Academic Approaches to Firefighting

Increasing the amount of academic effort involved in the work of fighting fires is needed

By Charles Bailey

The pictures are there only to help you to understand the formula. They are not really true in the way the formula is; they do not give you the real thing but only something more or less like it. They are only meant to help, and if they do not help you can drop them. The thing itself cannot be pictured; it can only be expressed mathematically. C.S. Lewis

That a given fire requires a certain number of gallons of water per minute applied to the burning surfaces to be extinguished is true. I can draw graphs and diagrams and to a lesser extent chemical formulas to describe the process. However, for a firefighter in the middle of the night fighting a house fire, it is not a mathematical formula.

Food can satisfy my hunger without me being aware of how the calories are burned or how the Krebs cycle works. Likewise fighting a house fire can be as simple as dragging a hose into a house and squirting water all about until the fire goes away. The real truth of hunger or of a firefight is something I can only approximate. I can only try to express it with pictures, formulas and other similar aids.

I have long been a proponent of increasing the amount of academic effort involved in the work of fighting fires. That academic work should start on a socio-political level by asking, beyond the historical evolution, why are there fire departments at all? But answering those sorts of questions will take time and will certainly be sidelined by political agendas and imperatives. Until that question is answered, we will find it difficult to make real change.

Chicago dispute
The more argumentative among you might assert that the question has already been answered. You would say that the purpose of the fire department is to protect life and property or to put fires out. If that were so, if we really believed that, if things were that simple, things would be different. If the fire department simply existed to put fires out, the big city versus suburban firefighter friction in Chicago would never have happened. At the core of that dispute was not whether or not the fires went out but how.

The theory is not true in the same way the real thing is. The real thing cannot be pictured, not exactly.

At 2 a.m., with fire showing from three floors and people hanging off of balconies, there is no time for science. At that point there is only time for ladders and for multiple interior hand lines placed by people unburdened with theory. Fire cannot be pictured, not yours at least. That a fire behaves in a certain way in the laboratory is none of your concern. When faced with heavy fire on the 18th floor, the work of NIST is not relevant, right? Your fire may be expressed mathematically but it can only be fought heroically and from the inside, right?

That last example was too easy.

Instead of the middle of the night, let's make an example in the middle of the day. The neighborhood is a bedroom community. The house on fire belongs to the best friend of the Captain on the first due engine. Because the Captain is the best friend of the homeowner, he knows for certain that the entire family is away on vacation and he knows that the dog is with them. He knows the layout of the house because he helped his friend build it. As the engine approaches, they see a severe fire condition on all floors with fire through the roof.

No different
Mathematically the situation is no different than any other fire. There is a certain amount of combustible material being heated to the point where it releases vapors, vapors that then burn in the presence of oxygen: flaming combustion. In order to make the fire extinct, the fuel source, the oxygen, the heat source or the development of free radicals must be halted. But from a socio-political point of view this situation is radically different.

The Captain is faced with a decision. From this writer's perspective sitting comfortably on his chair in a coffee shop, the answer is to put the fire out from the outside. No point in risking the lives of men for material. I risk ostracism for daring to say such a thing.

The idea, the theory, is not that the Captain should sit on the rig and let the house burn. However, his actions are not, or should not be, limited to stretching hoses inside the house. None of the objects inside the house will be saved. There may be a box of photos or some other small charred keepsake rescued from the rubble, but they are hardly worth the life of a man. I dare say that the friend upon returning home and hearing that a fellow firefighter so much as twisted his knee for a charred picture would be upset. Why even enter?

What if it were only a room on fire and not the whole house?

I come to this subject over and over again from different angles because of its central importance to firefighting. Didn't the eagle find a fresh liver in Prometheus every day? If the job of the firefighter is to risk death to save material, then we can demobilize all the safety councils; send Billy Goldfeder and John Tippet home. The annual death rate is what it ought to be.

Aggressive attack
I saw a video the other day of a fire in Maryland. There was enough fire coming out of that house to make a grown firefighter blush. They went in for what can only be described as an "aggressive interior attack" on a house that had nothing in it left to save. One firefighter came running out of the house with his gear smoking and his arms flapping wildly trying to get his burnt gear off. What was the point of that?

What is the purpose of the fire department? This question must be answered and quickly. Once it is answered, it must be translated into a language that is meaningful to the young boys and girls on fire engines because their aggression appears to be beyond the influence of prudence.

The fire service in general has two primary pictures for the creation and maintenance of organizational identity: the rhetorical and the metaphorical. Rhetorically we have created in our collective mind a picture of the civilian world as meek and helpless with only us to save them.

We deny all the facts that do not fit into this picture. We deny the people who race back into flames without fire gear to save their pets. In order to justify us, we weaken them. This is a false pretense, it fails every time there is a true emergency. The fire department is not a first responder as some call it, but rather an adjunct to the spontaneous and clever self-organizing of everyday people. We should be careful not to confuse the civil support function with the messianic savior function. We need a new picture.

The metaphorical picture is perhaps more sinister. This is a composite picture of borrowed metaphors. Jennifer Thackaberry (1) and Stefan Svensson (2) do a much better job than I could hope to of deconstructing the root metaphor(s) of firefighting. It is primarily a military metaphor, with some Western cowboy bravado added for good measure. The militaristic metaphor sets the fire department up as one actor in a war. For a soldier, the enemy is a person who represents an opposing political will. For the fire department, the enemy is an inanimate physical process. It is like declaring war on fermentation. A fire has no political will to be swayed. The metaphor fails but it was just supposed to be a picture of the real thing, not the thing itself.

If the picture is not helping, one ought to drop it, lay it down and find another. It is more harmful to have a bad picture than none at all. There must be a reason if not a series of reasons to explain why firefighters continue to die. It is not just because the job is dangerous, it is not just because the metaphors are failing. It is partly because we have yet to really engage the very reason(s) for our existence.


[1]Thackaberry, J. A. (2003, May) "Management, Drop Your Tools: Military Metaphors for Wildland Firefighting and Public Resistance to 'Safety' Legacies of Tragedy Fires" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Marriott Hotel, San Diego, CA Online .PDF Retrieved 2008-06-28 from

[2] Svensson, S. (2002). The Operational Problem of Fire Control. Dissertation. Lund University.

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