By Anthony Avillo and Edward Flood
News media, bystanders, and fire voyeurs have been known to describe the goings on at fire scenes as chaotic. Physics defines chaos as behavior so unpredictable as to appear random, owing to great sensitivity to small changes in conditions.
The Exponential Function
The exponential function, sometimes called the “butterfly effect” (changed from the “seagull effect” … wasn’t poetic enough), holds that every action taken, even the smallest step or movement made (the flapping of a butterfly’s wings), can alter the course of events dramatically and in perpetuity. When viewed through an exponential filter, everything can find connection to everything else.
Albert A. Bartlett (1923-2013), professor emeritus in nuclear physics at University of Colorado at Boulder, made the following observation: “The greatest shortcoming of humanity is our inability to understand the exponential function.”
The grains of rice and the chessboard fable/math problem offer a profound, accurate description of the exponential function going “exponential.”
The Rice and the Chessboard (Reader’s Digest Version)
If a chessboard were to have a grain of rice placed on each square such that one grain was placed on the first square, two on the second, four on the third, and so on (doubling the number of grains on each subsequent square), how many grains of rice would be on the chessboard at the finish?
The problem may be solved using simple addition. With 64 squares on a chessboard, if the number of grains doubles on successive squares, then the sum of grains on all 64 squares is: 1 + 2 + 4 + 8 … and so forth for the 64 squares. The total number of grains equals 18,446,744,073,709,551,615, which is a much higher number than most people intuitively expect.
Remember chaos? Behavior so unpredictable as to appear random, owing to great sensitivity to small changes in conditions.
All successful fire operations are the result of orders and actions determined by a standardized, methodical, organized, orderly, and evolving fire situation size-up. The 13 points of fire situation size-up are the fire operators diagnostic tool. Size-up is a continual assessment of all the exponential potential present in a fire or emergency. Size-up is used to deconstruct, reconstruct, intervene, outwit, and tame the exponential factor. Fire situation size-up must be the foundation and rationale driving all on-duty, in-service, and ready decision making on, off, before, during, and after fireground/emergency ground operations.
An Exponential Scenario
Fire, rescue, and emergency operators are not allowed the luxury of humanity’s “greatest shortcoming.”
Engine 6 is out of quarters training. During hoseline stretching and stream application training, Firefighter Alice Wonder notices one of the lengths of 1¾-inch attack line leaking from around a coupling. Wonder immediately reports the leak to Captain Jess Fine. Taking a cursory look, Fine determines the leak insignificant. He allows the length of hose to stay in service and training to continue.
When the drill ends, Captain Fine orders the hose taken up and repacked. Firefighter Wonder approaches Captain Fine, asking if he wants the length with the leaky coupling taken out of service. Fine responds, “I didn’t have any breakfast. We’ve been training since 0900; it’s time for lunch. Quick pick up and pack the hose here. We’ll take care of the leaking length back at quarters after we eat.”
In personnel’s rush to get lunch, the attack line (with the defective length) is repacked in a haphazard manner. Fine’s carefree, to hell with it, let me eat lunch attitude contaminates the entire company. The crew of Engine 6 had been softened and dulled by their company officer. Fine has crippled Engine 6’s in-service-and-ready status.
As Engine 6 pulls away from the drill site, the engine company is dispatched on a first-alarm assignment to a working fire involving the basement of a 2½-story wood-frame dwelling.
First to arrive, Engine 6 is ordered to stretch its (defective and haphazardly packed) 1¾-inch attack line through the front door to the first floor to hold and protect the open interior stairs. Confident that an attack hoseline is being stretched, firefighters from Ladder Company 22 enter the structure to perform search and rescue operations on the second floor.
Moving directly up the stairs, the ladder operators fail to confirm the basement door located below the main stairwell is closed (it is not). Smoke conditions worsen on the first and second floor.
The incident commander orders rapid intervention team (RIT) Captain Carla Rodriquez to have her RIT members raise ground ladders on the C and D sides of the building for operator egress and rescue support as needed.
En route to carrying out the assignment, Captain Rodriquez redirects two of her four RIT member firefighters to see if they can give a quick assist to engine company firefighters struggling with a kinked-up attack line. After assisting E 6 firefighters, the two RIT members are to get a 35-foot ladder to the C-side windows on the second floor. The other two RIT team members go directly to get a 35-foot ladder to the second-floor windows on the D side.
Captain Rodriquez has been ordered by the incident commander to provide secondary means of egress for the ladder firefighters on the second floor. There is no way for the incident commander or the firefighters on the second floor to factor in that the initial attack is delayed and 50 percent of the RIT members were unilaterally redirected and won’t be where they are supposed to be when they are supposed to be there.
Hoseline untangled, Engine 6 enters the building. The E 6 attack team is confronted with heavy fire issuing from the basement door threatening the interior stairway. The attack line charged, the hose team readies to advance. Water fills the hoseline; the nozzle is bled and the fire attack line bursts at the coupling seen to be leaking at the drill site.
Front door open, basement door open, no water in the attack line, the fire roars up the open interior stairs, cutting off the ladder company searching above the fire. Seeing the fire consuming its way up the stairway, the ladder members make their way to a rear window expecting to find the RIT members with an emergency egress ladder in place for quick egress. There is no ground ladder in place, just two firefighters struggling to raise a 35-foot ladder over and through a gigantic rhododendron tree.
Hearing the radio chatter, the D-side RIT members rush to the C-side rhododendron in time to help get the ladder up and the interior operators down.
