Hook, Line And Sinker

* Image from Dan’s Ideas Blog.

I can’t keep quiet any longer. I have been beyond frustrated the last few days reading some absolute idiocy on the web related to our job. The topper came last night when Nate DeMarse, one of the founders of Brotherhood Instructors, posted a video on the groups Facebook page and asked for constructive input from brothers and sisters. The link to the page is here, look for the video from Hackensack, NJ. entitled, “How about a nice tactical discussion on the Brotherhood Instructors, LLC.Facebook Wall. Anyone with any thoughts? No bashing, no chest-beating…lets discuss this constructively.” I’ll let you in on a little secret. That whole no bashing, chest-beating thing lasted all of about two posts. Please. Go watch the video and then come back here. The comments are also worth a read but prepare to be there for a while. As of this writing there were over 70, mine included.

What sent me into a rage is all of the supposed brothers and sisters who went directly into keyboard firefighter mode. “They didn’t do this”, “they didn’t do that”. “I can’t believe they did this”, “I can’t believe they didn’t do that.” And those were the subtle comments. Much to his credit Nate edited many of the more harsh and callous comments out. One in-particular that raised my Irish to an almost new level was a gentleman who, in a spelling and grammatical error laden diatribe said so eloquently, “looks like this whole department needs to go back to fire school.” He then goes on to list off a litany of perceived errors and shortcomings that in his infinite wisdom and experience, he or his department would never have done given this fire in his response district. But what really got me was that in his “constructive” criticism he lists the non-use of PPV as one of the “errors” that Hackensack committed. Freakin’ seriously?!?! Who needs to go back to fire school? The problem is that he wasn’t the only one who advocated putting the big CFM’s in the front door. I wish, beyond anything that Santa could bring me this year, that this fire would have occurred in that gentleman’s district and we could have watched as his department would have flawlessly attacked this fire, put the PPV in the front door and watched as the entire building lit up simultaneously and then we could sit back with a nice hot cup of coffee and watched for the next hour or so as they deployed master streams and heavy lines until the entire thing collapsed in a heap of flaming kindling. But therein lies the problem, and what this post is about.

Any of you who have read my spoutings for any amount of time should know two things about me. 1) I have a large intolerance for not knowing your job and, 2) I truly believe that with enough of an effort there is no reason why every fire department in North America can’t be trained to a reasonable performance level. Lofty, I know. But they said a canal couldn’t be dug across Central America too. Keeping those two things about me in mind I launch into what I am talking about in this post.

It seems that as of late there has been a willingness by the neutered ( I know, I chose the PC term over what I have previously used. So shoot me.) American Fire Service to accept any new idea hook, line and sinker and to be applied in a blanket fashion to every situation that comes along. Much of this has to do with a lack of complete understanding of whatever tactic or technique we are using as an example. Now, I don’t want to hear from you PPV advocates about what a useful and effective tool it can be. I know, I guess. I’m not an advocate. But for this guy to criticize Hackensack for not having used it on that fire, in those conditions, is just dead-ass wrong and demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of not only the uses and limitations of PPV but also of building construction, reading smoke and basic fire attack tactics. So at some point this guy, along with thousands of others across the country, had a class or a drill on PPV, their departments embraced it as the new sliced-bread, and next thing you know it comes off the rig on every job they have. Now, have they burnt down countless structures since employing this tool? I have no idea, but my guess would be they have created a few more parking lots than needed. It all results from a lack of complete understanding and employing the tool in the right situation. If there is one. Which, in the case of PPV, in my own opinion, is at a CO leak or after the fire is out and during overhaul. But ‘dats just me.

