Over the last 10 years, there’s been a measurable groundswell of support for reducing preventable line-of-duty deaths (LODDs). The numbers seem to indicate that such efforts may be having an impact: The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation identified 72 LODDs in 2010, the lowest since we began keeping records.
Concurrently, there is a subculture within the American fire service that quietly longs for days gone by. The discourse has been civil enough, but there’s an audible grumbling that the safety zealots are robbing the fire service of all its defining traditions—courage, valor and the concept of accepted risk.
The Extinguishment Argument
The argument goes like this: We should spend less time filling incident command vests (safety) and more time putting out the fire (extinguishment). Further, firefighters should be trusted to make their own decisions about what is and what is not acceptable. Those who espouse this position use the word “extinguishment” as an excuse to “attack the fire” aggressively, invoking a zero-sum mentality that fighting fire is a win/lose proposition measured in lives saved and property lost. In this mindset, defensive fire attack equates to defeat.
Videos on YouTube prove this point. One such video shows a single-family dwelling that’s 100% involved with crews inside wearing double Nomex hoods, allowing them to “prove their worth” as firefighters. That’s not bravery—it’s stupidity—but it is tough to fight against such images when there is an American flag flying in the background and the musical overtones are Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down.”
The challenge is compounded when well-respected members of the fire service use such phrases as “rational aggressiveness” to describe the extinguishment concept. Although such leaders may keenly understand the intricacies of their argument, less experienced, less knowledgeable and, frankly, less capable individuals take their words and use them as a club to beat the safety zealots over the head.
The problem with promoting a culture of extinguishment over a culture of safety is two-fold. First, safety and extinguishment are not mutually exclusive. It is in fact possible to support both at the same time. I can’t imagine a single fire officer who doesn’t understand the proposition that everything gets better when the fire goes out.
The second problem is that not all firefighters have the personal discipline and maturity to understand the nuances of “rational aggressiveness.” Proponents of extinguishment often learned their trade under the direct supervision of salty old company officers who kept them in their pockets for many years before cutting the umbilical cord. But there are many young firefighters who cling tightly to the idea that they have to prove themselves by demonstrating their “worth,” and aren’t lucky enough to have a company officer looking out for them as the designated adult. Such kids hear the word “aggressiveness” but never pay attention to the “rational” part.
Company officers in career and volunteer systems alike should work to build and promote a culture of safe extinguishment. When lives hang in the balance, we should place ourselves assertively and purposefully between harm and those we swore an oath to protect. However, our decision-making model should be based on the simplest of principles: We cannot help others if we become part of the problem.
The involvement of the company officer in this effort is essential, because they’re in the very best position to achieve tactical benchmarks with a keen eye toward personal and company safety. Chiefs cannot be everywhere at once and therefore rely on company officers to function as an extension of them. As such, it is up to the company officer to care so much about their crew that they will do whatever it takes to ensure that they go home. Doing so means being smarter than the enemy we face.
Firefighters should never regard themselves as being expendable or believe that their death is somehow inevitable or unavoidable. Hubris is a deadly disease that we must avoid at all costs. There is no cure—only prevention. Promoting a culture of safe extinguishment is perhaps one of the most effective strategies for avoiding this-all-too common cause of firefighter fatalities.