The fire scenario offered is a microsample of an exponential progression extending its tendrils within context familiar to firefighters. We chose an “all-safe” ending to this fictitious fire operation because we know that every firefighter reading has reflexively cataloged the infinite variety of tragic, negative, and lamentable consequences that could have been written into the scenario.
There is a lot of exponential (mal)functioning going on in the fire scenario above. The fire was lost before the alarm was ever sounded “owing to great sensitivity to small changes in conditions.”
The leaky coupling, the casual decision making, Fine assigning greater importance to lunch than to the “in service and ready status” of his engine company, and failure by RIT Captain Carla Rodriquez to effectively carry out RIT responsibilities as ordered all played a part in the exponential (mal)function.
What about judgment? Shouldn’t officers be given latitude to make judgment calls? Rodriquez saw Engine 6 wrestling with the attack line and decided to lend a hand. What’s wrong with that?” Great question! The short form answer is in a couple of questions:
Who was doing what the diverted RIT members were supposed to be doing while they were enmeshed in Captain Fine’s failure to maintain the in-service and ready status of his command? Anybody? Nobody? It was nobody, right?
Would it have been better judgment for the RIT officer to radio the incident commander regarding the E 6 situation and continue to ensure the critical assignment given the RIT was carried out as directed?
Incident commander: Deputy Chief Grace Powers was confident that her resources arrived in service and ready to operate and had been properly deployed. She was confident that Engine 6 arrived in service and ready to advance and operate an initial attack line. Powers did not know that half of the RIT operators were unilaterally redirected. She did not know Engine 6 would not only be delayed, Engine 6 would be unable to get water on the fire.
Engine 6: Captain Jess Fine failed to maintain the in-service and ready status of Engine Company 6. On arrival at the fire scene, Engine 6 attempted to stretch a tangled mess of attack line.
The hoseline knotting up delayed getting the attack line into the building and diluted the effectiveness of the RIT operation. Once inside the fire building, the leaky coupling length blew, releasing the full force of small changes in conditions to wreak havoc on the fireground.
Ladder 22: Moved into the building and up the interior stairs, failing to check and close the basement door.
RIT: Ordered by the incident commander to ladder the D side and rear of the building.
As per the incident commander, RIT Captain Carla Rodriquez ordered two of her firefighters to ladder the C side and two firefighters to ladder the D side. Rodriquez made an incident commander’s decision to redirect the C-side team to give a “quick assist” to firefighters struggling with the attack line. She did not radio the exception to incident command.
Seeds of chaos may be traced back to the kitchen at Engine 6. Fine is a well-regarded and dependable company officer. His decision to not eat breakfast could have led to a drop in his blood sugar, contributing to fatigue and foggy decision making on the training ground. Being distracted by hunger, Fine abandoned his primary responsibility to ensure the in-service and ready status of his command.
The leader sets the tone and attitude of the group. Fine’s casual approach infected the firefighters. The firefighters casually repacked the attack line, which knotted during the stretch and burst at a critical moment. The burst line allowed the fire to take control of the stairwell, trapping the ladder company searching above. The knotted line delayed the RIT from laddering the C side where the search and rescue team was expecting an emergency means of egress.
The action and consequences above could be described as “behavior so unpredictable as to appear random, owing to great sensitivity to small changes in conditions.”
Deputy Chief Powers would meet with Captains Rodriquez and Fine.
Deputy Chief Powers counseling (short form):
DC Powers consult for Captain Jess Fine; he might as well have pulled up in an ice cream truck.
DC Grace Powers would counsel Captain Rodriquez regarding the downside of operating as an independent agent on Deputy Chief Powers’ fireground.
Deputy Chief Grace Powers would explain her Exception Rule Philosophy. The Exception Rule: If you can carry out the duty assigned, without exception, do so and report back on successful completion. If you cannot carry out the duties assigned without exception, immediately report the exception to the officer in charge.
The exponential function decrees: Small changes are where big changes come from.
Small changes are where the fight is won or lost on the fire, rescue, or emergency ground.
Being a supervisor, you can’t supervise by choice. You have no option but to supervise.
Being a leader, you can’t lead by choice. You have no option but lead.
Being a commander, you do not command by choice. A commander has no option other than to command.
Anthony Avillo is a 30-year veteran of the fire service. He retired in 2015 from North Hudson (NJ) Regional Fire and Rescue as a deputy chief. He is the director of the Monmouth County (NJ) Fire Academy. Avillo is a member of the editorial advisory boards of FDIC and Fire Engineering. Avillo is coauthor of Full Contact Leadership with Ed Flood (2017). He is the author of Fireground Strategies, third edition (2015) and Fireground Strategies Workbooks (2002, 2010, 2016). Avillo has also contributed to both volumes of the Pass It On books by Billy Goldfeder (2015, 2016) and the Tactical Perspectives DVD series (2011). Avillo also coauthored (with Frank Ricci) the “Safety and Survival” chapter for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (2018). Avillo issued the DVD Control of Fireground Operations and Forging a Culture of Safety (2016, 2014). Avillo was the recipient of the 2012 Fire Engineering/ISFSI George D. Post Instructor of the Year award.
Edward Flood is a 30-year veteran of the fire service, serving with the Weehawken (NJ) Fire Department and North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue. He has held the position of chief of operations, shepherding New Jersey’s first regionalized fire department through its transition, after which he served as deputy chief third platoon regional tour commander. Flood retired as the first chief of North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue. He was an instructor in the New Jersey Fire Academy and the Bergen County Fire Academy. Flood is the cofounder and president of Study Group Inc., a partnership of fire and emergency service training and management experts providing consulting service for fire departments, corporations, and organizations, as well as promotional tutorial services for fire and emergency service professionals.