The same can be said of the newest hot-button topic, the dread Victim Survivability Profiling. It seems as if numerous organizations and individuals across the country took a piece of research by Captain Marsar and held it up as the original text of the Bible itself. “Behold!”, was the cry. “We no longer have to do our jobs or put ourselves at risk because the pour souls have already been lost.” I envision Johnny Carson as the Amazing Karnak, standing in front of a structure fire holding up the card to his forehead. “Yup. They’re dead. Let’s just hit it from the outside boys and then we’ll go drag ’em out and tell the papers what a tragedy it was.” In a different post on Facebook Bill Carey, the editor of BackstepFirefighter.com, posted the video from Lake Station, Indiana of a fatal house fire in which two small boys were rescued. He makes the statement that, “Certain research would have written them off”. His post can be found here. He is almost immediately jumped by an VSP advocate who invokes the holy name of science. In the comments Bill and Dave LeBlanc, who writes “A View from the Front Seat” and hosts a web radio show of the same name, get into a discussion over VSP with that commentator a couple other posters. If you haven’t seen the video go check it out and then read the comments following, again, mine included because I’m a glutton for punishment. Bill makes a very good point in his response to the discussion about VSP. Captain Marsar wrote his paper in a very narrow scope, the FDNY and the FDNY’s experiences. Bill and Dave both make another point with which I happen to agree; Captain Marsar’s equation of non-civilian fatalities in fires that killed a member of the FDNY relates how? I still don’t think Captain Marsar makes a very good case for how the two equate or what they really have to do with each other. But that’s another discussion. The main point is that his paper has been held up, almost singularly, as a reason to not search in certain conditions. What those certain conditions are, however, is anyone’s guess and left up to each individual to decide because it is a completely subjective thing. It is different from person to person viewing the exact same scenario. Many retorts to detractors of VSP state that, “the science doesn’t lie.” Well, the definition of science is, “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment;  a systematically organized body of knowledge on a particular subject.” Well, I don’t think one paper is is a “systematic study“, I don’t think any experiments were conducted in Captain Marsar’s research and he only “body of knowledge” that can be argued here is the knowledge of fire and the products of combustion in a compartmentalized space. Which we all know, or should, is so variable from room to room and area to area that standing outside and making a judgement call, in most cases, but not all, is in my opinion reckless and irresponsible.

So what’s my whole point? This isn’t really about the one commenter from the Brotherhood site or the argument about Captain Marsar’s research. It’s about educating yourself and having enough knowledge and experience to intelligently argue a point. How does the saying go? “Better to keep silent and let others think you are an idiot than to speak and remove all doubt”? Hey, I’m not perfect and I have certainly proven myself an idiot time and time again. But by God I try not to and I try to be educated on what I am speaking on. And so should all of you out there who are going to be keyboard firefighters. Think about what you are going to type the next time before you actually do it. Make sure you have a complete, or at least educated, understanding of what you are talking about beforehand. Otherwise all it leads to is bashing guys and gals that are just like you and me who were trying to do the best job they could with what they were confronted with.

Until next time,

Stay safe.


To Go or Not to Go; The Argument Over Survivability Profiling

Survivability profiling. Just by typing those two words on the screen I’ve started an argument. It’s one of the hottest and most controversial topics in the fire service recently. The title image is from Captain Stephen Marsar’s article on this topic that appeared in the July issue of Fire Engineering. His article can be found here. Captain Marsar, while not exactly the founding father of this movement, certainly gave it some momentum with an award winning thesis paper at the National Fire Academy, his recent articles in Fire Engineering as well as an appearance on Christopher Naum’s weekly podcast, Taking It to the Streets, where he discussed this idea and talked about his research into it. Captain Marsar began the profiling ball rolling while he was enrolled in the Executive Fire Officer program at the National Fire Academy. His project thesis, Can They Be Saved? Utilizing Civilian Survivability Profiling to Enhance Size-Up and Reduce Firefighter Fatalities in the Fire Department, City of New York, can be found here and if you have yet to read it I suggest that you do so, along with the Engineering articles. You can also listen to the podcast here. Once you navigate to that page look on the right-hand side for the BlogTalk Radio box. There is a listing of archived shows there, just click on the title to listen.

I have read Captain Marsar’s paper and articles and I listened to the podcast just the other night. So I am familiar with his research and the basis of his argument, but I don’t know if I completely understand it. I think on the most basic level I’ve got a grasp of it but there are a couple stumbling blocks that I just can’t wrap my head around. This post is not going to be about bashing Captain Marsar or trying to tear his research apart. I simply would like to talk about this topic and use the research that Captain Marsar himself supplied. Hopefully this will spur some comments and we can get a dialogue about this topic going.

