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Fair reach: Increase your potential as a firefighter

Apply the concept of fair reach to absorbing knowledge and firefighter training to advance your career and stay safe in the year ahead


Experience promotes application of theory and, in time, firefighters begin seeing critical incidents with a keen eye toward increasing operational reality, bolstered by their training and education.

Photo/San Ramon Valley Fire

During your days in the fire academy, you learned about the concept of fair reach. The very idea that a solid stream of water shot into the air could break apart in such a way that spreading droplets, in the face of high heat, could disintegrate into molecules of hydrogen and oxygen and create an even greater risk for conflagration – this was the beginning of your understanding that fire science may be closer to rocket science that first thought.

As firefighters, we take such learned insight into the field. When we see a 500-gpm master stream severely break off before reaching between two buildings; we know to advance the monitor. Radiant heat becomes absorbed and the uninvolved building suddenly stops issuing steam from its walls.

The fireground is back on track, the initial attack having been buoyed by a well-executed overall strategy, strengthened by what appears to be a well-placed exposure line, but is fundamentally a simple appreciation of fair reach.

Experience promotes application of theory and, in time, firefighters begin seeing critical incidents with a keen eye toward increasing operational reality, bolstered by their training and education. Next stop: the lieutenant’s exam.

Firefighter training environment is crucial

This learning process is the fair reach of any fire service career path and needs to be acknowledged and subsequently applied to all task lists for firefighters, especially if we are to promote the best among us.

Operationally, this is the primary reason rookies seem so daunted by the amount of essentials needed to become a solid firefighter. Their fair reach of ability, execution and study is close to the nozzle and as such, is subject to immediate critique amid an endless stream of questions.

Such is the nature of the academy boot and it is the job of officers to recognize when, where and why some candidates begin to break over. It is the job of a training officer to bring them back to a solid stream of steady competence and progress.

Failure to abide by this simple training principle can result in firefighters overreaching their abilities beyond safe and effective behavior in a naive attempt to exceed instructor expectations. This training atmosphere is unacceptable. There is an appropriate path of continuing education and training as valid methodology to lengthen a solid stream of good decisions. This is the mark of a good instructor and a great training program.

Whether exhibited by compliancy, over-confidence or simply as a reflection of the overreaching of insight and ability; the resulting particulates of sporadic behavior, inappropriate reactions and a propensity for holding onto errors too long, indicate a personal process void of substance and the ability to go the distance. As a firefighter, you have gone beyond your fair reach.

To increase the distance of your personal fair reach, you must be willing to add to the volume of your educational experiences, while at the same time acknowledging the pressure to physically train in order to maintain and increase the skill set demanded by the incident you will encounter as a working firefighter.

Jim Spell spent 33 years as a professional firefighter with Vail (Colorado) Fire & Emergency Services, the last 20 years as a captain. He helped create the first student/resident fire science program west of the continental divide, formed the first countywide hazmat response unit and was on the original Colorado Governor’s Safety Committee. As founder of HAZPRO Consulting, LLC, Spell advised businesses on subjects ranging from hazard analysis and safety response to personnel development and organization. His writing won six IAFF Media Awards. Many of Spell’s articles are available by podcast at His last book was titled “Boot Basics: A Firefighter’s Guide to the Service.” Spell passed away in April 2024 after a short battle with cancer. His last four articles detailed his cancer journey.