Firefighting as Asymetrical Warfare

There used to be a day when warriors considered it less than chivalrous to take cover or to shoot from a prone position.  Most of us in this millennium probably would never consider it a good idea to stand up and march forward upright into a withering hail of bullets unless we were certain we wanted to end it all right there.  While Napoleonic tactics continued to be used on the battlefield well into the 1900's, for centuries, experts in the art of warfare were aware that when fighting a battle with an enemy that had a decided advantage, less than conventional tactics had to be applied.

As anybody who has ever been in the military knows, the one of the least preferable places to engage the enemy is on his own ground.  This is especially true in urban warfare, where going house to house can bring on any sort of undesired surprise.  Again, marching down the street in perfect formation, wheeling into position to the left or right, and moving forward to the center of the contested area is likely going to result in a heavy body count.

The advantage for the opposing force utilizing unconventional tactics is surprise; your force doesn't know where or when the attack will come, you are unfamiliar with the terrain, you are unfamiliar with the weapons that will be used against you, and the attack is most likely going to come where your units are concentrated and have little ability to maneuver or escape.

Likewise, as we engage a fire in a building, especially in commercial occupancies, we have a disadvantage in that we are relatively unfamiliar with the layout, we may or may not be familiar with the fire load and the construction, and we don't know for sure how long the fire has been burning, where it has extended to, or what components have been impacted.  We can get good reconnaissance when we do our preplans, but even then, unless it is a building you are in routinely, you probably aren't going to have a good feel for the "terrain".

Nonetheless, we have some holdouts in the fire service who continue to embrace the romantic image of the valiant firefighter, bolt upright, dashing into the flames with no regard for his own safety, and emerging unscathed with babe in arms, to the cheers of the crowd.  And before some of you haters out there begin to judge, realize that I come from four generations of these, of whom I am extraordinarily proud to be descended from.

And although I'm okay with that image in my heart, there's a point where my head takes over.  Because while there is a certain amount of adrenaline surge in the glory of headlong engagement with the enemy, my years of education and experience kick in and I realize that I am locked in mortal combat with an enemy that has a decidedly favorable advantage.

If I choose to ignore the risks involved to the point that only the mission matters, if we had an unlimited amount of resources with which to throw at the enemy, maybe that would be okay (stick with me, now).  I don't know about your department,  but in my department, we would have a limit of about one dead firefighter before things get a little crazy on scene (I'm being facetious; I hate to spell that out, but I'm heading off the hate mail).

There is nothing wrong with that image of valor I discussed before, but as I said in my earlier post, misusing the resources we have been allocated, of which losing personnel would be probably the most severe (at least it would be in my department), is a seriously poor contribution to minimizing the disaster and bringing it under control.  In fact, in most cases, it exacerbates it.

In no way should my opinion be construed as being against taking risk.  Risk is part of my job and if God strikes me down while taking what I considered to be a good risk versus an appropriate return, than so be it.  But risk to the exclusion of common sense isn't valiant, it's stupid.

Most of the firefighter deaths in this nation don't come from valiantly charging into a burning building to save a life.  Most of them come from preventable issues, like cardiac-related incidents and motor vehicle collisions.  And while I mourn my fallen brethren just as terribly whether done on scene or in training, my job as a responsible emergency service leader is to insure that we aren't throwing away souls toward lost causes or through poor judgement.  I know my family is appreciative when I come home intact, and so should yours be.

Saying you are for doing the job regardless of the safety aspects isn't manly, it's irresponsible.  Being cognizant of safe working practices doesn't mean I stand outside a building and tremble when I roll up on a structure fire, but it does mean that I look at the fire progress, the extent of involvement, the building construction, and the likelihood of interior tenability (among other things) before committing my personnel.  Realize that this comes from a guy who has charred several helmets off the top of his head in his day and has had his share of hairy saves.  And I loved riding the tailboard just as much, if not more, than any of you out there as well.  But there comes a time when you look at what you are doing, and remember how close you came to throwing everything you had at the fire, only to have the insurance company write it off and be out there with a track-hoe the next day, hauling your "saved" building into a dumpster.

As Chris Naum says in his post on The Kitchen Table, there is a place in between overly cautious and overly aggressive that the good firefighters take their place in the line.  I ask that you consider that location and mark it out, and strive for the use of thorough size-up, sound tactics, and reasonable safety measures while remembering that there are more out there who depend upon you than just that victim.  Don't throw everything you have at a situation you can't win.  Choose your battles through knowledge and skill, and do the best you can do.

  • Christopher Naum

    Hey Chief, Very well put, excellent perspectives as always….This is the type of messages we need to get out there..and understood for what they truly mean..

  • http://ems12lead.blogspot.com Tom B.

    This is some of your best work yet, Chief!

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Michael "Mick" Mayers

Battalion Chief with Hilton Head Island (SC) Fire and Rescue and an Emergency Response Coordinator with the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ National Disaster Medical System Incident Response Coordination Team.

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Although I am affiliated or employed by certain entities, I in no way speak in this forum or others on behalf of those entities unless I have specifically stated such. Any implication otherwise is doing so contrary to my agreements with those entities. The result is that the observations and opinions by myself or on behalf of Firehouse Zen are not sanctioned by any other entity other than Graffiti Train Sherpa Publications and are protected by the copyright laws of the United States of America.

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