Ok, I am going to try and break down Captain Marsar’s argument to the most basic level and go from there. Essentially, Cap argues that due to the growth of the fire and the byproducts that are being given off by todays materials most victims have already succumbed to toxic smoke or non-survivable burn injuries by the time we are ready to initiate an attack and search. This is really what the graphic above is all about. That by the time we are actually on scene and ready to go and get someone the available oxygen inside the structure has dropped to dangerous or lethal levels, the carbon monoxide levels are elevated to dangerous or lethal levels, the cyanide levels are elevated to dangerous or lethal levels and the heat given off by the burning of todays “hotter” fuels has caused severe or lethal insult to a victim’s body and airway. Given those facts, he argues, we should begin to change our thought process when arriving at structure fires with a known or possible life-threat. Instead, we should probably slow down, attack the fire and then make a rescue or removal when it is safer for us. In part, Captain Marsar uses the deaths of 32 FDNY firefighters over a 19 year span to make this point. In the incidents that these 32 brothers were killed not a single civilian fatality occurred. So, to paraphrase him, “what are we killing ourselves for?” This is one of the areas I can’t quite wrap my brain around. That I have found so far he doesn’t list the causes of deaths of these 32 firefighters, during which phase of the operation they died or if any civilians were rescued during these same incidents. I just kind of don’t get that part of the argument. The rest of the argument, while I don’t entirely agree with, I understand. More toxic smoke + “hotter” fires + no protective equipment = civilian fatality. Makes sense, at least on the surface.

Here’s my number one argument against that line of thinking; until you can show me on the timeline above exactly where the victim took their last breath and their heart stopped beating, I think we should operate as we have. In other words, if you can pull out statistics that show that all civilian fatalities that occur inside  burning buildings happen from 0 – 10-ish minutes, as the timeline implies, then I will subscribe to this theory. Until you can do that, not gonna happen. Being a medic I completely understand the physiologic arguments presented. But we all know every fire is different, we all know the conditions are constantly changing and that we really don’t know even while we’re inside the building what those conditions are from room to room or floor to floor. So, in my mind at least, I don’t know how you can make a blanket statement regarding survivability based on those factors alone. My second argument, and it’s one I have used in other discussions, is the synopsis’ of the events that lead to firefighters being awarded the Firehouse Magazine Courage and Valor Awards. If the accounts of many of those incidents for which brothers and sisters received awards for rescuing or at least removing someone from a structure are to be believed, then almost all of them should never have even been attempted. Phrases like, “high heat”, “zero visibility”, “dense smoke” and “at great personal risk” abound in those accounts yet many successful rescues resulted.  I’m not a scientist, doctor or Executive Fire Officer but that’s how my brain looks at it.Now here’s the part where I am actually going to side with Captain Marsar in a way. I think many people in the fire service right now are jumping his proverbial defecation without having a full understanding of what he is saying (because they haven’t actually read what he has written or heard him speak on it) or because they have forgotten something. At least in my little pea-brain I kind of think we already do this “survivability profiling” thing; we call it size-up.

This was brought up on the podcast the other night both in the chat room that happens while the show is going on and by someone who called in to talk to Captain Marsar. The person said that they thought maybe the reason so many people were up in arms over this is basically because of the title itself. Something about “survivability profiling” just doesn’t sit well with people. But if you change the term and call it size-up suddenly everyone’s on board. We would all sit back and say that reading smoke and fire conditions upon our arrival is critical to making a decision as to what mode we will be operating in (offensive, defensive, transitional) and which tactical objective is most important at that moment, life safety or fire suppression. Doesn’t seem so hard to swallow when you think of it that way does it? Captain Marsar even acknowledged that point on the podcast but believes that the “science” needs to be employed as well to further assist in the decision making process. Me personally, I dunno. Given tenable conditions or even extreme conditions with very good and reliable information, I still think we need to get in and give those people every possible chance.

Ok, so if I role up on both the houses below on separate shifts and am being told by someone in the street that there’s some trapped in both buildings, which one am I going to go into? Which would you go into?

See? We didn’t need “survivability profiling” to come up with those answers. It’s part of what we have already been trained to do and what experience has taught us.

Bottom photo courtesy Bill Bennett and Traditions Training Blog

Until next time,

Be Safe!

Hallway Sledge