and this house in particular used to be a nice complement to our small town. You and the other 5 men gather your gear and turn out for the 10 second response across the street. When you make the “Charlie” side you confirm your suspicion of a basement fire by the fast moving smoke coming from a melted plastic dryer vent and around the old steel frame casement windows set in the sandstone foundation. A glance up the Delta side reveals more smoke coming out of the electrical drop pipe.
“So what’s next boss?” the nozzle man says with the working length and nozzle in his hands.
Making choices is something we give a lot of credit to and emphasis on in the real world, but the algorithm of fighting fire in a “vacant” is a lot like deciding to lead rather than just manage. You could manage this fire scenario which will likely render this structure inhabitable and no doubt unsellable. This decision is on the prediction that it is unoccupied and the safest thing to do is “protect the exposures”. The quick turn in of alarm, and closed up structure has kept this fire from self-venting so the choice of transitional attack is less than reasonable. The personal observation of this house by your crew has no doubt inserted itself into some of the guys mindset on what they may think should be done. You on the other hand see not only this vacant address but the two homes beside it which have young family’s’ living in them. With only an 8ft wide driveway separating the 3 large 2 ½ story structures, a fully involved house fire would severely endanger not only the neighbors’ homes but the people’s trust in the fire department. Sure we wouldn’t risk a lot for just public perception alone but if you don’t have any pride and confidence in your companies first due, then you are in the wrong place!
I order an interior attack via the side door and tell my outside vent to get to the C side because it is my honor, and my sworn duty to lead my crew, days before the armchair snipers get to pick the decision apart. Fortunately my department SOP’s have not caved to the fear based firefighting with overbearing regulations which result in either over reacting or under reacting to any general emergency. A fire scene manager can later defend his actions, or lack thereof, under such a system. If you remain non-committal on vertical ventilation long enough, it then becomes reasonable to declare the roof unsafe to work on or under. Pre disposed decision making is the hallmark of a fire management culture that is centered around checking the boxes at 0700 and then pencil whipping the fire training entry because we were “too busy” with white glove house duty, physical fitness and taking the truck to the far side of town for today’s food shopping. For those who find status at 7am by pointing out that the rig has less than ¾ tank of fuel and that the back of someone’s t-shirt is faded, I suggest you tune into what is really important. Take a look at what work has already been done. Are the men rested, ready and checking the booster tank and their air cylinder? If so then the years of a hard work that respects this job is on display. Over the years these guys have figured out you can only learn so much by watching others pull a 1 ¾ around 4 turns, and deliver 500 gallons with a 3 person crew. You have to be prepared to do it.
As 1 of the attack crew uses the haligan like a major league ball player, the pump operator sends the 185 gpm to the bale with a snap of the valve. We expect the hose to jump to life and within 20 seconds I and my 2 hitters are ready for entry. The smoke is still showing off as a structure fire with a dark brown hews and it lifts enough to make out the linoleum covered trends after the 90 degree left turn. We are choosing to fight this fire because we have decided that this house is un occupied only after we say so. I can accurately analyze the risk of doing so because I know what my crew can do and more importantly I know how fast they can do it. I have never read that risk analysis description in a service management text but I have heard it from a very tuned in line officer who drilled into me the importance of keeping the higher standard with regard to the fire department’s purpose. It is this purpose that we base everything on. From training to equipment purchases, to staffing levels and testing guidelines, if we decide to move our priority from having lifesaving capabilities to fire stopping management and better fire house “listening techniques”, then we have changed our cultures destiny.
In the modern history of the fire service there has been many manpower reducing tools made available to us. Things such as chain saws, blitz monitors, and even 1 ¾ hose have promoted efficiency and effectiveness across the spectrum. We have embraced these tools and the techniques that go with them without reservation. So why am I and others pushing back on the transitional attack? Because most of the proponents of this “new method”, which was detailed in the great text Report form Engine 82 decades ago by the way, is being held as the moral high ground. If you choose to take an interior attack you shall be damned as reckless. I propose that we should see each fire as it would relate to the four choices of fire attack. They are #1 direct interior attack, #2 Transitional exterior to direct interior attack, #3 Defensive exterior attack, Or #4 Set up a perimeter and contain the blaze. So rather than sell me on your new fire management buzzword, let’s just get to work instead of over simplifying our initial actions to fit a procedure, that was not written with a smart and capable group of people in mind. Stop allowing the bar to be lowered for everyone, i.e. us, to be “safe” and instead raise the bar of education and capabilities to match the job requirements.
The reach of the stream makes short work of a free burning fire that is crawling under the unfinished ceiling from the D side to the Bravo side stairway. I continue to scan with the TIC as the steam occludes our vision. That old steel framed casement window is quickly being destroyed by a few well-placed strikes and pulls. I ask for my door man to lighten up and move up, or down in this particular example, and he brings the first coupling down to the basement without further instruction. I hand off the fire floor to my senior man and move back up the steps to meet up with the outside vent man who is masking up near the side door with a water can and a 6 ft. hook. The Chief and the truck company arrive on scene, and as ground ladders reach the gutter line and a second floor window, I can say with confidence that this will be over soon. The search is on and those truckies are wasting no time so as to ensure we won’t need the ambulance or a second line. This hypothetical fire happens all across the country, and it does so because firemen have made the choice to be willing and able to do what is expected from their officers, their citizens and themselves. They have chosen to receive and pass on their own experience based knowledge to improve our own people’s “survivability profile”. The old truth is the new truth.
About the Author:
Lt. Jeff Diederich has been a professional firefighter since 1994 working for a suburban fire department in northern Ohio. He has been a fire instructor at the Cuyahoga Community College for the last 10 years, as well as being a rescue and hazmat technician for the local technical rescue and hazmat response teams.