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Heroes and cowards: Today’s face of firefighting?

I am worried that we have been collectively conditioned to accept risk as a sort of rite of passage

“‘When your crew have taken you past these Sirens, I cannot give you coherent directions as to which of two courses you are to take; I will lay the two alternatives before you, and you must consider them for yourself.” - Homer

Another year is fading. As it fades I pause to consider all those who died this year. I also try to reflect on those who got hurt badly this year, those who spent days and weeks in the brutality of the burn unit. Those who look in the mirror and see vicious scars that no amount of time will heal.

I think about the people I know who continue to struggle with nightmares after the funeral uniforms are hung back in the closet. I consider those people because I think it is a noble mission to try and make sure that no one else has to suffer that much.

I am not silly enough to believe that it could never be me. I know that on any given day my luck can run out and I too can join that painful fraternity. I also know that while I can never eliminate the uncertainty, nor fully quantify the risk, I can resist the siren song call to uncritical action.

I can push back against the hero or coward ethos that seems to be the prevailing modality of fire service discourse. I can fight that and will because I owe my family as least that much.

I am worried that we have been collectively conditioned to accept risk as a sort of rite of passage. There is this myth about the firefighter, partly urban legend, partly true but mostly self-contrived, it goes the firefighter goes into anything at anytime to save a life and to save some property. And while there is nothing inherently wrong with that ethos as a starting point it only offers cowardice as a converse.

We are being taught by blog comments, by websites and keynote conference speeches that if you are not “slaying dragons” from the inside in an overtly aggressive manner you are doing something wrong; you are failing the public, you are disturbing the ethos and you are not one of us.

There is a systematic attack against “culture of safety,” the “culture of analysis,” and the culture of critical thought. They tell us that the public expects us to engage no matter what, that it is expected and accepted that we might die. They tell us that to believe otherwise borders on criminal.

I no longer engage in the perpetual debates about fog versus straight stream, just as I no longer engage in the Ford versus Chevy debate. If you can put water on burning surfaces with a 4-cylinder Honda Civic who cares? What I care about is how the discussion gets framed.

What I care about is the insidious nature of the binary debate, the tacit assumption that if you are not stretching hoses inside burning houses you are a coward. That ethos is a recipe for continued failure.

The devolution of the public fire service discourse into the coward versus firefighter binary is troubling. By its very nature, such a discourse denies those of us who don’t believe in the foolhardy the counterbalance of active critical thought.

If there is such a thing as a real answer or a universal truth, with regards to firefighting it is that no person who claims to have a real answer or a universal truth is to be trusted. If firefighting could be boiled down into simple axioms, if we could tell the rookie to, "…just do this one thing and everything will always be fine…" there would be no need for full scale burn tests or magazine articles. There are no, “nevers” and no “always.”

The purpose of study, analysis and critical debate is not to provide the universal truth but rather to systematically and critically assault our knowledge and assumptions about our operational environment. When the core basis of our actions are challenged the right thing to do it to engage in constructive debate.

The wrong thing to do is to crawl into a corner, grab your ¾ boots, smooth bore nozzle, and bare your teeth while proclaiming yourself protector of the ethos.

The science, the case studies, and the conferences do not exist to confirm what we already knew. They exist to challenge what is known and to provide a framework around which individuals and organizations can begin to define what is right for them. “I cannot give you coherent directions as to which of two courses you are to take; I will lay the two alternatives before you, and you must consider them for yourself.”

One of the most common descriptors used to explain fireground operations is the word chaotic. Firegrounds, especially in the critical opening minutes, are chaotic. You can’t make the chaos go away but you can dampen the effects of chaos if you can ensure that all the oscillations that describe it occur around a common critical framework.

In the end what I am saying is that I worry. I worry that despite the explicit declarations of every major fire service organization, we are implicitly saying that no danger is too much, nothing is beyond trading our lives for, no shell of a house is too little to die for, that only squares and people who write school papers are concerned with questions. That is a lot to worry about.

Get information on the basic tactics of firefighting from veteran Charles Bailey’s FireRescue1 column, ‘Bread and Butter Basics’. Learn how to attack different types of fires and minimize risk to your crew.